The Art of Bragging

In the age of mass-vanity projects like Facebook, the art of bragging has never been more rife. Social media risks making of us all self-obsessed narcissists, locked into an endless game of brinkmanship. Looking enviously at our friends’ latest updates, we are forever keeping up with the Jones. The consequence of leading such goldfish bowl lives is continual status anxiety. And yet, once bragging was a bardic art – and perhaps something can be salvaged from it for practical use, as we continue…

The Writer’s Quest

Part 3:

Ego the Giant and the Art of Bragging

The arriving band of warriors are challenged on the shore by Hrothgar’s thane. They bandy words in ritual exchange. The coast-guard accepts Beowulf at his word, and agrees to escort them to Heorot. He arranges for their ship to be guarded. Off to Hrothgar’s hall they set, the sight of which impresses the Geats. Here, they are challenged a second time, by the royal herald. When the King is convinced of their honourable intent they are allowed in. Hrothgar fondly remembers how in his youth he had taken service with King Hrethel of Geatland. He has heard of Beowulf, who now declares his intent – to banish the curse of Grendel from the hall once and for all, without arms or armour to boot. Beowulf boasts of his prowess, but at the welcoming feast is challenged a third time – by Unferth, the King’s advisor, who mocks the validity of his account of a swimming match against Breca. Beowulf soundly rebuffs this attack on his honour. He wins mead from the hand of Wealtheow the Queen. As the banquet ends and the company departs, Beowulf prepares for the intruder.

Reputation is everything in this Age of Heroes. As our hero Beowulf makes landfall on Danish shores he is confronted by no less than three threshold guardians: the watchman on the wall (who first challenges him on landing); Hrothgar’s herald (who makes him follow the etiquette of the court); and Unferth (who mocks him at the feast). At each of these junctures Beowulf steps up to the mark, as we must – no matter how fierce the guardians we encounter.

Remember, they are there to test our tenacity. That is their very purpose.

Although these ‘threshold guardians’ could manifest in a myriad of ways (they are the ‘Ten Thousand Things’ the Buddhists talk of – Maya – which we can be easily enamoured/distracted by). In the context of Beowulf if we wanted to get symbolic about things, we could say these three guardians are the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic, and the Envious Friend – each of these can sabotage us.

The most insidious is perhaps the first – the Inner Critic – the voice inside our head that tells us that

we’re not good enough, that it’s not worth it, that it’s all been done before. Some of these messages may actually be hand-me-downs from family, from school: a schoolteacher who ripped up your English essay in front of the class; the sneering sibling; the discouraging parent. We need to exorcise them. Prove them wrong. As with any of these guardian figures – see their challenge as a gauntlet thrown down before you. Pick it up, face them, defeat them.

The Outer Critic can be harder – it seems apparently objective. The bad review; the poor grade; the heckler; the low turnout; the lack of sales. Many artists make a point of not reading their reviews. Some feel, whatever their sales, gongs (or lack of them) they will do it anyway: create, because they must. Why should anyone deny you of your raison d’etre? The Outer Critics are like the mountain ranges, deserts, or wide oceans the hero must cross to achieve their goal. The tempests of fate, misfortune and the marketplace. Lash yourself to the mast, stop your ears with wax to ignore those maddening voices, and weather the storm. Do whatever you have to, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your dream is more important than their hot air. It is oh-so easy to criticise, so much harder to create. The cynic never achieved anything. Let them polish the chip on their shoulder while you get on with forging art (that being said, it has to be acknowledged that there is a place for criticism at later stages of the creative process – indeed it is essential; and an insightful review can provide a good introduction, and sometimes enhance one’s appreciation of the end product, placing it within a wider cultural context).

