I don’t know how to write this post. It’s about the sound of a voice painted in my memories since Middle School. But if I don’t try to walk the talk now that I commit to every time I speak in the classroom, then I will be a hypocrite. So here’s a shot.
The reason it’s important to read Beowulf is because the monsters it describes exist. It’s pure arrogance of the intellect to believe that trolls and dragons aren’t real just because they aren’t visible like sharks or drowning. We don’t need to invent horrors in this world anymore if all we need monsters for is to tell us about physical threats of the animal kingdom or the natural world, or even that other people might hurt us. We tell stories about monsters because we are huddled in the middle of the darkness of our private minds. Stand in the doorway with your back to a dark basement, and without fail your imagination tells you that a Grendel is watching from the shadows. “Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift, the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,” explains the Beowulf poet. Of course that’s when monsters come. It is so unfathomably stupid that we have, as a culture, tamed the monster, made dragons cute and trolls into toys.
Just this morning I was teaching Beowulf to my students and telling them that an essential part of the hero’s journey is the encounter with death. It’s the encounter with the Abyss, the breaking point where the hero doesn’t just test whether he will shatter. He shatters. He breaks. He is unmade by gazing into the face that dwells inside his skin, like burying the one he loves on Valentine’s Day. And if he is going to become the hero, he needs to integrate the devastation of death into the strength of his arm and the beat of his heart and return to life, having killed the dishonest part of himself, bringing only the truth and leaving out all the rest. And then I open Facebook and see a news link explaining that Chester Bennington has committed suicide.
Grendel and his devouring mother are the kin of Cain, the murderous son of the parents of the whole human race. He’s a cannibal who eats his own. Cain killed his brother, Abel, because he chose to ignore his own failures and foster resentment instead. The descendants of Cain are caught in the flood, and cursed already, they become water monsters. The Grendelkin are just one species of many denizens of the underwater darkness. But see, that’s the thing – monsters are submerged humanity, denied honesty, not merely broken and tragic but having gorged on the delightful premise that they might spread that tragedy to others.
The most tragic question, the real gnawing monster crawling in our own skin, is whether existence can justify the burden of suffering. “I’ve given up. I’m sick of feeling. Is there nothing you can say?” When Chester sang those lyrics, he wasn’t trying to be edgy or melodramatic. He sang them with the power he did because he could feel the Grendels in his papercuts. A papercut is a small wound that insults as it stings, because it’s such a minute reminder of how painfully fragile we are. And no number of first world comforts can hide us from the fact that we aren’t safe alone in our rooms from the real question of whether life is actually meaningful. Some people who don’t have those comforts are grateful for what they do have, because they don’t have the illusion that Grendel isn’t lurking in the basement anymore.
Grendel attacked the mead-hall in Beowulf because the warriors there were listening to the music and song that celebrated creation and the glory of the God who made it, while he suffered from the grievous wound of a cursed loneliness. This is not naïve character creation, because monsters have a point: whether in mind or body, some people do have wounds of loneliness that will not heal. It is rational to resent unhealing wounds. It makes sense. Something inside you is, with disturbing legitimacy, pulling beneath the surface, something that consumes and confuses your self-control, when it actually feels like the walls are closing in, the ugly weight of despair and depression whispers: Be a monster. And that whisper becomes louder until it screams.
That is the Grendel crawling in our skin, and it is the one that we are all battling. We all are. Some people roll their eyes when suicide is linked to mental disorder, but what they are really doing is not denying the mental disorder. They’re afraid. And they should be. Because the fact that suicide can happen means that every single person they love is capable of the same brokenness. Something can go wrong, maybe in one bad day or maybe in a series of inward refusals to face the Abyss and an even worse series of refusals to leave it, and then they’ll be completely unable to help.
I was always mesmerized by the performance of Chester, the red-faced, full-bodied, lung-stretching howl of violent melody that he brought to each song. He did more than perform; he battled the song into existence, admitting the brutal fight was happening even as he fought it – told us, though “nobody’s listening,” that we need to listen to music and fight existential resentment too, because the face is right beneath our skin.
Sometimes heroes fall in the fight. But that they fell doesn’t make them Grendels. It makes them our fallen comrades, and we have to honor them properly: we have to fight all the harder against the crawling Grendel that tells us that we don’t matter, that we can’t overcome, that our feelings and our frustrations are pointless and aren’t worth hearing, that we are less than conquerors and that there’s nothing inside of us that is greater than the monstrous ingratitude and deep grief of Grendel.
We need to get a little further and try a little harder to not let ourselves or others be alone anymore. We have to listen to our own haunting wail that says it doesn’t even matter – we need to hear ourselves say it doesn’t matter so that we can actually know that it does. We have to stop hiding the Grendel in our papercuts. We have to keep killing the Grendels before they kill us.
I like to think that, for a while and most of the time, Chester had learned to become to become so numb to Grendel that he couldn’t even feel him there, and that he performed his song right in Grendel’s stupid, evil face, resisted him and made him flee. I don’t understand my own grief about the death of a celebrity I never met – some part of me feels silly about it even now. But that’s a Grendellish part, one that thinks humans can’t really connect over art. Of course they can. And Linkin Park has given us a tool, a sword to put some blood in the demon’s cuts – it acknowledges that the Grendel is crawling in our skin. And like cockroaches, those disgusting lies haunting our minds don’t like to be brought to light. Good. Let there be light on all the ugliness inside.
The least heroic thing about Beowulf is actually that he fought the monsters alone. The most heroic thing about Beowulf is that when Hrothgar gave him wisdom, he listened, and when Weahltheow gave him a cup, he drank from it, and when God gave him a sword in the darkness of the underwater cavern, he brought it to bear. Fighting suicide isn’t about being tougher or stronger, it’s about fighting the temptation to be strong alone. The dragon takes all of us eventually, but the greatest lie the dragon’s minion tells is that we have no allies in the fight. Kings and queens and all the heroes of the hall are everywhere, and the memories of those loved ones who die in Grendel’s deceptions can numb us to dragonfire long enough to make us able to sacrifice death to the pursuit of a meaningful life.
My prayers are with those who survive Chester, especially the Bennington and Linkin Park families. And my prayer is with you, if you feel the crawl in your skin, to not give up and not try to do it alone anymore. Whatever the face inside is telling you, your life matters. Even if you’re not with me, I’m with you.