Passage

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland,
for their hero’s passing his hearth-companions:
quoth that of all the kings of earth,
of men he was mildest and most beloved,
to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise.

Swa begnornodon Geata leode
hlafordes hryre, heorðgeneatas,
cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond monðwærust,
leodum liðost ond lofgeornost.

Beowulf ends with a bitter sweet taste. We’ve been through monsters; we’ve watched the Geats rise and sense that they will fall, change, suffer. There’s something about ends here, transitions, a sensibility about passage through time and space. We doubt our abilities and are anxious about having to face the world without the aide of the elves. It could be argued that we capture the proportions of time through story in this way and objectify the feel of transitions. Existentially, change itself “passes” because we mark it as a point. We don’t really experience extended periods of change. We celebrate moments, such as the death of a great leader, and then wake up to a new day and move into life as usual. Alternatively, we often measure periods of change by the moments that close them. A couple looks forward, for example, to the birth of their child.

There is a mental or cognitive topography to this mediation. One style of ethic may prioritize change, another may see to the clocking of moments in between as a way of managing or mediating well being. We can map the seasons as a way of measuring ourselves. Winter is a time of sleep or death or pause, Spring is an awakening, signaling the approach of a new Beowulf or Aragorn, who will rise and lead us to safety. Persistent anxiety disrupts the mental topography of the seasons. Constancy is ahistorical. “This never ends” means “this never began.”


3 responses to “Passage”

  1. susan says:

    Very interesting and complex; questions and answers opening more avenues of thinking. As an ending can bring grief or joy, so too a beginning. I suppose then it matters more on the perception of an event as a beginning or an end. Food for thought; thanks–it can always be taken personally as relative as I guess all close reading can be.

  2. Steve says:

    In Beowulf and the Arthurian stories I tend to emphasize the notion of cycles because, it seems to me, the power of the stories themselves depend a lot on the perception, articulation, and rituals of change.

    I wonder if we can read The Road in this light, where passage still happens and, at the end, there is the slight hint of hope.

  3. susan says:

    The cataclysmic event that begins the book is one point, the journey from where it begins for the man and the boy through an unchanging landscape to where it ends at a border–the coast, may be a passage of time and space. But I would think that the cycles are measured in the changes within the characters; the man weakens, the boy becomes stronger. The catalyst for the changes are not real events–although I suppose they could be called such–but meetings with other people or things people have left behind. After each interaction, things are learned, reactions are stored and adjustments are made. So yes, I’d agree that The Road could be seen in sequences totally aside from the present and backstory as timelines.