Sunday, February 27, 2011
Thursday, February 24, 2011
February 24, 2011
In Beowulf, we are given the picture of a relatively new concept in feudal Anglo-Saxon politics: the enlightened dictator. Hrothgar, who has descended from the tyrant Shield Sheafson, rules the Danes with something resembling benevolence, or at least something that passed for benevolence during that period of time. In my view, examining the intentions of leaders is not a sufficient way of judging them, because when all is said and done, results are what we have to live by. Despite his good intentions, Hrothgar is eventually shown to be nothing more than an autocratic tyrant, as he denies Beowulf what was rightfully his, in order to maintain power. Although we see it far less frequently, leaders exist at the opposite end of the spectrum, leaders who have intentions that can be deemed as less than noble, but they result in better consequences for their people. A notable example of this type of leader came not too long ago, former Soviet Union Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. While he came to office with the intention of reinvigorating a communist regime that had a brutal history of corruption, murder, and forced subjugation, he left office with Russia and the Eastern European countries embarking on a course of unprecedented freedom. While Hrothgar is a fictional character, he would likely be remembered as little more than a run of the mill dictator in the fantasy world he inhibits, while Gorbachev is recognized as one of the Twentieth Century’s great leaders, and the single most important person in the peaceful conclusion to the Cold War, despite his rapid ascension through the Communist Party, one of the most corrupt and destructive forces in the Post World War II era (“Gorbachev”). Hrothgar is able to mask his true colors for a time, however, he ultimately reveals himself during the Grendel conflict.
We see at the beginning of the story how the brutal Shield Sheafson came to power, and how his descendants kept his kingdom strong and stable, all the way down to Hrothgar. While the foundation of this kingdom was surely brutal, as Sheafson is described on lines 5 and 6 as a “scourge of many tribes, wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes”, his descendent, Hrothgar carried a more hopeful, progressive vision. When Grendel appears and Hrothgar is unable to develop a coherent strategy for Heorot's defense, the kingdom is seriously threatened for the first time (Heeny 11). Without Beowulf's heroism in defeating both Grendel and his mother, the Danes would have been in serious trouble. Once that issue was resolved, Hrothgar is forced to deal with the possibility that Beowulf may feel as though he is entitled to rule over the Danes. His queen brings up this possibility earlier, and Hrothgar is forced to toe a fine line in dealing with it (Heeny 83).
After Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother in an epic, underwater battle, he returns to Heorot to present Grendel's head to King Hrothgar (Heeny 113). At this ceremony, Hrothgar regales Beowulf and all of those present in Heorot with a speech filled with wisdom and advice about the responsibilities of power. Starting on line 1700, Hrothgar praises Beowulf for his tremendous courage in facing Grendel and his mother, and for his offer of friendship, saying on page 117, "Beowulf, my friend......In all things you are even tempered and resolute. So I stand firm by your promise of friendship...Forever you will be your people's mainstay and your own warriors' helping hand." Hrothgar immediately follows his praise of Beowulf with a cautionary tale about King Heremod, a former Danish monarch whose brutality and unpopularity eventually lead to his ouster: "Heremod was different, the way he behaved to Ecgwala's sons. His rise in the world brought little joy to the Danish people, only death and destruction." With this line, Hrothgar seems to be appealing to Beowulf's idealism, in the hope that he chooses a different path from Heremod.