The final one, the Envious Friend, is the so-called buddy piqued by your tenacity, your achievement – the very fact you made it happen, or intend to – who sabotages you with a passing comment, a snide remark (their own shadow speaking). CS Lewis said to JRR Tolkien, upon hearing him read out an extract from The Lord of the Rings ‘not another fucking elf!’ There are those who, through their own insecurity, might want to shoot us down – although sometimes their ham-fisted asides might be healthy ballast, to stop us getting too inflated, we shouldn’t let them stop our creative flow. Rather than think – ‘that person’s success overshadows my own’; instead try ‘when a friend follows their star, it empowers me to do the same’. I like Julia Cameron’s dictum: ‘Success occurs in clusters and is born in generosity.’165

And yet, we need to be mindful of Ego the Giant. He can easily get out of hand. The way Beowulf is ‘bigged up’, first by the poet, then by the watchman, the herald, and then himself, it is no wonder it all seems to go to his head. He is depicted as some kind of super-hero, ‘with the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand.’ The sections dealing with Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark, at Heorot, are full of boasting. There is a cultural reason for this – the art of bragging (from the Norse god of poetry, Bragi) was an intrinsic part of the warrior culture of the times. A man was as good as his word. The verbal contract was sacrosanct. To go back on your word was to lose honour. And honour was everything. Also, ‘beautiful speech’ (that is, ornate speechifying) was as much a part of a man’s ornament as his torcs, armour and sword. Verbal bling to establish status. Finally, in battle, the hurling of insults and swaggering boastfulness was part of the ritual combat that acted as a kind of foreplay to the real thing – like fighting cocks brindling their feathers, raising their heads, puffing out their chests and making a lot of to-do before going in. This bardic posturing is simply the preening of wattles. In the poem, this takes on a formal quality when Beowulf states his intention to the hall, like a personal mission statement:

I shall either perform deeds fitting an earl

Or meet in this mead-hall the coming of death!166

Beowulf’s boast has the gravitas and finality of a vow about it. The clock of destiny has been set ticking, as the poet lugubriously reminds us: ‘Fate goes ever as fate must.’167

A writer can choose to do something similar – writing down their intention, and committing to it. Mature artists practise the art of containment, carefully incubating their project until it is ready to hatch. What one should avoid doing at all costs is telling an acquaintance (or passing stranger in a bar) about it. Whenever someone says: ‘I am going to write a novel’, the chances are they won’t even start it, let alone finish it. If they were serious, they would be doing it, not talking about it. And two other things: you can tempt fate by doing so (if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans); and you risk talking the life out of a project. Some ‘writers’ love talking about the book they are going to write and sharing the intricacies of the plot, the wonderfully quirky characters, the thrilling scenes – and you can hear the steam escaping from the boiler. It is all hot air and bluster – and their engine is left depleted. They are getting off on the idea of doing it, rather than the act of doing it. It can be buzz, when you feel fired up – but channel that into the actual writing. Write while the fire is in the head, and keep writing – you might find you manage to write half the first draft in one sitting, or even the whole thing (as Kerouac famously did with On the Road in a six-day amphetamine haze). This is when the ego can be your ally – it can give you the strength, the self-belief to keep going. You need to believe in yourself – if you don’t, who will?

The ego is a vehicle you can use to deliver your message; as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. Don’t let your ego become a boy-racer. Let it be the ‘Parker’ to your ‘Penelope’, and your FAB1 will cruise to its destination, not end up a burnt-out shell in a ditch.

Beowulf is challenged in the mead-hall by the malcontent Unferth – about a particularly swimming-match undertaken against a childhood friend, Breca, who apparently won. For Unferth:

His bold sea-voyaging, irked him sore;

He bore it ill that any man other

In all the earth should ever achieve

More fame under heaven than he himself.168

Rather than being derailed by this (which would have disastrous consequences for Heorot) the hero rises to the challenge – dispatching Unferth’s ungracious attacks on his reputation like so many monsters of the deep (‘To slay with the sword-edge nine of the nicors’ 169). Beowulf’s riposte casts himself in an even better light – he was delayed in completing the swimming-match because he was attacked by sea-monsters (‘The grisly sea-beasts again and again/Beset me sore.’ 170). He wrestled with them to the sea-bed and slaughtered them all, making the shipping lanes safe for all. Swimming for five days in a freezing sea, wielding a sword and wearing chain-mail, fighting sea monsters single-handedly … it all sounds rather far-fetched, and yet we are expected to swallow it. The inhabitants of Heorot clearly do, responding to the bragging match in good spirits – this is the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon rap battle. Beowulf’s boasts become outlandish:

Bloody from battle; five foes I bound

Of the giant kindred, and crushed their clan.

