The epigraph for my new novel, Island No. 6, is a line from an Our Lady Peace song that states, “We are all innocent.” The truth of that line applies to the situation in the story and in our world today where Nature has unloosed a novel virus “monster” on the population. Governments’ and individuals’ innocence in relation to the spread of the virus may be a different matter, but that is a debate for another arena. The majority of life’s monsters are, however, of our own creation and often of our own deserving, and that has long been my favorite lesson from the English epic Beowulf.
The epic is one of the most anthologized texts in English Literature textbooks. At its most basic, literal level, it is little more than an archetypal story of good conquering evil. The plot is simple: a heretofore underachieving youth suddenly finds his moral center and begins to live up to his promise and lineage. He achieves a heroic, larger-than-life status through deeds requiring extraordinary bravery and strength that become the stuff of legend. In Beowulf, when the monster Grendel begins terrorizing the Danes, Beowulf, according to the heroes’ code, enthusiastically accepts the challenge of ridding the Danish people of their monster, which he does with relative ease and no injury to himself. Thereby, the champion of the Good battles one of its many foes, achieves victory, and establishes Virtue as the proper model for imitation.
My preferred take on the narrative diverges from the commonly-emphasized theme of Good conquering Evil. In my instruction, I choose to focus on the lesson that “We only get the monster(s) we deserve.” According to the epic, the monster, Grendel, is just one in a long list of forms of punishment that God has unloosed on mankind as a punishment for his sins. It is explained that Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, was the catalyst for the race of monsters that haunt the Earth with Grendel being just one of many. The point being that it was man’s own doing that caused the death and destruction wreaked by Grendel. Mankind and the Danes merely get the monster they deserve.
I like to apply this notion to any number of situations in which I observe people complaining about the figurative monsters in their lives. A tendency of which I am no less guilty. We often do so without the slightest sense of responsibility or, sometimes, even awareness of our own role in those monsters’ creations or continuance: parents of their children, spouses of one another, teachers of their students, students of their bully, addicts of their addiction of choice, and citizens of their political leaders. The monsters are many. In most cases, however, there was a time when these monsters were not monsters at all; rather, they were actually cherished by those who they now terrorize. The point being that many of the monsters we fear and that wreak havoc in our lives were transformed into such by either our own actions or by our passive allowance.
The good news is that anything we create, we can also destroy. Even in the telling of horror stories, we never create a monster without also concocting its antidote, a means by which it can be defeated or even cherished once more. The vampire is destroyed by a stake through the heart or exposure to the sun. A werewolf is slain by silver-tipped weapons. The Wicked Witch of the West melts when doused with water. Unlike Beowulf, however, we are real and not larger-than-life. The overcoming of the monsters we have created and that terrorize us is difficult, and we rarely escape unscathed by our efforts. The first step is to stop playing the victim or blaming others for our monsters’ existence and recognize, like Dr. Frankenstein ultimately does with his creation, that because we created it we are the only ones who can slay it.