While most people would look at Hrothgar's speech on the surface and view it as an outpouring of generosity and advice toward Beowulf, I think there is reason for us to believe that the author is trying to make us skeptical of Hrothgar. Despite the apparent friendly nature of this speech, upon close examination we can see Hrothgar showing us his more calculating side. In fact, the speech follows the same pattern we see from contemporary politicians. By first heaping praise upon Beowulf for his heroic deeds, Hrothgar hopes to disarm him with compliments, and then tries to introduce an element of fear by telling the story of a slain king, which he hopes will give Beowulf pause about laying claim to the Danish throne. He also appeals to Beowulf's sense of humanity and honor by saying he is sure Beowulf will not attempt to emulate Heremod. Although it is certainly honorable for a somewhat enlightened dictator such as Hrothgar to want to keep his people out of tyranny, this does not seem to be his primary concern. His first complaint about Heremod's reign had nothing to do with his treatment of the Danish peasants; it was about his behavior to a previous monarch's children. This clearly indicates what motivations are behind his words, especially when we consider the words of his queen, Wealtheow, who earlier urged Hrothgar to consider abdicating the throne to insure the safety and smooth succession of their sons. To put it frankly, Hrothgar is not really worried for the wellbeing of his people, or for Beowulf, he simply cares about preserving his family's reign over Denmark, a rule which began with a bloodthirsty tyrant in Shield Sheafson. With Beowulf being the most physically powerful warrior in either the Geatish or Danish kingdoms, Hrothgar realizes that he has no chance to stop Beowulf from seizing power, especially after Beowulf makes a surprising alliance with Unfereth, the second most powerful warrior. This leaves the use of his political and persuasive skills as the only recourse to prevent this outcome. In my view, the author could not have possibly included this speech with the intention of boosting our opinion of Hrothgar's wisdom. First, Hrothgar's motivation in giving this advice is for the preservation of his family's power. Given that his own sons played virtually no role in the struggle against Grendel, and would therefore be less qualified to protect the kingdom than Beowulf, we can ascertain that Hrothgar is an opponent of meritocracy and is acting for the benefit of his sons at the expense of his nation. Since this type of action is anything but responsible or wise, I think it is in the story to make us skeptical of his wisdom, as well as his character and leadership ability. While his idealistic hope for something better is admirable, Hrothgar fails the final test, preferring power to practicality, making him little more than the ruling head of a military junta.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1984 with aims that were anything but laudable: make the Soviet Union economically viable to preserve the communist system, a system that had killed or unfairly imprisoned over twenty million people since its inception in 1917 (Courteois 15). Seeing that the current system of pure communism had failed to make the USSR competitive with the United States economically, and militarily, Gorbachev introduces a series of reforms (“Gorbachev”). He attempts to grow the Soviet economy through technological advancement, but that does little to solve their challenges (“Gorbachev”). In 1987, he initiates a policy called “glasnost”, which allowed citizens to criticize the government, and created a freer flow of information in the press (“Gorbachev”). In addition, he pursued market reform that was stymied by communist hardliners in the Politburo, so he moved on with more political reform, called “perestroika”, which moved the Soviet Union closer to having a democratically elected government (“Gorbachev”). So, to this point, in order to achieve his goal of preserving Soviet rule, a fundamentally flawed goal, Gorbachev had allowed political freedom to his people, results that are undeniably positive. With his newly elected government, Gorbachev began to implement economic reform. As his political reform began to spread, nationalist movements for separation began to develop in the Soviet satellite republics (“Gorbachev”). Throughout Soviet history, whenever a movement like this would break out, leaders would send in troops and tanks, squashing the unfortunate rebels like insects. Gorbachev, however, took an extraordinary step, by allowing them to separate, as he felt that entering into a conflict would be unproductive and destructive to their economic recovery (“Gorbachev”). The movement for liberation goes beyond what Gorbachev ever intended with even Russia moving away from Soviet control, as Russian President BorisYeltsin assuming a more active role (“Gorbachev”). Ultimately, in the autumn of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it Gorbachev’s office (“Gorbachev”). So, in review, Gorbachev begins his reign with the hope of restoring the Soviet Union’s economic and military might, and to preserve one of the most brutal governments of the Twentieth Century, and ends it by bringing unprecedented political freedom to his people, bringing a peaceful conclusion to one of the most dangerous standoffs in world history, and facilitating the demise of the regime he originally sought to save. For this, Gorbachev is rightfully lauded as a great leader, despite the fact that he began with less than noble intentions. This example proves that intentions and rhetoric are irrelevant when judging the quality and merits of leaders. The only criterion that matters in a leader’s evaluation is what kind of results the deliver to their people. Hrothgar gives his people unqualified nobles to protect them, as opposed to the greatest warrior of the age in Beowulf. Regardless of how “enlightened” he was, he delivered terrible results, and put himself above his constituents, making him no better than his barbaric ancestor, Shield Sheafson.
Courteois , Stephane . “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression”. Harvard University Press. 1999.
Heeny, Seamus. “Beowulf”. W.W Norton and Company Inc. New York. 2000.
"Mikhail Gorbachev." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
In W;t, by Margaret Edson, Vivian is a highly dedicated, intelligent woman who devoted her life to the poetry of John Donne. The play focuses on Vivian’s slowly deteriorating health. In turn, both the character and the audience’s attention become fixed on the idea of death. In the end the audience has followed the main character on a spiritual journey in which she adapts a gentler outlook on the human experience. Her journey towards self actualization is mirrored by the physical change from life to death. In many ways John Donne’s poetry works to compliment this effect. In the Holy Sonnets, particularly Holy Sonnet X, the idea of death is analyzed to a great extent. “And soonest our best men with thee doe goe… Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men…” John Donne explains how he accepts death as an inedibility of life much as Vivian is forced to accept it as it comes barreling towards her in the form of a crippling disease.
