8.30.2013

The Story of When I First Told My Children the Story of Beowulf, Which They Already Knew (Farewell, Mr. Heaney)

(I will be telling the story of the first time I told my children the story of Beowulf. It will be mildly intriguing, and at intermission there will be a brief discussion of Radiohead. If you're going to a Taylor Swift concert or have big plans, don't cancel them; essentially the angle is about Grendel's mother and the meaning of perspective in story.

Happy Freitag, world.)

ACT 1.
"Are you familiar with the story of Beowulf?"
I asked the children while we ate.

- "Yeah.
My son replied.

"Really?"

- "Yeah."
My daughter replied.

"Really? Then what is it about?"

Assuredly, she spoke for the duo.
- "If we know, then why would we tell you?"

"I just want to know if you really know."

- "We know,"
my son said.

"Well, I don't believe you. Did you know that Beowulf is one of the greatest epic poems in Old English and was written in the eighth century? Did you know that?"

- "Yeah,"
my son replied without hesitation.

"Really! Okay, cool. Of course you know that one of the reasons for its importance is its strange mix of Germanic pagan warrior society with Anglo-Saxon Christian ideas, like humbleness and forgiveness.

- "Yes, we already knew that,"
my daughter replied. 

"Okay, I guess I have to believe you now. I hadn't realized you already knew the story of Beowulf and Grendel the monster. Now I don't have to tell it to you."

- "You can still tell us, but we already know the story,"
she said.

"Okay. Of course you probably already know that the story starts in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. Did you know that?"

- "Yes!"

"So for a long time, a monster named Grendel has terrorized King Hrothgar and his people by breaking in at night and eating his warriors. Grendel is unstoppable, unbeatable, undestroyable. A little like me, but really mean. But then Beowulf shows up with his men. Do you remember where Beowulf is from?"

- "Yeah."

"Where is he from?"

- "Do YOU know?"

"Of course I know. I'm telling the story."

- "Well I know, so why would I tell you?"

"Fine. Beowulf, as you well know, was a prince from Geatland, which is a region in Sweden. So he shows up with his men to fight Grendel. Guess what happens next?"

- "Daddy, we know what happens next. Do YOU know?"

"Of course I know. Beowulf defeats Grendel. He destroys him. End of story."

- "That's not the end of the story."

"OH MY GOODNESS. HOW DO YOU KNOW IT'S NOT THE END? YOU REALLY DO KNOW THE STORY!"

- "Of course I do, I told you. I just know. It's not the end of the story, Daddy. I do know what happens next but I'm not going to tell you."

Her brother chimes in. "Yeah, we're not going to tell you."

I feel compelled to prove that I know the story as well, so I continue. 
"What does every human and animal and monster have? I'll give you a hint: everybody has a father. That's one of the things everyone has. What is something else similar to a father that everyone has?"

INTERMISSION.
We get more food, and break into conversation about Radiohead. 

- "What are fake plastic trees?"
my son asks.

"They're trees that are not real,"
I explain,
"and Radiohead sings a lot of songs that are about things that are sort of real and sort of not, and sort of natural and mostly not. Like fake plastic trees. Although technically, the words "fake" and "plastic" rather cancel each other out. I would be interested in having Radiohead score a cinematic version of Beowulf. What do you guys think?"

- "Just finish the story please,"
my daughter orders.
"But I already know how it ends."

ACT 2.
"So everybody, at some point, has a father and a…what?"

- "Mother."

"Yep. Grendel had a mother. And how do you think she felt when she found out what happened to her son?"

- "She wasn't very happy."

"Yeah…imagine this. Imagine that somebody hurt you. What do you think your mother would do?"

- "Call the police."

"Yep…and if there weren't police around, what do you think she'd do?"

- "She would be mad."

"Yep. She would be very mad. Very, very mad. She would do anything to protect you, and if anyone tried to hurt you, she would go after them. So what do you think Grendel's mother did?"

- "Is Grendel and his mother bad?"

"I thought you knew the story?"

- "I do. But is Grendel and his mother bad?"

"Well, in this particular version of the story, then Grendel and his mother are the villains. So yes, they're…bad. But try to put yourself in Grendel's mother's shoes: if she was telling the story, who would be the villain?"

- "Beowulf?"

"Yep. I bet so. So it's kind of a matter of perspective. It matters who's telling the story. In this case, an anonymous eighth century poet is telling the story, as understood through Seamus Heaney, as reinterpreted and simplified by me. And in this version, Grendel and his mommy are the villains."

- "What did his mother do?"

"Of course you know that she started terrorizing King Hrothgar again and eating his men."

- "I know that Daddy,"
my son filled in confidently.

"Yep. So Beowulf took off after Grendel's mother and sneaked into her lair. Do you know what her lair was like?"

- "Yep."

"Right. Her lair was this really cool scary place under a lake and Beowulf sneaked in. And then Grendel's mother caught him. And ate him. The end."

- "That's not the end."

"Okay fine. Beowulf ended up, umm, vanquishing her as well, after a terrifying battle. There's something just a little sad about both Grendel and his mother dying, don't you think?"

- "Maybe. But they were bad."

"Yeah…I know they ate people and stuff. It just seems tragic that she was unable to avenge her son's death. But things worked out well for Beowulf. He ruled as king for another fifty years and killed a dragon and things like that. Oh, and had the greatest epic poem in Old English literature EVER written about him. Have you ever read Tolkien?"

They look at each other.
- "Yeah, I've read it,"
he says.

(This is a statement of dubious accuracy, considering we were working on learning short vowel syllables earlier in the week.)

She nods.
"Yeah, we've read it. So tell us THAT story now."

I sigh.
"Once upon a time, there was a shire…"
____

EPILOGUE.
Curiously enough, I told this story to my children today, but did not find out until a few minutes ago that Seamus Heaney passed away today at age 74. Heaney was one of the world's great contemporary poets, a Nobel winner, and translator of 1999's critically acclaimed Beowulf. Rest well, Mr. Heaney.

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