Wexstan's Son

This is from a friend of mine, a man who's probably the best writer I've ever shaken hands with. It's an off-the-cuff thing he shared with his friends and is allowing me to reproduce on condition that I keep him anonymous. This is a good'un:

I tell people from time to time that I am Wexstan's Son. I don't have any tattoos, but when I do, and soon, it will be that—"Wexstan's Son"—in beautiful script on my shoulder or over my heart.

It comes from the epic poem "Beowulf", which is the oldest written artifact in the English language, surviving in only one copy and damn near lost to mankind. It's the story of a hero. Starts out with Beowulf as a young man, heading off to assist a neighboring kingdom with a big problem: namely, a kinda-human monster named Grendel, who keeps busting up in their mead hall in the night and eating them.

Beowulf, a demigod with the might of thirty men in his handgrip, sails stormy seas. He lands on the shore in his longboat. He and his magnificent, battle-hardened cadre of warriors march to the great mead hall there, where they lay down and feign sleep. Long after midnight, Grendel busts in, and a great battle ensues, shaking the hall until it nearly falls. Beowulf eventually rips off Grendel's scaly claw, killing him and winning eternal fame and glory for besting the monster.

The end of "Beowulf", however, is a very different story. Beowulf by then is old. He's fat. He is not the man he once was. His reputation has helped him reign for fifty winters in peace. But now he's got his own big problem: A dragon has arisen from a cave and started burning the countryside, killing scores of Beowulf's people.

When I say a dragon, I mean it. Scandinavia is where our idea of sorta "Game of Thrones" dragons comes from. Tolkein, the guy who really saved the poem from obscurity as a scholar, got his image of Smaug from there too. So this one is a real monster: scaly, horns, flies, breathes fire, the works.

Nonetheless, Beowulf, who is old and fat, lets out the straps on his armor, then saddles up to go out to do battle with the dragon. Knowing his fame as a warrior is on the line, he tells his men that he will go out to face the monster alone. And so the king draws onto the field of combat, before the dragon's lair. Beowulf stands there, grey beard flowing in the wind, still majestic in his armor and with his ancient, ring-patterned sword. Then he shouts in his mighty voice for the dragon to come out, if he dares.

And out he comes, churning smoke like a locomotive, hide like iron, tail covered in deadly spikes, fangs dripping with venom, the bringer of nightmares and the handmaiden of chaos. The battle commences, and Beowulf is holding his own.

But as he brings his sword down on the monster's head, the ancient blade of the king shatters like glass and suddenly Beowulf is defenseless. The dragon turns, draws breath, and roasts him. Beowulf is down behind his shield, being burned alive, wrapped in swirling flame.

Seeing the king fall, his great and majestic cadre of warriors—men he had called friends, men who had sworn oaths in times of peace to stand by their king in good or bad—turn and haul ass, fleeing like cowards deep into a nearby stand of trees to huddle there in fear. All of them.

Except one...this one guy, who we as readers didn't even know existed until that exact moment because he was not famous or important enough to mention. This one nobody.

"His name was Wiglaf," the poet says in the Burton Raffel translation. "He was Wexstan's son, and a good soldier."

He's not a god. He's not even a demigod like Beowulf, with the might of thirty men in his handgrip. He has no majestic armor, inlaid with silver and gold. He has no title. He has no ring-patterned sword. He's just a dude who decides that he will not run, even if it means his death.

And so he draws his sword, squares up his shoulders, and rushes into the flames to save his friend and the man he swore oaths to protect. And thus, the dragon was slain.

I'm a tough nut, but that moment, when I read it, always gets me a little choked up. Because it is the poet saying that all of us, every one, even a nobody like me, has the capacity to slay dragons if only we can convince ourselves that any cost, even death, is preferable to living in fear.

And so, I am Wexstan's Son.

In the years to come, there may come a time when you see one of your sisters or brothers kneeling alone, wrapped in the swirling flames of racism, or homophobia, or religious persecution, or sexism. Then it will be up to you to decide, my friend: Which would I rather be? An unruffled coward or Wexstan's child? I know which I would rather be. And in that moment, it will not be me who fears the dragon. It should be the dragon who fears me.

If you will stand, my friend, I will stand with you. No matter what comes.