There are several poems in the Holy Sonnet collection, however, that deal with themes that are conspicuously missing from W;t. Religion is a major component in the poetry of John Donne. He writes often about his reverence for God, his hope for a spiritual salvation, and ultimately his ascension into heaven. He speaks about these things in metaphorical terms and seems to suggest doubt for the dogmatic principles of Christianity. One wonders whether he is a devote Christian as much of his imagery seems to be the opposite of typical religious rhetoric. In fact, much of it suggests a struggle to accept God. In Holy Sonnet XIV Donne states that he knows he must revere God yet he finds it difficult. He calls upon God to force himself upon him. He wishes God to “ravish” him. It is safe to say that John Donne feels strongly about religious beliefs and has quarreled with it sufficiently. Vivian, however, is a character completely devoid of religion. There are several references to religion throughout the play, such as The Tale of the Runaway Bunny, but we are led to believe that her biggest regret is that she “prefer[ed] research to humanity, (Edson 58).” While in the Holy Sonnet XIV Donne longs for a spiritual relationship with God, Vivian, in her death, realizes the need for relationships with other people. This is her “salvation” at the end of the play.
This conclusion is particularly secular. A Christian reader could easily see this play as a story of religious redemption. One might say that at the end of the play Vivian realizes that her intellectual pursuits must not interfere with her ability to allow god into her life. Vivian’s friend E. M. Ashford arrives at the hospital and reads to her from The Runaway Bunny and concludes her visit by stating, “It’s time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” This could easily be interpreted as Vivian’s acceptance of God.
My problem with this interpretation, however, is that before this point in the play God is noticeably absent in Vivian’s life. It is not her struggle with her spirituality, but rather her struggle to experience life on earth with other people that has her conflicted. She is someone who has lived her whole life in books. Donne’s struggle in Sonnet X, and to a smaller extent the other Holy Sonnets, is rooted in religious belief and the fear of the unknown. Later in his life Donne wrote:
“…I know not what it is that I fear now; I feare not the hastening of my death, and yet I do fear the increase of the disease; I should belie Nature, if I should deny that I feared this, and if I should say that I feared death, I should belye God…” (Smith 392)
Vivian had a similar struggle. Hers was one between her intellectual pursuits and living a normal life with normal emotional ties. She was equally incapable of doing so.
As a result Vivian has no parents, no lovers, and no children. As her body deteriorates and death looms nearer she begins to seek out these relationships with those around her. She begins to open up to Susie as she never has to another person. Her stoic façade begins to break down and we begin to see Vivian as a person. If Sonnet XIV (a sonnet steeped in uncertainty) were included in this text it would obscure Vivian’s ‘salvation’ at the end of the play.
Another aspect of Donne’s poetry that is absent in W;t is his blatant sexuality. I believe this was intentionally left out of the play because it shows the degree to which Vivian has shut herself off to experiencing the world and forming relationships with other people. In the beginning of the play her body is treated as if it’s a scientific model from which to learn. This in many ways reflects how Vivian sees the world; something to study from afar. By being treated like an object of study she learns the importance of her own existence as an individual. Her salvation at the end of the play, her “reaching for the light,” is merely a representation of her becoming aware of this fact (Edson 85). It is not a traditional religious salvation, but in fact a secular take on the idea of salvation in which the emphasis is not on experiencing God, but rather on experiencing life itself.
Sexuality and gender in Donne’s poetry (particularly his songs and sonnets) are closely tied to death and religion. “The Flea” in particular uses sexual puns to discuss the topic of death. In dealing with death Donne often emphasizes the importance of lovers and “feminine figures in a defense against the finality and isolation of death.” In Donne’s “Song (I)” he writes: “they who one another keepe / Alive ne’r parted bee” (Hogson 147). Vivian has no lovers, but she does have a prominent motherly figure. At the end of the play her old colleague E. M. Ashford assumes the role of Vivian’s forgotten mother. She takes care of Vivian and treats her like a child by reading to her from The Runaway Bunny.
In The Holy Sonnets mothers and daughters symbolize the community of saints and their followers respectively. Donne’s voice in these sonnets reveals that he has a deep fear of being alone in the face of death and therefore seeks the company of women. Sex becomes a metaphor for seeking comfort; his search for comfort, in this case, is the church. Holy Sonnets I, VI, VIII, and of course X all emphasize the importance of finding identity in death. In Holy Sonnet XVII John Donne discusses the loss of a lover. The poem centers not on the death of the woman, but rather his actions after her death. In the absence of a female figure Donne turns to God to help him cope. God, however, is not enough for Donne: “But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst has fed / A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.” In this sonnet Donne’s expired lover and God fight for his affections and position as distractions from the fear of death.
