For more than 40 years, I have had a relationship with Beowulf.
Then in 1989, author John Gardner published Grendl, telling the monster’s side of the story. I had been reading a lot of John Gardner’s fiction, and of course had to read Grendl as well. Five years later, I was reading David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, and found Beowulf again in the second chapter. Six years after that, I was in a bookstore in New Orleans and saw a new translation of the poem by Nobel laureate and poet Seamus Heaney. I bought and read it.
In his introduction to his translation, Heaney, points out one more connection for me with the poem. The scholar who performed a kind of rescue of Beowulf from several decades of something amounting to literary deconstruction, and gave it its rightful place as a work of art, was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien.
At TweetSpeak Poetry, Lyla Lindquist is hosting a discussion of Whyte’s The Heart Aroused, and tomorrow will be covering chapters 1 and 2, which includes Beowulf. Whyte subtitles the chapter “Power and Vulnerability in the Workplace,” and draws a number of management lessons from the story of the poem:
· To achieve something important in the workplace, you sometimes have to go to those “dark regions” of the human soul, where you not only find creativity but also your fears and phobias.
· For the things that truly matter, the outcome of the battle is usually in doubt. Victory and success are not foregone conclusions. And the price of success involves a real cost.
· Sometimes what you think are problems (represented by Grendl) turn out to be only symptoms of larger problems (represented by Grendl’s mother).
· And most people don’t have the heart for the battle. Many times you will be alone.
I reread the Heaney translation of Beowulf this past weekend. It is an easy translation to read, even with all the Angle-Saxon names. What surprised me was that the accounts of the fights between Beowulf and Grendl and Beowulf and Grendl’s mother are actually rather short. In fact, most of the poem is “back story” – the history of the Geats and the Danes, the family connections and rivalries, and old battle stories. A poet and a singer have their parts, and there is a considerable amount of boasting by the main characters, which is rather jarring to contemporary sensibilities. But this is all important to the story, or to the story in the way it was told in 8th or 9th centuries (some argue for later) when the poem was first composed.
I would add another “management lesson” to the list developed by White, another lesson of the poem: : we spend far more time worrying and fretting about our fears than what it required to confront them and deal with them.
For me, one of the most moving parts of the entire work is the speech by Hrothgar, king of Denmark, when he warns Beowulf of the perils of power:
O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Don not give way to pride.
For a brief time while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellant age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.
Focus on what matters, Horthgar says; focus on the eternal things, the things that matter to God. That is what has lasting value.
We’re discussing A Heart Aroused at TweetSpeak Poetry. The prompt for the discussion can be found here, and the links will officially live on Wednesday at TweetSpeak. I will have a third and final post on these two chapters on Thursday.
Some resources for the study of Beowulf from Greene Hamlet.
The entry for Beowulf at Wikipedia.