In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, set around A.D. 500, King Hrothgar of the Danes builds an immense hall, Heorot, ornate yet sturdy, a bulwark against the fog and darkness and barbarism of the age. Under its beams, the King and his thanes and their families can gather, smoke great slabs of meat, and pour out cups of mead to be shared among them. The hall becomes the heart of their civilization: a place of gathering, rewarding, punishing, eating, drinking, lawgiving, merrymaking, singing, and celebrating.
It is this celebratory spirit of the hall—which lies at the core of all true civilization—that angers the monster Grendel, a haggard, half-human, half-demonic figure from the fringes of nightmare, a haunter of the fens and fields in the dusk and early dawn, mouth afoam, eyes burning with hellfire, an anti-being lurking in the dark places of the human experience and imagination. Grendel embodies the potential for destruction, collapse, and irrational animal passion. He is the personification of the anti-cultural forces that have always sought to tear down the Heorots of the world, rolling back time and reinstating chaos and barbarism.
What is Grendel’s motive? The anonymous poet of Beowulf says only this:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.
Grendel is maddened by the sound of the harp. Why?
Because Grendel is the first nihilist in all of English literature. His is a philosophy of hatred and non-being. He rejects the fundamental goodness of existence, the wholesomeness of human society, the happiness of creation, the rejoicing in what is. For Grendel—like the philosopher who denies that the world is fundamentally good, that life is worth living, that existence has meaning—a spirit of celebration is an affront, an action incongruous with his own misery. It sets his teeth gnashing: for what is there to celebrate for the one who hates reality and hates his own existence?
And so Grendel begins his reign of terror, haunting Heorot hall at night, devouring those foolish enough to be caught in it after dark. Gone are the feasts. Gone is the human solidarity. Gone is the bond between king and people. Gone is the bard and the sound of his harp. Gone is celebration.
For 12 long, wintry years, Heorot lies empty and silent, northern winds whistling through its darkened pillars.
Since Heorot was the image of civilization itself, the tragedy in the poem is of apocalyptic proportions: It’s not just that King Hrothgar won’t get to sit on his fine throne anymore, a matter of minor inconvenience. No, the Danes have lost the very things that make life worth living: community, art, friendship, celebration—in a word, culture. It will take the efforts of a hero, Beowulf, to raise up their civilization from the ashes.
The spirit of culture is the spirit of celebrating what is. Therefore, culture cannot coexist with hatred and nihilism. Consider: Why do people come together and enact those social interactions and deepen those social bonds that form the backbone of community and culture? Generally, they do so either to work for a common end or to celebrate something. And what a community celebrates says a lot about the state of its culture. A healthy culture begins by celebrating creation itself, the miracle of being.
In this way, art is, fundamentally, a kind of celebration. The artist has been so struck by the beauty or mystery of something—whether that be a bird’s wing, a landscape, a human face, or a human life—that he is compelled to try to capture its essence by imitating it in art. That desire stems from a spirit of love, gratitude, and wonder. The artist is the one who says, “This thing is so good, so wonderful, that I wish to know it fully, and I wish others to know it fully; it must be celebrated and immortalized through art.” Art is an affirmation. For if the artist does not love something, he would have no reason to wish to enshrine it in artwork.
In addition, the motivation for composing music or carving statues or writing poetry often has to do with preparing for and decorating a feast of some sort, often a religious one (at least historically). Greek drama, which helped give birth to the world of Western literature as we know it, was originally a part of religious rituals. Some of the finest music ever composed was for use in Christian liturgy. Statues of immeasurable beauty were commissioned most commonly for use in temples and, later, churches.
This is significant because religious rituals traditionally center around thanksgiving and sacrifice, which are both fundamentally affirmations of the goodness of the world and the gifts that the deity or deities have bestowed on humanity.
What Beowulf can show us, then, is that culture crumbles when the spirit of hatred, nihilism, and ingratitude is given free rein. If celebration is the seed of culture, then gratitude is its stem.
We typically celebrate out of a spirit of gratitude and humility. This is precisely the spirit that is vanishing from our world today. There is, first, an ingratitude with regard to our cultural heritage —thus the tearing down of statues, the neglect of classic books, the indifference to history. And there is, second, and even more appallingly, an ingratitude with regard to the world itself, with regard to the gift of being. This ingratitude is the fruit of decades of skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism which have denied the very existence of an objective reality.
On some level, the denial of objective reality is an act of hatred, an expression of dissatisfaction with what one has been given, more than it is an honest statement of belief. For who could believe there is no such thing as truth? Only one who, lacking gratitude for what has been received, wants to create his own truth.
There are forces in our world that, like Grendel, are maddened by the sound of harps that affirm an objective and joyful order to the universe. They want their own order of the universe, and it will not be a joyful one. They want to empty Heorot. They have already succeeded to a great degree. Perhaps a first step in opposing them, then, is to rediscover a spirit of gratitude, which is born of humility.
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