W;t focuses mainly on the theme from Sonnet X; to conquer death. The other sonnets do not ignore the theme of death, in fact in many it is pivotal, but these sonnets also discuss things which may help one to find this meaning in life. Donne mentions both religion and the company of women. Both of these things are absent from W;t. Vivian has no religion or love. The ideas are alluded to: It becomes apparent that Jason and Susie have a relationship, and the Runaway Bunny has a religious motif. Vivian, however, goes to her grave without these things. She realizes she should, but she, like Donne, still struggles with the inevitability of death and the meaning in life. Her entire life was spent critiquing a man who spent his life critiquing the distractions from death. In the end Vivian realizes the mistake she makes and embraces these distractions.
The exclusion of the other sonnets was helpful in portraying Vivian’s struggle. If Margaret Edson did include these sonnets the audience’s attention may have been diverted from the struggle for salvation. The Holy Sonnets battle with this idea. As Jason puts it: “There’s this promise of salvation, the whole religious thing… It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But you can’t face life without it either. So you write these screwed-up sonnets. Everything is brilliantly convoluted” (Edson 76). W;t focuses more on the theme of salvation and less on the struggle to accept it. Including the other sonnets would have confused this message in the play.
Donne, John, and A. J. Smith. John Donne, Essays in Celebration;. London: Methuen, 1972. Print.
Edson, Margaret. Wit. London: N. Hern, 2007. Print.
Hodgson, Elizabeth M. Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne. Newark: University of Delaware, 1999. Print.
In the article, “Beowulf’s androgynous heroism,” Robert Morey focuses on revealing Beowulf’s androgynous side in the poem as a hero, which seem to be very peculiar. Despite this unconventional, even idiosyncratic argument, Morey provides a reasonable justification about Beowulf’s femininity through the context of the period at that time and also through the analysis of excerpts from the poem. I strongly disagree with the fact that the poet was trying to convey women’s roles, which symbolize the androgynous religious figure in the poem, Beowulf, at all. Rather Beowulf, an epic hero, represents the conventional definition of a man. Furthermore, I do not think the poet was necessarily trying to portray Beowulf as a religious figure in general, because he has too many humanistic mortal flaws to be a holy character.
First, Morey notifies the audience that, “The role of woman in Beowulf, as in Anglo-Saxon society, primarily depends on peace making, either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as a peace pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall." Applying these social roles of women at that time to Beowulf’s act of trying to be an arbitrator makes him a peaceful and humanistic character rather than a macho and daunting warrior.
Although Morey’s argument is reasonable, I think being just a symbol of a peace and an action of working towards a peace are two different issues. When the Geats and the Danes are joined together in a banquet, Wealtheow, who is a queen of Hrothgar, “graciously saluted the men in hall then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homeland’s guardian” (614-615). The queen’s action of handing the cup to Hrothgar, and her speech in lines later, do not necessarily represent her own authority to declare the peace. Rather, Wealtheow is being the peace itself, only as a symbol of an allegiance between the Geats and the Danes (Overing 277). She did not have a right to declare that peace on her own, nor she did not choose to be the symbol of peace in the first place by marrying Hrothgar. Instead, she was forced to marry Hrothgar as a symbol of allegiance between Herot and her kingdom. Therefore, it is, in a way, reasonable to say that Wealtheow was one of the “victims” (279) as a woman for a harmonious relationship among nations.
In contrast to Wealtheow, Beowulf first arrives at Herot and uses words rather than his sword when the poet describes, “The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard” (258). It is evident that Beowulf had options to either use a violence or to use an explanation for his visit to Herot. However, Wealtheow did not have the option to decide whether to ally with the Geats or not. Therefore, I do not think Beowulf can be an androgynous hero because Wealtheow was just a symbol of the peace, whereas Beowulf had an authority to proclaim that peace at first place, thus cannot compare those two actions.
Also Morey argues that in the poem, Beowulf is described with adjectives, such as milde, mondawaere, and lide that are usually associated with religious figures, which in a way tries to broaden the hero’s capacity to fulfill certain gender roles or qualities that are associated with women. Because there was less of a gender distinction on religious figures during that time period when this epic poem was written, Beowulf, in a way, is portrayed as a religious figure.
However, based on examining Beowulf’s behaviors throughout the poem, I think he has too many flaws to be a religious figure. His first flaw is exposed when he boasts in front of Hrothgar. Before fighting Grendel, Beowulf talks endlessly about his past accomplishments and says:
“ They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea slaughtered sea-brutes… Now I mean to be a match for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat.” (419-426)
Because he is an experienced warrior who won against all the monsters that he faced, and because everyone knows about that fact, Beowulf argues that he is the most suitable person to fight against this painful and brutal monster, Grendel. Personally, I do not remember any religious figure in the history that is snobbish and condescending as Beowulf is in this scene. I remember them being more respectful, modest, and humble.
