I want to thank M. C. Tuggle for joining the Underground Library Society!
I will have another post for the U. L. S. up on Sunday.
Now, here is M. C. Tuggle’s post:
I Am Beowulf
by M. C. Tuggle
I follow the rusting railroad tracks, occasionally veering off to wade through icy streams so the Mechanical Hound cannot follow my scent. When I find Granger and his small band of rebels, he welcomes me with hot coffee, which I greedily drink, then chase down with the bitter fluid Granger assures me will change my scent and confuse the Hound. Then he asks what book I choose to become by committing it to memory.
There is no question which book it will be.
After all, I’ve joined the resistance against a totalitarian government that controls its subjects by keeping them in perpetual ignorance. Numbed by mindless, ever-present mass media, the population exists without a past, either as individuals or as part of a living tradition. Only the present moment exists for them. Independent thought is quickly detected and snuffed out, and anyone with a book is a criminal who can be executed on the spot.
So of course the book I choose to memorize and become must be Beowulf.
After all, the oppressed people of Fahrenheit 451 need a vision that will rouse them out of their apathy. Once they rediscover who they are and what they were meant to be, maybe a fire will grow in their bellies and inspire them to reclaim their humanity.
Also, practical issues aside, I just love Beowulf. It’s the high school classic that made me into a future English major. The gritty details of battle against Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are as vivid and breathtaking as the greatest adventure tales of Robert E. Howard or H. Rider Haggard. And the action in Beowulf is not only entertaining, but significant. The tale is packed with commentary on the human condition as well as eye-opening insights into history, religion, and culture.
In Bradbury’s dystopia, historical amnesia has been weaponized to keep the people alienated and aimless. In Beowulf, on the other hand, one’s history is a vital part of one’s existence. Early in the story, when a Danish watchman challenges Beowulf and his crew, Beowulf identifies himself by telling the watchman about his lineage:
“We belong by birth to the Geat people and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac. In his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow.”
And in stark contrast to the soul-crushing conformity and stupor of Fahrenheit 451’s dystopian society, the world of Beowulf celebrates achievement, battle, and nobility. Upon first viewing Beowulf, the Danish watchman remarks, “Nor have I seen a mightier man-at-arms on this earth than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken, he is truly noble.”
Beowulf also gives us an overview of the history of Western civilization. It offers a glimpse of Britain’s transition from a pagan to a Christian culture. My take on this classic is that it is a rewriting of an oral epic from pagan days. What makes it unique is that it mirrors the history of the spread of Christianity, particularly in northern Europe, where the world-weary religion of southern European slaves and the poor reinvented itself to appeal to the more prosperous, more aristocratic, and more worldly north.
In doing so, the new religion embraced much of the pagan worldview of northern Europe, and this update of a pagan classic reflects that.
Consider the book’s undisguised pagan values. The hero sets out to save the Danish king’s mead hall, a place where members of the warrior class drink, feast, and share the spoils of battle. Prized weapons are named, something we do not see in the Iliad or Odyssey. And instead of promoting turning the other cheek, or looking to an eternal reward as life’s ultimate aim, Beowulf glorifies revenge and worldly honor: “It is better for us all to avenge our friends, not mourn them forever. Each of us will come to the end of this life on earth; he who can earn it should fight for the glory of his name; fame after death is the noblest of goals.”
I have four translations, or modernizations, of this epic poem. My favorites are by JRR Tolkien and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. If forced to pick, I’ll have to go with Heaney’s shimmering retelling. That’s the book I would memorize.
M. C. Tuggle writes science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories, and occasionally gets some published. His observations and rants about the writing craft appear on his blog mctuggle.com
Thank you again to M. C. Tuggle!