Battling the Self
“We are all subject to decay, old age, and death, to disappointment, loss, and disease. We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.”
The earliest surviving text in British literature is Beowulf, the story of a great hero who goes on to be a king.
Beowulf’s heroism can be measured by his physical prowess and sense of honor. When he hears that King Hrothgar’s mead hall—a seat of community—is being attacked by a monster named Grendel, Beowulf sails the “whale-road” to help. Beowulf’s father (now dead) is indebted to Hrothgar, so Beowulf risks the trip to honor his obligation and to bolster his own heroic reputation.
Beowulf succeeds, killing both Grendel and Grendel’s mom who attacks in revenge.
After many more acts of heroism, Beowulf ascends the throne, ruling for 50 years. The anonymous Beowulf poet doesn’t specify Beowulf’s age when the story opens, but Beowulf clearly is an old man when a dragon attacks his kingdom. Nevertheless, Beowulf the hero steps up again, ready to combat the enemy.
On the surface, this seems admirable. After all, if our community were being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon, we’d all be pretty relieved to have a king ready to to take on the battle.
Beowulf is confident. The poet writes:
He had no fear for himself
and discounted the worm’s courage and strength,
its prowess in battle. Battles in plenty
he had survived; valiant in all dangers,
he had come through many clashes since his cleansing of Heorot
and his extirpation of the tribe of Grendel,
Note that all of Beowulf’s thoughts are of himself.
With this great confidence, Beowulf, who has no heir, asks a chosen group of warriors to accompany him to the dragon fight but tells them to stay outside the barrow while he takes on the dragon single handedly. He announces, “This affair is not for you,/nor is it measured to any man but myself alone/to match strength with this monster being.” And then he goes to fight the dragon solo.
Beowulf repeatedly uses the term “good king,” especially in reference to Hrothgar with his mead hall where his men can rest and commune until the monster Grendel comes along. He is a “ring giver” who shares the spoils of battles. And he is a married man who has more than one male heir to leave in charge of the kingdom. Nor does he battle Grendel but allows the young, strong Beowulf to take on the job.
The character Beowulf, alas, does not meet this definition of good king, for rather than delegating dragon fighting, he perishes in the attempt. He kills the dragon with the help of the one warrior, Wiglaf, who doesn’t flee in fear like the rest of his men, but he leaves his kingdom without a strong leader and vulnerable to attack, something his people know:
A woman of the Geats in grief sang out
the lament for his death. Loudly she sang,
her hair bound up, the burden of her fear
that evil days were destined her
—troops cut down, terror of armies,
Beowulf saves the kingdom only to leave it open to attack—mostly so he can die a hero and maybe have his story still told in a blog in 2021. When Beowulf tells his men, “This affair is not for you,” he means that it’s his battle alone. But we can interpret this statement as, “I’m not doing this for you,” or at least not thinking through the consequences for you as I work to achieve personal glory. Wiglaf notes this within the poem: ”Many must often endure distress/for the sake of one; so it is with us.”
The anonymous writer of Beowulf likely was a Catholic monk, so he would have known his seven deadly sins and that pride was the worst of all. Before doing battle with the dragon, Beowulf
spoke a last time
a word of boasting: ‘Battles in plenty
I ventured in youth; and I shall venture this feud
and again achieve glory, the guardian of my people,
old though I am, if this evil destroyer
dares to come out of his earthen hall.’
The heroic Beowulf knows he’s old, but he refuses to accept that he is too old for the job and that it’s time to pass the mantle. He thinks of himself and his glory, not of how his actions affect his people.
Like Christianity, Buddhism argues that a central source of suffering is clinging to the notion of an essential self because it often leads to a belief in a self being more important than other selves.
Beowulf’s battle with the dragon is sacrifice—but not self-sacrifice for Beowulf’s motivation is self.
Ignorant to suffering and its causes, Beowulf begins his epic heroic journey by saving a community, but he ends his own community by putting self before all else.