Epic theology

Uhlfbert sword

Today is my birthday. I got more than 100 birthday greetings on Facebook, which is gratifying. At the restaurant where I eat most Tuesday evenings, I got a free hot fudge sundae. Now, of course, I’m exhausted by all the excess.

How did I spend my weekend?

Following up my radio triumph on Saturday afternoon, I decided to go to Wisconsin on Sunday – in spite of the ever present threat of Packers fans.

The town of Glenwood City, about an hour and a half northeast of here, hosts a small Renaissance Festival, “Ren in the Glen,” a little ahead of the Official, Authorized Minnesota Renaissance Festival starting later this month. Glenwood City’s is a smaller operation which (according to the old hands) resembles what our festival used to be like at the beginning, before it became Disneyland North.

A Facebook friend who’s a member of Folkvangr, a Viking reenactment group, invited me to visit their encampment there. And, contrary to my basic nature – perhaps suffering the lingering disorienting effects of four days in Iowa – I decided that wasn’t a bad way to spend the final day of my vacation.

It was a nice time, and the Folkvangr folks seemed to suffer from the delusion that I possessed a measure of prestige. One subject we discussed is a common one among reenactors – “What are the best and worst Viking movies?” This gave me the opportunity to trot out my old lecture on the differences between two Beowulf movies that came out around the same time, an Icelandic one starring Gerard Butler (which I loathed), and the animated one written by Neil Gaiman and starring Roy Winstone. I’ve written about it on this blog before. My view is that the problem with the Gaiman script is that it tries to transform a Germanic saga into a Greek tragedy. Greek tragic heroes die because of their tragic flaws, as Beowulf does in this film. But Germanic heroes don’t have tragic flaws. They’re always exemplary. They die just because they’re doomed. The point of a saga is not a moral one, but an existential one – we’re all doomed to die; our only control is over the courage with which we face it.

It occurred to me, thinking about it later, that there are theological implications. For a long time Christians have enjoyed Greek tragedies, understanding the idea of the tragic hero as a kind of metaphor for original sin. We die because we deserve to die; we chose badly. Whatever our other virtues, we’ve earned death.

But it seems to me a similar argument can be made for the saga. The saga hero is simply doomed from birth; a kind of original sin. The Norns spin out the thread of his life and cut it off arbitrarily. The hero’s virtues are also not enough to save him – not because of his choices, but because he has inherited the general doom of mankind.

In other words, the Greek tragedy is sort of Arminian. The saga is arguably Calvinist.

Now where else can you go to get that kind of insight?

9 thoughts on “Epic theology”

  1. Great observation. And allow me to add: Both the Greek tragedies and the sagas echo realities. Some people die or suffer because of their flaws, and some because that is our fate in a fallen world.

  2. Very interesting – This echoes one of Doug Wilson’s essays on the “Northernness of Christianity”.

  3. Here ’tis:
    In his great essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien said this. “The high tone, the sense of dignity, alone is evidence in Beowulf of the presence of a mind lofty and thoughtful” (p. 13).
    A bit later, he says, “One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature . . . I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North” (Monster, p. 20-21).

    https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/lecture-notes/tolkien4.html

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