Beowulf’s another flaw is exposed when Beowulf orders Wiglaf to inspect the Dragon’s treasure and return with a portion of that treasure and he says,
“ Hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard. Away you go: I want to examine that ancient gold, gaze my fill on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (2746-2751)
First of all, his desire to see the fortune that he had never seen shows his greed and wickedness of humans and how much we are obsessed with power, fortune, and wealth in general since the old times. Also, in “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure”, Joseph E. Marshall argues that Beowulf has a “Christian attitude towards wealth” (Marshall 2) when Beowulf tries to “dispense his wealth to his retainers” (Marshall 2). However, I think Beowulf was discarding his wealth rather than dispensing it. In fact, Beowulf seems to be rather a devious king, because he would not need the wealth once he dies since the wealth is something that is needed only in this world. Therefore, he basically disposes it by inheriting it to Wiglaf or other servants. Therefore, I do not think discarding the wealth, in other words, giving up the fortune that one does not need is necessarily an act of sharing the wealth, therefore his greedy and selfish mind is not suitable to described as a religious figure.
Also, when Unferth, the warrior of Herot, criticizes Beowulf’s battle against Grendel, the conventional epic hero overreacts to his comment, and even denounces him with even harsher words and says, “You killed your own kith and kin, so for all your cleverness and quick tongue, you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell”(587-590). Despite of Unferth’s criticism, Beowulf definitely had different options to resolve this tension instead of rebuking with another criticism. Moreover, if he truly was a character that is supposed to be a religious model, he probably did find more peaceful way to react to this situation. It is odd in the first place that he was acting irrationally, and even more bizarre that he was undermining Unferth by mentioning his biggest fault, which is killing his own family member. In a society where loyalty is extremely valuable, murdering one’s own family would be an enormous flaw for a person. Beowulf’s action of belittling Unferth’s crucial weakness shows that he probably was embarrassed about Unferth’s criticism, thus he was protecting himself by counteracting to Unferth’s comment. Therefore, Beowulf’s cruel behavior of confronting Unferth clearly indicates that he cannot be considered as a religious figure, thus cannot be a religious figure that incorporates androgynous characteristics.
In conclusion, Beowulf is just a human after all. His greedy, embarrassed, arrogant, and disapproving characteristics are represented throughout the poem, which are personalities that we all have as humans. Also, his action of accomplishing harmony between nations is not parallel to roles of women of symbolizing the harmony. Therefore, Beowulf is not an androgynous hero nor a religious figure, but just a manly, macho male that entails values of Anglo-saxons.
Baker, Peter S. “Beowulf Reader”. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000
Heaney, Samus. “Beowulf”. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. 2000
Marshall, Joseph E. “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure.” Studies in Philology; Vol. 107 Issue 1, p1-24, 24p.2010. EBSCO. University of Pittsburgh Lib., HI
Wit & Sonnet XIV
Throughout the play Wit, Vivian quotes various lines from the Holy Sonnet X by John Donne. A scholar of Donne’s work, Vivian incorporated many of these thoughts and words into her everyday life, and it could be seen that his worked shaped her as an individual. That being said, Holy Sonnet X is extremely important to the content of Wit, and the play would be very different if it was based on the content of a different sonnet.
Holy Sonnet X works within the play by supporting Vivian’s initial matter of fact response to dying and also her subsequent fears. “Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;” this line perfectly describes Vivian initial feelings of her terminal illness (Donne, 62). Initially, Vivian took her terminal diagnosis lightly. She joked during her physicals, and viewed her diagnosis as if it was just a normal occurrence in her life. Just like the speaker in Sonnet X, Vivian considers death to be something that could be mastered, and shares the same mocking and arrogant attitude as the speaker. “Die not, poor death, not yet canst thou kill me” proclaims the speaker in Donne’s Sonnet X. This false sense of invincibility is also shared by Vivian as she willing takes on the strongest dosages of medicine for her incurable cancer and also says that she knows “all about life and death” (Edson, 12). In Sonnet X Donne stated “And poppy, or charms can make us sleep well, /and better thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” (Donne, 62). In the play, Nurse Susie gave Vivian a morphine dose to ease the pain of dying and make her last few hours as comfortable as possible. The ideas of both these lines and this play scene are parallel. In the Holy Sonnet X, Donne was referencing the fact that “poppy” elicits a sleep more deep and peaceful then death could ever provide. The “poppy” is represented by the morphine that is administered. At the ending of the play Vivian walks towards the light, is parallel to the Holy Sonnet X line “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Donne,63). This line implies that one’s live doesn’t start until they die. By being awake eternally, one is infinitely alive. When Vivian died at the end of the play, she was in a way freed from living her life according to Donne.
