One of those books was Maria Dahvana Headley’s wonderful new translation of Beowulf, and the other was Nicola Griffith’s Hild, historical fiction about the life of St. Hilda.
I have read other versions of Beowulf. Hild was a re-read for me. Looking at both of these stories in light of current political crises and my recent reading of Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain made me hyper aware that the concept of power held by the pathetic excuse for a U.S. president we’re stuck with until January 20, 2021, is similar to that of the kings (or, more accurately, warlords) in 6th Century Scandinavia and 7th Century Britain.
Headley’s Beowulf begins with the word “Bro,” putting a modern edge on the drunken boasting and over-valuing of physical strength and fighting inherent in the epic. That tone, coupled with the constant references to the warriors’ daddies and the repeated line “That was a good king” made me begin to reflect on those kings as warlords with a gang of toughs around them who started wars with others of their ilk.
Hild begins with the title character at the age of three, just after her father, a prince, has been murdered to secure someone else’s power. Over the course of the book she becomes the seer and advisor to her uncle, King Edwin, who is striving to rule a larger and larger part of Britain.
In Smail’s book, he speaks of the castellans, who took over castles and hired thugs to defend them in the 11th and 12th Centuries, tormenting the people around them. In Hild we see even the noble women (not to mention the ordinary folks and all those enslaved) doing much of the work to keep the society working ¾ working in the dairy; spinning, weaving, dyeing, and sewing so that people had clothes; healing the sick ¾ while the king and his warriors train for battle or sit around getting drunk.
Beowulf does not show us the common people who make the society work, but the tone of Headley’s translation made me think about them.
So many of our histories are about all the wars, but the true building of our societies is rooted in the work of those who were not out trying to take over a neighboring king.
Some of these king/warlords had vision and ideas or at least they listened to those among their advisors who had vision and ideas. They established ports for trade or encouraged enterprises. But they were all men whose word was law (until someone killed the king and took their job). The people in their realms were always at the mercy of their whims.
And that’s the kind of presidency we’ve had for the last four years. Those in opposition argue in vain for the sanctity of the rule of law. Trump thinks he’s a king and expects to be treated as one, and, all too often, he has been.
That he would never have survived in the time of Beowulf or Hild is irrelevant to him. Fighting for power is done with other tools in the modern world, though given the embarrassing performance by his surrogates in the courts of late coupled with the absurd tweets and phone calls, those are now failing him.
Still, I could not help but think of him and the other would-be dictators around the world while reading both these books. Such people think we’re still living in those primitive times.
That, ultimately, is what we’re fighting about in the United States right now. Are we going to be a real democracy, one that includes all the people in this country, one that gives us all a voice? Or are we going to be ruled by autocrats in the service of oligarchs?
I know what side I’m on.
As I frequently say, I’m not nostalgic for any periods of the past. Griffith’s Hild is a wonderful tale of a woman claiming her power in a world that was not built for her, but I don’t want to live in that world.
I want to live in a world where all of us have rights and privileges and can share in the bounty of our world. That world is possible.
I talk about some of the ways we can build that world in “We’re Not Dragons,” my first essay on the Edge of Chaos blog symposium.