Thursday, October 4, 2012

Balance of Power


Violence to end violence has been a part of the human story from very early in our history. The so-called nuclear “balance of power” has that very concept at its root: the threat of violence neutralizes the act of violence on both sides. However, when terrorists who do not value human life, including their own, get ahold of atomic weapons, the concept falls apart rapidly. There is nothing to restrain such people from blowing us all away.

Along those lines of the human tendency to use violence supposedly end violence, I have been thinking about that idea in my own Anglo-Saxon roots. In the heroic poem “Beowulf,” for example, the title character comes to the aid of Denmark’s King Hrothgar to kill Grendel, a homeless demon who has been terrorizing Hrothgar’s celebration hall. Beowulf’s reputation as a strong man who uses his strength to destroy evil for the benefit of good proves true in Denmark. He rips off Grendel’s arm and hangs it in the hall as a trophy as the monster slinks back to his hideous hag of a mother.

Interestingly, the story was extant before the missionaries came from Rome. When scribes helped write it down in Anglo-Saxon, a language we call Old English, they added Christian elements. Grendel and his mother are described as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander. It just may be Grendel’s homelessness that makes him murderously jealous of the Danes.

At any rate, Beowulf uses what some may term excessive force in killing the demon, thus employing violence to end the violence against Hrothgar’s kingdom. But that episode does not end the strife. Grendel’s mother takes up the terroristic plot against the Danes and Beowulf doubles down on his violent response until the old hag is dead as well. Thus Beowulf’s reputation grows as a problem solver, one who does not turn the other cheek, but who returns blow for blow until he prevails against those who would harm his friends.

But neither does that episode end the violence. His reputation catapults Beowulf into a kingship of his own in his native land where he rules well for 50 years. Toward the end of his long tenure as a respected and feared leader, a foul old fire-breathing dragon on the outskirts of his kingdom has been offended and wreaks havoc on Beowulf’s subjects. With the help of his longtime right-hand man Wiglaf, Beowulf very violently kills the beast, but not before he himself is mortally wounded.

So, it would seem that very early in Anglo-Saxon myth, the balance of power, that is, using violence to end violence, is temporary and intermittent. As I read the old poem, I can’t help but think of the Book of Revelation in scripture. I ponder the demons, the whore of Babylon and the old dragon himself. While I don’t think Beowulf was intended as a Christ figure by the Christian redactors of the old story, they do show him victorious in the end, though mortally wounded. By contrast, the ultimate balancer of power in Revelation is victorious, alive, and armed.

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