Hard-driven in danger and darkness of night

I slew the nicors that swam the sea…’ 171

It would appear that a warrior’s boastfulness is linked to his power – that strong words give a keener edge to his sword (akin to shamanic power; a medicine man singing his wares; a doctor in a mummers play stating his proficiency; a New Orleans Mardi Gras ‘Indian’ chief strutting his stuff):

In the shades of darkness we’ll spurn the sword.’ 172

What might appear to us as simply swagger and braggadocio is a way of preparing for the task ahead. Talking ourselves up (e.g. imagining ourselves as the writer we can be) might be a way of helping to make it happen – we enlarge our sense of self, and then step into that space. The opposite – being self-deprecating – can be self-defeating. Talking ourselves down can just be a cowardly ‘get out clause’, a petulant cop out (like saying: ‘I didn’t want to do it anyway’). Cynicism can be a mask for fear of our own failure. If we put everything ‘down’ (including ourselves) then nothing will be a disappointment. We don’t have to try. We have let ourselves off the hook.

Attempting the ‘impossible’ – creating a work of originality and stunning skill – takes courage and a certain barnstorming attitude. The odds are stacked against you. But everyone loves an underdog. We love to root for Samson. It looks like Goliath is going to give him a pounding. Prove them wrong!

Beowulf sees off his competition – wiping the floor with Unferth, the epitome of sour grapes. What the Geatish champion says is almost irrelevant – it is the way he says it, with such conviction. Nothing can shake him; a quality that the King appreciates. Hrothgar values: ‘the warrior’s steadfastness and his word’, and allows him to join the feast to ‘relish the triumph of heroes to your heart’s content.’ He has earned a taste of the hero’s portion – by stepping up to the mark (unlike the niggardly Unferth).

By not hiding his light under a bushel he wins the favour of the Lady of the Hall, Hrothgar’s comely wife – who, in the role of mead-giver, is a variant of the Goddess of Sovereignty figure:

Then the woman was pleased with the words he uttered,

The Geat-lord’s boast; the gold-decked queen

went in state to sit by her lord.’173

In her sun-like imagery she is worth more than gold itself – for Beowulf has won the Muse. By being in his power, (potently fulfilling his potential) he has attracted her. The awen has descended and the Goddess graces him with Her presence. For a deeper exploration of ‘Courting the Muses’ see The Dragon’s Hoard. But, for now, let us end this testosterone-driven section with a footnote to the god of bragging.

We get the word and notion of ‘bragging’ from the Norse god of poet, Bragi, who drunk of the skaldic mead stolen by Odin from a giant’s daughter – thus, the ‘gift of the gab’ is seen as a gift of the Gods. An important caveat – as Odin flew back to Valhalla, godly stomach bloated with the mead he had guzzled down, some of it ‘leaked’ out and fell to Earth… Those who received this divine micturation (Odin’s urine), instead of the good stuff direct from the source, have a tainted gift (politicians come to mind…). Their lips are lubricated by the bladder, not the vat (perhaps that is why the fool’s symbol is the ‘bladder-stick’ – to flag up their seemingly foolish talk and acknowledge their mandate for ‘taking the piss’). Yet Bragi’s gift is a double-edged sword. Bragging can easily become ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – as in the classic pub bore; a drunken tongue-lashing; a talk-show host; or Prime Minister’s question time: rival primates either side of a territory-bounding stream, banging their chests and raising a din. We need to follow Beowulf’s example – he decides to face his foe in single-combat, unarmed. When all the noisy revellers have gone to bed, he will be left to face his enemy alone. Stripped of the showy trappings of his personality – his ego – he is ready to confront the painful truth.

Ego the Giant and the Art of Bragging questings:

  1. List your best qualities.
  2. List your worst.
  3. Consider both lists. What would help you in your Writer’s Quest? What would hinder?
  4. What messages does your Inner Critic give you?
  5. What messages does your Outer Critic give you?
  6. What messages does your Envious Friend give you?
  7. What messages would you like to give to them? Write them out, read them out, shout them out!
  8. Create a caricature of yourself, exaggerating your qualities. If you can draw, do this on a balloon. Then pop it. Or make a piñata of yourself and take a baseball bat to it. Learn to laugh at yourself at regular intervals. You are fallible and sometimes foolish. That’s okay.
  9. Create a scrapbook or album of your achievements. Reflect on what you can do, have done, and will do. Write a series of affirmations reminding yourself of these.
  10. Find a ‘believing mirror’ – someone who wants to support you in your creative journey. Book your tired old ego in for a massage now and then.
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