I’m sitting in one of my favorite classes in college, Ancient Classics. We’re studying Beowulf — the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language — and it’s the part where Grendel, the bone-crunching, blood-sucking demon who’s been terrorizing King Hrothgar’s halls for years, meets for the first (and only) time his match. Beowulf the Magnificent has come from afar to rescue the Danes, only Grendel doesn’t know it. He storms into the hall in the middle of the night, gobbling men whole and drinking their blood as usual, when suddenly he comes upon Beowulf and is shocked to find someone who resists him. The man and monster grapple hand to hand, claw to claw (Beowulf refuses to use any weapons since Grendel uses none), and, with superhuman strength, Beowulf manages to rip off one of the monster’s arms at the socket. The wound is mortal, and Grendel flees to the moors while the Danes rejoice and Beowulf becomes hero of the land — and of all of history.
Sounds like a pretty cool story, right? Good guy wins, bad guy dies. It’s the perfect plot . . . Right? Or . . . Are we missing something?
Upon closer reading, we discover that there’s more to Grendel than we originally thought. First off, he’s a descendant of Cain. That’s a yucky heritage for anyone to have. Second, if we look back, we see that, in the early years while the Danes were building great halls filled with treasure, this “demon” was living alone in darkness. “The Monster Grendel [was] madly envious of the Danemen’s joy and bore it bitterly — that light-hearted laughter loud in the building greeted him daily.” Later, after he is injured, Grendel is “sick unto death,” and “unwinsome and woeful . . . he wist [knew] the end of his earthly existence was nearing, his life-days’ limits.”
Aww, poor Grendel . . . Knowing a little more of the story puts this “monster” in a new light, doesn’t it?
The best bad guys aren’t those that are pure evil. The best bad guys are the ones we feel a little bit sorry for, the ones we can relate to.
After declaring that I loved everyone a few posts ago, my friend Pat rightfully asked, “You love everyone? How can you love a rapist, a serial killer, a sadist, or any other number of really bad, nasty, or evil people?” A fair question to be sure. The world is full of people who do horrible things. How can I love them?
And the answer is this: I DON’T love them. I HATE what they do. But I DO feel for them — er, at least I try.
See, we’re all born into different circumstances. Yes, much of life is what we make it — and yada, yada, yada — but, truth be told, a lot of it is out of our control, too. Murderers, rapists, sadists, drug dealers, embezzlers — they’ve made some bad decisions, for sure. They’ve chosen wrong over right, and I’m not about to make excuses for them. (There’s a reason we are born with a conscience.) But . . . maybe? . . . Might I have done the same if I’d been in their shoes? . . . Maybe I can at least try to put myself in their shoes?
No, I do not love people who commit heinous crimes. Yes, their acts make me cry. But, even if they don’t deserve it, perhaps I can at least try to show them love? At least a little?
After all, for all I know, my one small act may be the only love they’ve ever known.
*Another perhaps even better story that demonstrates this — and the benefits one small act of love can bring — is that of Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo‘s “Les Misérables.” If you haven’t heard it, definitely look it up.
Illustrations by Charles Keeping at http://www.uncannyuk.com.