Music’s a deeply personal thing: what you like, what you don’t like, what you love, what you can’t stand. When I was writing for Exposure Bucks at The Loftus Party, I took the #ScrewYouILikeIt hashtag Michael Loftus suggested in his podcast and ran with it, talking about my horrible taste in 80’s bands. The lukewarm response to the piece suggested that my Exposure check bounced.
Current events see me going back to the 1980’s musical well once more. Today I’m focusing on the band Marillion and its early years, when Derek Dick, AKA Fish, was the lead singer. My favorite Marillion song is Grendel from the 1988 album B’Sides Themselves. It’s an amazingly macabre song, grim and brooding and horribly violent, just like its principal character: the inhuman beast Grendel from the Old English poem Beowulf. If you haven’t read Beowulf before, I urge you to get a copy. In my college years I had to translate the first few pages myself for a class in Old English, which fulfilled a language requirement. It wasn’t as much fun as you’d think. So get a translated copy and read it.
The song Grendel focuses on Beowulf‘s chief antagonist: the man-eating monster Grendel. Its early stanzas describe not just Grendel’s monstrous acts, but the terror he inflicts on the helpless Danes:
Wooden figures, pagan gods, stare blindly cross the sea
Appeal for help from ocean fogs, for saviour born of dreams
They know their lives are forfeit now, priestly heads they bow in shame
They cannot face the trembling crowd that flinch in Grendel’s name
The Viking gods the Danes worship can’t stop Grendel, whose hunger is never sated. As King Hrothgar’s Danes cower in Heorot, their redoubt, the beast comes nightly to take another warrior. And another. And another. The song’s chorus reinforces the Danes’ helplessness:
Earth rim walker seeks his meals
Prepare the funeral pyres
The shaper’s songs no longer heal the fear
Within their eyes, their eyes
The shaper is a blind man, a poet and minstrel, who sings songs of heroism to bolster the courage of Hrothgar’s men. Grendel is himself both fascinated and enraged by the shaper, and near the end of the song, when things really pick up, Grendel speaks in his own voice:
So you thought that your bolts and your locks would keep me out
You should have known better after all this time
You’re gonna pay in blood for all your vicious slander
With your ugly pale skins and your putrid blue eyes
The song climaxes with Grendel’s furious cry, “Receive your punishment, expose your throats to my righteous claws and let the blood flow, and let the blood flow, flow, flow, flow.”
And the blood does flow. In the poem, the Geat (Swedish) hero Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm, killing him, and then tracks Grendel’s mother to her home beneath a lake and kills her, too.
As we learn more about the horrible events in Parkland, Florida, from the dreadful failures of law enforcement on all levels to the foolish and cowardly calls to disarm in the face of evil, we’re finding that America’s schools are more like Heorot than we imagined, helpless to defend against the bloodthirsty Grendels that would assail them. In Parkland, no Beowulf came to save the children; instead, law enforcement waited outside while the monster sated himself with seventeen lives.
That’s unacceptable. It also reinforces something many of us have known our whole lives: we each have to be our own rescuer. Our own Beowulf. Your default cannot, must not be set to helplessness. The next school shooter, the next Grendel is right now, at this very moment, planning an attack on innocent children. Banning bump stocks or “assault weapons” or all firearms will not stop him. What will stop him is the bravery of individuals who have taken the responsibility of their own personal safety into their own hands.
Unlike the Grendel of Beowulf, it doesn’t take a magic sword or a legendary hero to take down a school-shooting maniac. All it takes is a well-placed bullet. America’s public schools are a hundred thousand Heorots, proclaiming themselves gun-free zones while Grendel lurks at the threshold. Let’s act in our own defense.