An Ill-Used Reliquary

“Now she felt like an archbishop would have felt had he been goaded into opening up his cathedral’s most precious reliquary to a team of scientists so that they could carbon date the finger bone of St. Andrew, only to have them come back to him with the hot news that the finger bone was only seven hundred years old, a time nowhere close to the time of St. Andrew, and that it was, moreover, the finger bone of a chimpanzee. It was the chimpanzee part that hurt”

Ecochondriacs, p. 4

The Monster and the Dragon

“The malevolence of Grendel is hot, like malice always is. The rage of the dragon is cold, like the gold it is acquiring or defending. The dragon hates, but it is nothing personal. Grendel hates, and everything about it is personal. With the dragon, killing is a means to an end. With Grendel, killing is the end itself. The dragon is a night-flying outsider. Grendel is a cannibal. So this society is surrounded—hot enmity within and cold enmity without”

Beowulf, p. 127

Beowulf’s Inner Child

“But to represent this epic poem as a portrayal of the internal subjective struggles of a narcissistic modern is as anachronistic and foolish as to start looking for Beowulf’s inner child. The poet is addressing a problem which this people as a people knew they had. A poem like this should not be used as a blank screen on which we project problems that we know we have. Maybe Hrothgar was actually worried about global warming or high cholesterol”

Beowulf, p. 123

Nobility at the End of Its Tether

“The paganism that is so evident throughout this poem is presented to us by a thoroughly Christian poet, and he does not show us this paganism in order to say, ‘See, pagans can be noble, too—even without Jesus!’ Rather, he is doing precisely the opposite—he is refusing to engage in a fight with a heathen straw man of his own devising. He acknowledges the high nobility that was there, but then he bluntly shows us that nobility at the point of profound despair . . . This is nobility at the end of its tether”

Beowulf, p. 114