If the focus of the play was shifted to Holy Sonnet XIV, the underlying meaning of the play and the parts mentioned above would certainly be lost. The inclusion of the Holy Sonnet X supported many of the key points of the play, from Vivian’s initial defiance of her death sentence, to her finally accepting her fate. However, other parts of the play would be highlighted and enhanced, specifically scenes involving the supporting cast. Holy Sonnet XIV focuses on the idea of the “three personed God” which can be broken down into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is represented in the play by Dr. Kelekian, Jason, and Nurse Susie. Dr. Kelekian serves as the Father being that he serves as the ultimate decider in life or death for Vivian with his control over her medicine dosages. Jason fits the role as the Son for the reason that he serves as Dr. Kelekian’s mentee and a right-hand man, and it is apparent that Dr. Kelekian favors him over his other students. However, Jason tries to take on the role of the Father towards the end of Wit when he attempts to resuscitate Vivian even though there were specific orders to do no such thing. Nurse Susie perfectly fits the role of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been described as an entity that is “a shy and self-effacing presence whose sole mission is to glorify the other members of the Trinity and carry out their directives” (Pauw, 1996). Susie does just that by carrying out the orders of both Dr. Kelekian and Jason. In addition, she serves as a friendly face, providing Vivian with comfort and an escape from the debilitating effects of her treatments.
Vivian’s indignation of her unavoidable death would also be washed out by Holy Sonnet XIV. Instead, I believe that Vivian would spend a large majority of the play reflecting on her life and begging for forgiveness. We would not see the rise, fall, and redemption of her life. Vivian’s death would also not be as peaceful and calming as it was presented at the end of the play. Instead, it would be as painful and desperate as the emotions the subject in Holy Sonnet XIV is experiencing. Several lines in Holy Sonnet XIV ooze of desperation to gain acceptance and healing from God. Vivian would go through all of the same emotions. While the nature of Holy Sonnet XIV is crass, ideas of a sexual nature are not of significance in the play. There are lines and moments in this poem that do not apply to the play at all. Specifically, the line “except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” would not be contextually significant (Donne, 64). Though Vivian was a scholar of Donne’s work, she did not follow everything he wrote about. Sex and love are two hot topics of Donne’s that were not really emphasized in Wit. In fact, any real discussions of Vivian’s sex life are eliminated once we learn that she is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. The only instance where anything of a sexual nature is mentioned during the play occurs when her former student Jason is giving her a pelvic exam. This situation is nothing like the sensual and controversial nature of many of Donne’s poems. In fact it could be described as awkward. Any real mention of sexuality in the play was minuscule, and if sex was incorporated, the concentration on Vivian’s struggle with accepting and understanding death would have been muddled. The inclusion of sex would also considerably change Vivian’s character. Rather than a tactful wordsmith, Vivian would be transformed into a sexual being, something that is the complete opposite of her character.
The one of the focal points of Wit is the fact that Vivian is a scholar of Donne’s work, but only on the surface. Vivian’s takes Donne’s work at face value and only seems to focus on what his words say, but not what they mean. This attitude is also present as she can’t even identify what separates her own life from death. Even Vivian’s mentor E.M. Ashford notices that Vivian cannot see even the significance of the placement of a semicolon or comma, and urges her to read Donne’s work in “the uncompromising way” because that is how “one learns something from this poem” (Edson, 15). Vivian holds this attitude throughout her stay in the hospital, and does not shed it until the very end of the play when “she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light-” (Edson, 85).
Donne, John. Selected Poems. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993. Print.
Edson, Margaret. W;t. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.
Pauw, Amy Platinga. "Who or what is the Holy Spirit? (Cover story)." 113.2 (1996): 48. . EBSCO. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Beowulf, an epic poem translated by Seamus Heaney, has little psychological depth compared to its successor, Grendel. John Gardner deepens the psychological aspects of the Beowulf story by creating thought and dialogue for its famous creature. In doing so themes of hope, nihilism, and violence are surfaced. Gardner condemns these aspects of human nature through Grendel by humanizing him, which is done all throughout the novel, but specifically perpetuated through his speech with the Dragon. The dialogue with the Dragon then catalyzes Grendel into his atrocious role which thus exposes the monstrosity of human nature since Grendel, according to Gardner, is human.
Gardner portrays Grendel with thought and speech as to humanize him from the beginning. The opening scene in Grendel is him yelling at a ram, an animal. He distinguishes himself from this animal by describing the ram in inferior terms humans might use: “flanks atremble, eyes like stones, he stares at as much of the world he can see and feels it surging in him…and charging his brains with the same unrest that made him suffer last year at this time, and the year before, and the year before that. (He’s forgotten them all.) His hindparts shiver with the usual, mindless joyful ache to mount whatever happens near…” (Gardner 6). From the beginning Grendel establishes the difference between animals and himself. However, when Grendel encounters humans for the first time, he recognizes the similarities between these men and himself (Gardner 24). Gardner makes this differentiation to equate Grendel alongside his human brethren and polarize him from his animal counterparts.
