Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Dragon

The brave king,
gold-friend of the Geats,
sat down on the headland
and talked with his companions.
He was sad, restless,
and ready to die.
That fate was near
which the old man
would greet.
He would seek his reward,
life from body parted;
not for long
would the soul of the prince
stay wrapped in flesh.

- Beowulf

Beowulf is the most ancient story in a plausibly English language.  It is so old that it's actually in Old English - Anglo-Saxon, really - the still Germanic root of our current tongue.  It's the lay of a great king, and his deeds which lived long beyond his days.

Beowulf ensured his fame by defeating and killing the monster Grendel, who was preying on his people.  This he did as a young man, a King in his prime.  Great deeds are the province of a young man, who aims to make his mark in the world.

Less well known are Beowulf's final deeds as an old man.  A Dragon had descended on his realm, awoken from his sleep by the theft of a portion of his golden horde.  Yes, J. R. R. Tolkien stole this story, and used it in The Hobbit.  Tolkien was a scholar of Old English, so we can excuse this literary appropriation.

Beowulf took eleven companions with him, but insisted on fighting the Dragon alone.  He became the Dragon's Bane, killing the beast with his broken sword, Nægling, but at the cost of his own life, poisoned by the Dragon's bite.  His final words sum up what perhaps every man hopes to be his own final moments:

"For this treasure I give thanks to the Lord of All. Not in vain have I given my life, for it shall be of great good to my people in need. And now leave me, for on this earth longer I may not stay. Say to my warriors that they shall raise a mound upon the rocky point which jutteth seaward. High shall it stand as a memorial to my people. Let it soar upward so that they who steer their slender barks over the tossing waves shall call it Beowulf's mound."

But we can't all die of poison from a dragon, dead by our hands.  And we can't all die a quick death, ending our lives in a blaze of glory - especially a blaze that saves our loved ones.  For some, the end comes like a candle, consumed by a relentless flame that devours the body from within.

I have been blessed thrice in my relationship with my father.  Three, we are told, is a lucky number.

In the days of my youth, I was lucky enough to become friends with my father.  Many - perhaps most - don't.  In a dark, evil part of my life, I cut myself off from my father, my friend.  I was lucky enough to reconcile with him, getting past my foolish, foolish pride.  Many don't.   In the last year, I've been to visit him many times.  Each day is a gift, and these visits are something that I cherish.  Many don't get that chance.

This visit is a meditation, on life, and the living of it, and the leaving of it.  He does not find himself in Beowulf's enviable position of a quick end.  But I find myself lucky once again, as I watch him apply Seneca's dictum about the end that faces us all: There's nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it - the fear of it.

I find myself wondering how I would choose to go.  Would it be quick, hopefully heroically, like Beowulf?  Leaving his kingdom safer by his sacrifice?  Or would it be the slow but stoic way, with one last chance to pass on wisdom and comfort to my sons?  I know which takes more courage, and my heart trembles at the thought.

But I find myself lucky once again.  I see an example before me, one where the easy path is not chosen.  An example where the Candle willingly approaches the flame, for the sake of its sons.  Again, my heart trembles at the sight.

It's said that if we see far, it's because we stand on the shoulders of Giants.  I find myself lucky yet once again, perched high on the shoulders of my Father.
The brave in battle arose then,
bore his shield and mail,
trusting his strength
under the stone cliffs.
(This is not the coward's way).

This is not the coward's way.  My heart trembles when I think that one day, my time will also come.  I am thrice lucky, and thrice lucky again.  Three, we are told, is a lucky number.  I pray that on that day, my Father's example will once again inspire me, and that I will find that once again, I am a lucky man.


Jay G said...

Damn heating system here at work got something in my eye...

Simply excellent, BP.

My fondest wish is that someday TheBoy will write something similar.

Paladin said...

Best thing I've read all week, by a mile.

Teke said...

I agree.
A very heartfelt read.

PISSED said...

Thanks for making me take a time out to think of my parents and all that they have done. :)

BobG said...

I lost my dad to cancer five years ago; there isn't a day goes by I don't miss him.
My brother did a great job of showing his life as a slide show, if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

That a man could raise his son to think and write like this says a great deal about that man.


JB Miller, YBtGE said...

I was so very fortunate in my parents. Oddly, they always said that about me...