My freshman year at Texas A&M, I arrived about a week before the start of classes with about six hundred other young students. My long-term goal was to be a lawyer, but my short term goal was to make it through freshman year in the famous A&M Corps of Cadets. I was in the Corps because I wanted to learn leadership, and I was an English major because I wanted to be a better writer. Before long, the two merged.
Writing can be taught in almost any subject. The best professors I sat under would return my papers overflowing with carefully explained, well defined corrections. My leadership classes assigned fiction books and had us watch movies like ‘Moneyball’, where I got the chance to not only read great books, but learn from them as well.
Meanwhile, my English classes seemed desperate to make themselves meaningless.
When we weren’t analyzing the minutia of a play about people with more money and time than they knew what to do with, we had to ‘deconstruct’ the ‘artificial constructs’ of good and evil, day and night, man and woman, to show that these distinctions were merely created by words. Professors taught us that every book must be examined apart from its author as a living text. We bring our own interpretations to these stories, I was told, and we cannot allow knowledge of the author to contaminate our experience.
However, early in my junior year I took a Chaucer class taught by Dr. Brett Mize. We read The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde and spent a lot of time unpacking what Chaucer was trying to say in each work. And there is a lot. Chaucer was a genius and, properly taught, his writings are hilarious, insightful, and instructive.
I enjoyed the class so much I signed up for whatever classes by Dr. Mize were available, along with others on King Arthur and Shakespeare. Classes on books like Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory claimed to offer some commentary on the world, to pass on wisdom the authors gained through their lives. Mallory and Chaucer were very similar, they saw aspects of their culture that they liked, some they did not, and wrote praise and warnings, respectively. They both believed that the evils they faced were correctable, if not defeatable, and believed that by writing about them, they could have an impact on their readers.
However, when Dr. Mize began our class on Beowulf, I was blown away. It functions a lot like the old cartoons, like Animaniacs, except with leadership and wisdom lessons instead of humor. There are lots of asides to the tune of ‘do this, so when you’re older you’ll have good friends’ directed at younger audiences, but there are also deep messages on wisdom that I don’t doubt the older men debated among themselves.
Take for instance the juxtaposition of Hrothgar and Beowulf throughout the poem. As Dr. Mize pointed out, both have early successes, both become king largely as a result of their martial prowess, both face terrifying monsters in their old age, and the death of both results in the swift destruction of the kingdom they preserved.
The difference lies in how each responds to the terrifying monster; Hrothgar realizes he can’t win, so he waits until a hero arrives to defeat the beast and then rules Hrothgar for several more years before his death. Beowulf, in contrast, goes out to fight the dragon, is abandoned by all but one of his men, and dies even as he slays the dragon. He thus frees his people from the curse of the dragon but dooms them to be destroyed by the enemies he has held at bay.
Dr. Mize presided over several heated discussions on what was the proper course. There are a lot of different things to consider, the fact that we don’t know of anyone of young Beowulf’s caliber who could have come to his aid, as he did to Hrothgar’s. Would the dragon have continued attacking or gone back to sleep after burning a village? Beowulf is clearly aging toward the end of the poem, how much longer could he have protected his people if even if he had survived the dragon?
Much like some of the discussion exercises I participated in for World View courses, the answer for this specific scenario is less important than the values being discussed. How much does pride or timidity play into our decisions? Do we think far enough ahead about the unintended consequences of our actions? How do we set ourselves up for success in the future by how we build relationships with others? All of these are as important today in our modern world as they were for the ancients.
Unlike today, with the myriad of theories and explanations about why literature is meaningless, or what the green light in Gastby means, the purpose and message of ancient tales was clear. Stories were told to exemplify proper behavior and to teach wisdom. Poems like Beowulf were the original YA fiction, told in halls and around fires to young men and women to teach them not only how they should act, but just as importantly, why. They allowed wisdom and experiences to be passed from generation to generation so that as the old men and women passed away, the lessons they had learned would not die with them but would be passed on, hopefully saving their children from their mistakes and providing some guidance for the difficult decisions of life.
That is the true purpose of not just all fiction, but especially YA fiction. Young people growing into adulthood are becoming aware of the complexities and challenges of the world from which they were sheltered when they were children. Fiction allows us to learn by experience, without the pain of actual experience. It allows us to interact with those older and wiser even if they lived centuries in the past.