Another way in which Grendel is akin to human is illustrated through his descendance from Cain. In both Beowulf and Grendel, the bible story of Cain and Abel is implied in the differentiation of Cain’s clan of “banished monsters…whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (Heaney 9). In killing Abel, all the descendants of Cain were cursed forevermore. While the aforementioned beings are labeled monsters, Cain and Abel were twin humans. The descendents of Cain, therefore, have human bloodlines, regardless of outward appearance at the current time in each text. Grendel, being of Cain ancestry, is included in this, and thus is also part human. Gardner, compared to Heaney, humanizes Grendel to the extent of speech and thought, separating him from the other descendants of Cain and even his own mother who had lost these human characteristics. Grendel, being of human descent, sharing similar recognizable qualities as men, and possessing cognitions above those of animals, is therefore human.
In his human state—before speaking with the dragon—Grendel tries to befriend the banished members of Hrothgar’s community and listens to the Shaper’s songs. He tries continuously to be accepted among the human society, but is ill-accepted because of the differences yet between Grendel and the thanes; he must live along the edges. During this time Grendel watches successions of men grow, have families, murder, and prosper. It is only through Grendel’s age—an age no actual human could reach—that he realizes the meaninglessness in all of the finite actions in the time of the universe. Even the Shaper’s stories of wonderment cannot pull Grendel from his increasingly nihilistic views: “He’s seen them at their worse, generation after generation. Grendel is no longer to be seduced by such tales of sweetness” (Nutter).
Another descendent of Cain, the Dragon, introduced in chapter five, displays similar characteristics to humans in thought and speech. His mystical senses to see into the future and grant powers of enchantment are the only attributes that separate him from Grendel and humanity. His role is crucial to Grendel, and Gardner, since his nihilistic views further force Grendel to reject the Shaper’s stories. In Beowulf readers are under the assumption that Grendel and the Dragon never had met; each of the creatures was of a different land separated by a vast ocean. Neither of the creatures had made any effort to talk or communicate (outside of direct physical confrontation) with the human characters, let alone at all in any point in time within the epic. Gardner establishes this connection because Grendel has no other creature to communicate with. The Dragon has two functions: to further enlighten Grendel to the philosophy of the meaningless universe and to force him to dehumanize, to become the monster. The Dragon explains how infinite and yet finite the universe is, how meaningless and yet constant. However on 73 he then explains to Grendel why he must still attack the Danes; because he is “mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain” (Gardner). Instead of equating Grendel with the human society, he is merely a part of the outside function of it. This split begins Grendel’s journey to completely pulverize Hrothgar’s kingdom, being more a grotesque animal than human.
Before Grendel visits the dragon, there were a few acts of violence, but afterwards his raids of the meadhall occur frequently. The Dragon denies Grendel his humanity and pushes him to be more of the monster Dragon envisions. During and after their conversation Grendel falls prey to the Dragon’s ideals and does become the monster the Dragon believes he is. According to a literary criticism by Ellis:
“What [Grendel] cannot realize, caught by the dragon’s spell, is that his ‘nature’ is more than that of a bloodthirsty animal; the Grendel that Gardner creates is a thinker, a passionate metaphysician constantly exploring his place in the universe, a monster infinitely more capable of appreciating music, beauty, harmony and poetry than the men he devours…Grendel’s fundamental error is that, half-human, he allows another monster to advise him how to live, and thus ignores his human capacities.”
After speaking with the Dragon Grendel feels as disconnected as ever from the universe, much less his human brothers. Not only does he really feel the meaninglessness of it all, but under the Dragon’s enchantment, when the blades of swords do not cut, Grendel feels isolated in a literal sense as well (Nutter). He has the advantage over the men he preys on, but now without equal fight he is terribly alone, which only causes more range behind the violence of his raids.
Gardner chooses to illustrate the evil in mankind through Grendel by first equating him to humans and then having him participate in many acts of violence. Grendel is left no other choice, just as Hrothgar was left no choice in the beginning times; desperate times call for desperate measures such violence. In illustrating this violence, Gardner condemns it. The cyclical pattern emerging from the constant battles has no end but to more violence when the next creature is not welcomed into society (or betrayed like the dragon in Beowulf). Not quite propaganda, Gardner emphasizes monstrosity as being a consistent theme that some act of nonviolence should end.
Ellis, Helen B. and Warren U. Ober. “Grendel and Blake: The Contraries of Existence.” In John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, pp. 46-61. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Random House, 1971.
