As the year
wanes, I want to spare a thought for outsiders, for outcasts, for the forlorn.
I would speak a word or two and give a thought to goblins.
Of all the
goblins that ever haunted heath or hearth, the greatest, surely, was Grendel of
the epic tale Beowulf. He roamed the pages of an elegy of heroic times when real monsters
lurked on the margins of society. No diminutive hobgoblins out on those ancient moors. The moors and
marshes were the edges of the world then, the boundaries between this world and The Other, the places where people tried not to go, where spirits wandered
crying in the mists, where things went, or, were sent, to be forgotten: shadow
lands. Out there you'd have only the sharp sedge grasses, the frigid rocks, the
shades of the dead for fellows. Above the moors danced the cold and distant
stars, each one a reminder of warmth far removed, warmth you'd never know.
Grendel's domain. Beyond the village. Beyond the field. Beyond the grim ground
set aside for burial. Beyond the salt marshes. Out, out, out among the fens and
but not far enough from his lonesome home, was the high hall built by many
hands. Fire and fellowship, both golden like the hall itself, adorned it.
Heorot (which means "Hart", or "Stag") was the name of that
hall. Say its name: Hay-oh-rot. The spoken sound of its letters calls up that great golden
place from the dim memory, draws its beams and banners up from the boggy earth
of the past.
Think of how
it might have felt to walk across its threshold, to hear your name called with
joy from the revelers' rune-carved benches; then to drink deep of good mead
(won by gods from giants long ago), to eat your fill from the burnished boards,
to clap your hands warmly about the shoulders of your comrades and kin. Imagine
the heart-deep comfort of knowing you were home. In the center of the hall was
the great fire. Warm yourself by the flames and remember what the hearth
brings: heat, story, song, food, family, fellowship, (called comitatus long ago), all good things. Every
good thing. Civilization and safety were conjured out of the sun-bright embers
and if you stood in that circle of light among your kin, among your neighbors,
well, you knew what "society" meant.
bring your mind away from the torch-lit revel. Think of some poor someone
living away from that light, living far beyond its reach. Someone banished to
walk the night and wander the lonely places of the land.
Is it any
wonder Grendel stalked in from the moor to haunt that kingly hall and prey upon
its retainers? Who could live each night in the bright shadow of that place?
Imagine yourself such an outcast, but an outcast with senses sharp as knives:
every night, the wind brings you fragments of song. Every night, the smell of
meat, the roar of laughter, the thunder of mead horns brought roughly together
in toast and promise, in boast and bond. That was Grendel's curse: to live
within earshot of that glad company who partied each night in the mead hall.
Grendel's story is little more than an epic tale of monster slaying; a song of
a hero and the evil creatures who increased his reputation. But a goblin is
always something more than a mere monster. Goblins are reminders that something
has been lost. Tales about goblins ask us to look about and ask what, or who,
has been forgotten. Is it possible that after Heorot was built and the thanes
and good folk were gathered together that some people were left out of the
company? Is it possible that in the amassing of the wealth necessary to build
such a hall and feed such a company, some people were left poor and hungry? Is
it possible that in emphasizing the greatness of human deeds during the
evenings of revelry and song that tales of gods and spirits were set aside,
their offerings forgotten?
It is true that,
in the story of Beowulf, Grendel is depicted as a monster: bloodthirsty, violent, unrelenting.
But is it possible that the monstrous Grendel may have more in common with us
than we might like to think? We have all stood on the outside looking in, with
only the spilling moon for company. Imagine those times when the door to the
mead hall, or the party, was shut to you. Imagine the times when no one was
answering your calls. Imagine those nights when you had nowhere to go and
wanted so much only to be out in the company of others. Imagine being
social animals. No one wants to be alone on the margins. No one wants to hear
the music and merriment of a gathering when they have been left out. No one
wants to admit they have walked the lonely mist-paths hand in hand with the
goblins, out on the dark moor. Who would admit such a thing? Who would admit to being an outcast?
time of the year, when the Great Wheel turns towards its dark half, remember
the lost ones, remember the nameless. Remember the hungry. Remember the ghosts
that wait just beyond the light of living memory. Remember the goblins of the
world and, every now and then, welcome them in.