“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

7 responses to ““Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Part of the problem is that some many are proclaimed “a true hero” by media and politicians that the real meaning of the word is gone. Everyone’s special. (and every main character must be a hero, right? That’s the way all authors write characters, right?)
    Still, enjoyed your musings

  • solberg73

    “…It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

    A classic: nicely phrased, accurate, and with just a tinge of snark.
    Reminds me of how once I was sorely tempted to quip to a new-hire carpenter: “Wow, one could draw your learning curve with a six-foot level.
    Here in the promised land of Heroes, we have to change street-names at almost every intersection; So many heroes, so little time. I suppose endless wars for survival and 3 or 4 thousand years does kinda fill up the Rolodexes…
    The mantra in the army though, oddly, is ‘Don’t be a hero, be a ‘Rosh Khatan’ (little head’) ie, don’t ask questions which may inspire a tougher training regime
    You quite powerfully contrast Beowulf and Everyman here. That part was a much-needed refresher. I’ve spent 50 years by now forgetting, just ignoring, the details. pitiable, I admit. ..

    • RAB

      You musings on “hero” are fascinating. We have the naming thing here too, and sometimes the results are not quite to the purpose: crossing, perhaps, the Col. Isidore McGillicuddy Memorial Bridge, for example (yes, I’ve made up that name, to spare the memories of the real memorialized unfamiliars), and thinking “Who the hell was that?” can’t be the intended experience.

      • solberg73

        My greatest shame was dumbly calling the (NJ) Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop ‘That Tree-lady place’ for the longest time. I was never corrected though, to my partial exoneration. Plus, serves him right for taking whas-her-name, (Joyce James’ name in vain.
        Aside: I’ve enjoyed here writing spoof Wiki-researched term papers on such multi-talented folks as Henry James Joyce Brothers Karamazov. Also Edmund Hilary Clinton DeWitt and Woody Herman Tito Fuentes. I’m in awe of their track records in so many disparate fields.

      • RAB

        Do you know this one? http://www.jstor.org/stable/40371436?seq=1 (I hope you can open the jstor link…) Truly a classic.
        Back to Kilmer….being a Jersey Girl, I have driven past the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop many a time. I usually stop at the Walt Whitman, so I can’t attest to Joyce’s quality re rest. In some school chorus (junior high? high school?) I sang a musical setting of the poem; in my grad school days I was notorious for performing the poem AS the tree, ending up as a contorted mess with my mouth on the floor and eyes swiveled skyward…. I wish I dared show my students this irreverent, hilarious side of literature, but it’s hard enough getting them to read what the poet wrote. I will have to find your spoof wikis (spikis?).

  • yearstricken

    I am all for throwing joy while I still can. I very much enjoyed your musings today.

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