Heaney, Seamus. Trans. Beowulf. New York: University of Exeter, 2000.
Nutter, Ronald G. “Of Pattern-Making and Art.” In A Dream of Peace: Art and Death in the Fiction of John Gardner, pp. 59-75. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
Beowulf was described as the best and the one and only hero of that time. He fought many different types of monsters and helped many kingdoms. That in many people’s eyes would be the best person for a hero. Heroes are usually someone that people look up to, if a child wanted to be a warrior than that would be fine but as an all around hero, I would pass him up on the list. Since Beowulf had slain Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon which lead to his death he would be chosen as the greatest hero. I think that Beowulf is completely over-rated, just because he did all of that doesn’t mean he could be the only person to be a hero in the stories. In the article “Reinventing the Hero: Gardner’s Grendel and the shifting Face of Beowulf in Popular Culture” the authors Michael Livingston and John Sutton express that in different interpretations of Beowulf, Beowulf is considered the hero. In the books and films that they decided to write the article on they explain, “…they still support the received interpretation of the poem: that Beowulf is the hero par excellence, and that Grendel is a fiendish monster (Livingston & Sutton, 3). No one challenged the characteristics on what a hero should be until John Gardner published his book Grendel.
Before reading Grendel, I would’ve continued to believe that Grendel is only a monster but John Gardner portrayed Grendel in a different light. Grendel was transformed from a horrible creature to a being with human emotions, which was only curious of the world (Livingston & Sutton, 3). In Grendel, the Shaper gives the illusion of his and Hrothgar’s Utopia (Grendel, 41). Grendel hearing this, he becomes conflicted about believing this dream or ignoring it. After he thought everything over, Grendel decided that he needed to go along with the Shaper’s ideas and do his part to help the universe. Even though Grendel ends up dead because that was what he was made to do, could his work be considered praiseworthy. Anyone can be praised for their actions and I think if Grendel didn’t play his part, then the “what ifs” begin to line-up. If Grendel decided to go against the Utopia then he really would have nothing to do and be in a state of boredom. Grendel could be seen as a hero because he did all of the horrible things so that Hrothgar and the Shaper could create their vision of a Utopia.
The women in Beowulf should be recognized for the work they did. In the article The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf, Dorothy Carr Porter discusses all of the women in Beowulf. She first discusses Wealhtheow and Hygd and describes them as “hostess”. Hostesses were queens/women who basically follow the ways of their husbands but have influence on people that come into their halls. They were both involved in their societies and were sought out for their wisdom. Wealhtheow gave words of wisdom to Beowulf many times in the poem. Porter points out that Wealhtheow and Hygd were always illustrated with the use of positive terms. Wealhtheow is “mindful of customs,” (613), “of excellent heart” (624), and “sure of speech” (624), while Hygd is “wise and well-taught” (1927). (Porter). They were the typical women in this century; they never were selfish and did for others. Wealhtheow could be seen as heroine because of her being considered as an extension to her husband Hrothgar, and having an influence in politics. Women before couldn’t have a say in any of the kings issues but Wealhtheow did, therefore could be seen as a heroine.
Porter describes Hildebruh and Freawaru as “failed peace weavers” (Porter). “Peace weavers” were women that were supposed to marry into a different kingdom to “make” peace. Porter used the term failed because even though the women were set to ensure peace, it was a failed attempt. She believes that “peace weavers” are women arranged to be married to rival kingdoms. Women that are described as “peace weaver” should be considered heroines themselves because they were put into “sticky” situations. Porter may think of these women as failed but I don’t because even if the peace allegiance didn’t last for long, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen again. None of these women, Porter analyzes wouldn’t be considered good if there weren’t the “evil” women, Grendel’s mother and Thryth.
Everyone is human; we don’t live in the world where there are people that have supernatural powers. Humans have flaws and no one is perfect, so mistakes will be made. Heroes are put on a high pedestal, and their followers are in denial that they are invincible. No one can avoid their inevitable death, us as humans were meant to live and die. Beowulf was considered the one and only hero but Grendel, hostesses, and peace weavers could all be seen as heroes/heroines. I believe that just because Beowulf was considered the main character of the story and poem that he shouldn’t be the only person considered as a hero. Women are always looked over especially in the past and present, I hope that this wouldn’t be the case in the future.
Carr Porter, Dorothy. "The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context." The Heroic Age August/September.5 (2001). Web. 18 Feb. 2011.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
Livingston, Michael, and John William Sutton. "Reinventing the Hero: Gardner’s Grendel and the Shifting Face of Beowulf in Popular Culture." Studies in Popular Culture 29.1 (2006): 1-16. Studies in Popular Culture. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.