With this kind of beginning we have learned to expect yet another bizarre cartoon version of history. This student is more philosophical than historical, though, offering an insight into the kinds of realities consequent on the passage of time:
“At the time of The Second Shepherds’ Play society is different than the times of Beowulf and Sir Gawain. There are no monsters to slay etc. This is not the shepherds’ fault, it just is a different society and time in the world.”
Whenever I see “etc.” in a student paper, I circle it and note in the margin, “Avoid this catch-all.” Usually, though, the “etc.” does come at the end of a list, however brief; here we are given only one element in the imagined series and invited to figure out the rest for ourselves. Are we to think about things to slay besides monsters? Differences between cultures, such as the growth of towns, the existence of cycle drama, changes in the English language? It’s impossible to tell, and perhaps the student wasn’t sure what else to list either, hence the quick “etc.”
But of course the real charm of the passage rests on those shepherds. First of all, the shepherds who went to adore the baby Jesus (and brought him that most perfect of gifts, a tennis ball) did not live in the Middle Ages; they were keeping watch over their flocks by night long, long before Beowulf set sail on the swan road. So is the absence of dragons due to the forward passage of time between the world of Beowulf and the world of the Wakefield Master, who wrote The Second Shepherds’ Play, or to the backward gap of time between Beowulf and the star of Bethlehem? And were there dragons to slay back when Jesus was alive (other than the Dragon of Revelation, who actually is still to come)?
What makes my heart go out to my student is that he doesn’t blame the shepherds for not slaying any dragons: there simply weren’t any fire-breathers or hoard-guardians or shape-shifters around anymore. I’m sure that had there been, those shepherds would have been on the job with as much vigor as they fought off wolves, poachers, and other marauders.
I beg my students to observe the dates of composition of the literature they read and avoid making judgments based on the features of their own time. My student is trying to avoid applying the expectations of the twentieth century AND of the eleventh, and I think that’s worth something.