Friday, October 12, 2012

Beowulf and Katniss: Two Heroes Only a Millenia Apart

As a teacher of students from ages fifteen to seventy, I enjoyed sharing old, stodgy works featuring heroes such as Beowulf because his biography in verse celebrates timeless human ideals including courage and sacrifice, ideals that continue to inspire readers of all ages. In fact, those are the ideals that make Katniss Everdeen a hero for the modern age.

Equally important, Beowulf and Katniss experience moments of doubt, fear, and sorrow, and when they do, story-tellers knock them off their high idealistic pedestal right down into the dust and ash where the rest of us reside. It is their humanity that inspires us to love them because in their humanity, we see ourselves: imperfect but striving for excellence in almost all we do.

In fact, that’s classic Aristotlean heroics. A great figure, suitable for the high art of tragedy, must pursue excellence, only to be brought low by his own hamartia: hoisted with his own petard (Hamlet), so to speak. Oedipus, for example, Aristotle's paradigm, tried to save his parents whom he knew to be Polybus and Merope. He ran as far from them as he could go after the Oracle at Delphi revealed the destiny that lay before him. Later, he worked as aggressively to save his city, Thebes, from the gods’ curses and issued a dire edict, ignorant of the truth about himself.

Oedipus’s good intentions cannot save him from the gods' wrath or man's judgment. Oedipus allows his ego to suffocate his better self and lead him into a series of mistakes following the first flight from Corinth. Worse, his failure to be humble forced a horrible lesson in humility upon him. He brought about his own suffering--as most of us do, and that makes his story achingly familiar.

Beowulf pursues excellence, too. He wishes to test and prove his own bravery by serving Hrothgar’s nation in its time of need, and like Oedipus, Beowulf’s actions will determine the fate of a people, the Danes, framing his story lives as an epic.

Beowulf also suffers a painful lesson in humility. As a young man, full of vigor and bravado, he kills two monsters, earning both acclaim and gold. In time, he becomes king in his homeland and oversees a long era of peace and prosperity during which his warriors grow so soft that they run away from a fight, even when the only man standing is their king, frail and alone, armed with helmet, shield and sword against a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf loses that last fight and dies with the knowledge that his high ideals no longer thrive in the hearts of younger men. The high ideals he held so dear have not endured under his leadership.

One thousand years later, Katniss also chooses to fight for others. She takes her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, knowing the contest may kill her, but if she succeeds, she will not only save her sister, but she will lift up her community, making their lives measurably better. Indeed, the fate of her home rests upon her shoulders, and as it turns out, the fate of her entire dystopian world depends upon her success.

Katniss is less eager to take life than is Beowulf, but Katniss faces mere mortals rather than the Spawn of Cain and a dragon. She must kill her own in order to triumph, and we admire her when murder, whether murder that is licensed and State-sanctioned, gives her pause. We know then that Katniss, in other circumstances, would pursue excellence in all things, never taking life except to hunt so that her family and her community might survive.

Still, Katniss falls to the lowly ash and dust as does Beowulf. She can be blind to her own flaws. She can be quick to judge others, doubting their integrity and motives. She also suffers from insufferable pride occasionally. She must learn to be humble and always generous before she returns to the pedestal of heroes.

Beowulf’s story, originating about a millennia ago, is a saga alive and well in this post-modern literary era. Katniss Everdeen is but one proof. Both appeal to readers because each one tells a timeless tale of men and women who strive to rise and dwell among the angels in spite of the very human frailties that drag them back to rest upon earth.

Reading Challenge:

Read or reread Beowulf (available online at 16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm) or translated beautifully by Seamus Heaney. You may also wish to consider King Arthur and Sir Gawain as tarnished stars of the old world. Who from the modern canon would compare to those knights?

Writing Challenge:

Compare another modern or post-modern story to Beowulf’s. Some possibilities include one of Marvel’s heroes or Harry Potter’s epic journey.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

As I post this, I am aware that many students are now enjoying Fall Break, or is it Fall break or even fall break?

According to the excellent resource available online from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (, a GUM resource that everyone should know and use:

·      Do not capitalize the seasons; e. g., This spring I hope to visit the zoo unless
·      The seasons are part of a title; e. g., Fall Break or the 2013 Spring semester.