I know that many in your age have ceased to believe in the devil, but the evil of which I speak is a real thing. No, it is not real in the sense that goodness is real; evil, after all, is not a positive thing but a perversion and corruption of the good. Still, it has a force and a potency that can tear down and dissolve all that it touches.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Beowulf: On Evil

There are bad guys… and there are bad guys. There are those who become obsessed with greed or lust or ambition and who do wicked deeds in pursuit of them, but many such villains can be redeemed in the end, brought back to their senses and reintegrated into the human family. A core of humanity remains within them that can be accessed and recalled to life.

Not so the beasts that my Beowulf struggles against. The evil that Grendel embodies is of a different order and intensity. He is not so much a man as a demon in humanoid form, a descendant of that very Cain who was so consumed with envy and rage that he committed the heinous crime of fratricide.

Grendel does not just hate Hrothgar; he hates all of humanity. He brings darkness, destruction, and death with him wherever he goes. He is anti-life, anti-hope, and anti-joy. He destroys, but takes no pleasure in his destruction. He is not driven to be the richest or the wisest or the most powerful; he is driven only by a desire to foul, poison, and corrupt. His destruction of Hrothgar’s hall and men is wholly gratuitous. It wins him neither gold nor glory. It only allows him to spread the misery within him.

Satan in Hebrew means “accuser,” and, in that sense, Grendel is truly satanic. His face is set against all that makes human life good and true and beautiful. Like the fallen archangel, Grendel is a devourer—not for the sake of gain, but as an end in itself.

I know that many in your age have ceased to believe in the devil, but the evil of which I speak is a real thing. No, it is not real in the sense that goodness is real; evil, after all, is not a positive thing but a perversion and corruption of the good. Still, it has a force and a potency that can tear down and dissolve all that it touches.

Beware of this evil, for it lodges itself in individual hearts, in families, in communities, even in people groups. It brings with it a kind of decay, a rot that, as it spreads, leaves those in its path stunned, stricken, and helpless to resist. It brings despair and then feeds on that despair. It brings as well a nameless feeling of dread, a spiritual dis-ease that unsettles the nerves. It is that numinous fear that Beowulf feels when he leaps into the haunted mere to face the fearsome mother of Grendel.

Root out this evil before it settles in, before it bloodies the hallways of your home or your school or your business or your church. Defy it and stand firm, giving it no quarter or foothold. Chase it back into the nothingness whence it came.

#

But I am speaking now too much in the negative. The best way to root out this evil is to counter it with a strong vision of goodness. Only when set against such a vision will evil be fully revealed for the disintegrating, eviscerating force that it is.

For me that vision is most fully embodied in Heorot, the splendid Mead-Hall of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Heorot draws together all that is fairest and most robust in life: fellowship, generosity, laughter, courtliness, loyalty. Here is the core of that true, ennobled male friendship that holds back the darkness and radiates joy.

The men who drink together at Heorot are as brave as they are strong, but their manliness does not prevent them from feeling and loving deeply. They combine the purity of the monk with the courage of the warrior. They understand that civilization cannot long survive without oaths and vows and codes of honor.

Grendel understands full well that Heorot is his enemy on the deepest level. His devouring evil marks the complete opposite state of mind to the loyalty of Hrothgar’s men. In Grendel’s world, nothing is sacred, nothing transcends the base desire to lay waste to everything that is not the self.

That is why Grendel cannot approach the throne of Hrothgar. It is too sacrosanct for him to touch: what it means—Hrothgar’s obedience to God; the Danes’ loyalty to Hrothgar; the hierarchical order of society—has no meaning to Grendel, who knows only competition and narcissistic self-interest.

But Grendel’s narcissism is weak compared to that of the dragon who finally brings an end to the life and exploits of Beowulf. The dragon takes no joy whatever from the treasure he hoards; yet, he will kill anyone who steals so much as a goblet.

Yes, Beowulf and his men fight for prizes, but they are more often than not recklessly generous with their prizes, passing them out as gifts and taking great pleasure in the distribution. For the warriors, the acquisition of treasure is part of a glorious way of life that manifests itself in a spirit of giving and camaraderie.

Not so the dragon, who grasps and clings and will not let go.

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Oh, my friends of the twenty-first century, do not think that this letter is merely a historical document of a long-gone time that has nothing to do with you or your age. The evil of Grendel and the dragon is still alive in your day; it cannot simply be done away with through advances in science or technology or economics or education.

There are forces that would break the beauty and fellowship of Heorot. The envy of Grendel and the greed of the dragon have not evolved away, as some of your wise men surmise, but have lodged themselves all the more deeply.

Any force that would make everyone the same, that would eradicate differences fouls the glory of Heorot. Any force that would dissolve the sacredness of vows and covenants and deeply held moral convictions rends apart the foundation upon which Heorot is built. Any force that would ridicule the honor embodied by Hrothgar’s men, or reduce it to mere posturing, threatens the survival of Heorot.

Civilization is a tenuous thing that needs to be guarded carefully. Evil, in many cunning disguises, ever knocks at the door, ready to pull down what others have labored to build. Defy it and stand firm.

—A humble monk

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The featured image is “The Ash Lad and the Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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