Defending the Light

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
–from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” — Dylan Thomas

It can seem today as though the light is dying. In truth, the light is returning, and has been doing so since the Winter Solstice. Though the days are in fact growing longer, sometimes having a longer day, given some of the events we have been forced to weather over the last couple of years, might not be seen by many as the positive thing one would think it would be. We are confronted by many forms of darkness. We have an ongoing global pandemic and all of its associated challenges. We have a growing reluctance to communicate with one another in a civil and respectful fashion. We have unprecedented weather events of all varieties which are leading to suffering and displacement. Where can we find the light in the darkness, and how, as Dylan Thomas above would have us do, can we rage against the dying of it?

As Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings tells us: “There is still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” We have to turn our backs on the forces that would stoke and feed off of our negative emotions in order to set us against one another or undermine what optimism we have. Those can be the louder voices out there, the ones that try to convince us that we can’t make a difference and we should just succumb to the hopelessness and be drawn into the vortex of negativity that takes so many different forms all around us each day. Our apathy, our disengagement because we believe ourselves inadequate to the task, is what emboldens those who wish to promote the vindictive and toxic aspects of today’s social atmosphere. We cannot afford such complacency. There is too much at stake. We have to, in appropriate ways, rage against the dying of the light.

I am reminded of the battle between Menelaus and Proteus in Book Four of The Odyssey. Shipwrecked and uncertain of how he can learn how he offended the gods and make amends, Menelaus is approached by Eidothea, a sea nymph, who tells him that Proteus, her father, is the one who can reveal to him the secret of how to get himself back into the good favor of the gods. To get him to reveal what he knows, Menelaus must do battle with the god and defeat him—only then will Proteus reveal his secrets. One would think that being confronted with such a daunting task—doing battle with an immortal and powerful being—would daunt Menelaus and cause him to despair of ever getting off the island. The opposite happens. Inspired by the possibility of escape, Menelaus agrees to engage Proteus in battle, with only two other soldiers to help him.

The battle is joined. Proteus, we discover, is a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into a number of terrifying creatures: a lion, a serpent, a panther, a wild boar, even a massive torrent of water. Menelaus and his companions battle to the last, and Proteus eventually succumbs to them and reveals what they must do to return home. How is this possible? How do three mortal men defeat an ageless god who is able to transform into such intimidating forms at will? They did it using the same weapon we must all today learn to adopt, and that is unswerving determination. Facing odds no human being would choose to face, Menelaus never shrinks from the battle and never loses heart. Even the strength of Proteus in all his guises is unable to withstand the unbreakable nature of human will.

This will, this indomitable spirit in the face of great odds, is not unique to ancient Greece. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his classic essay/lecture “The Monsters and the Critics” identifies what he refers to as the creed of “unyielding will” depicted in the literature of ancient Scandinavia, particularly in Beowulf. This will, Tolkien tells us, constitutes a fundamental theme present in Beowulf: “Its author, is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die” (qtd. in Heaney 119). The poet of Beowulf looked back to the world in which the poem is set and understood, along with the characters of that world, that defeat is unavoidable. Beowulf himself, greatest warrior of his age, meets his death in battle against the dragon, perhaps even knowing that such an outcome was ordained for him. The knowledge that glory and achievements will fade and not last, and that the world itself will eventually fall into darkness, is understood yet not accepted in characters from this tradition. They do not yield to it. They fight on in the face of the assurance of ultimate defeat, thoughts of surrendering never entering their minds despite the odds against victory and the surety of an ultimate descent into darkness. Nothing gold can stay, yet Beowulf rages against the dying of the light.

Ozymandias, the “King of Kings” from Percy Shelley’s classic poem of the same name, declares in an inscription on a stone pedestal, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelley). Yet those “works” have been brought low by the sands of time. It seems that the raging against the dying of the light has been going on for centuries. That alone should give us hope; if it has endured for this long, then we, as the light’s inheritors, can work to keep it alive during the time in which we find ourselves to be its custodians.

That “unyielding will,” that refusal to surrender that we see chronicled in the ancient literatures of the world, needs to find a new and modern expression of itself. We need to look to these old sources of inspiration and adopt a version of this mindset for our age; the world has faced times of darkness before. Perhaps we can’t defeat it. Perhaps fighting against it is futile because it will win in the end. I choose not to think this way, instead recalling the words of Aragorn, Son of Arathorn from Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Return of the King”:

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
This day we fight!!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
I bid you stand!” (American Rhetoric).

Let us not let today be the day when our strength fails, or when our own bonds of fellowship are broken. Let us show our own unyielding will, and rage, rage against the dying of the light for as long as we have the strength and means to do so. We don’t fight against the darkness because we know we will defeat it; we fight because it’s darkness, and there just isn’t any other choice. Find in yourself that unyielding will, in whatever way it manifests in yourself and take to the field to show the darkness that the light, for yet another generation, will continue to endure. Engage in important conversations, spread knowledge, donate to causes
you value, volunteer your skills and time…and never, never give up.

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Works Cited:
Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.
Shelley, Percy. Ozymandias. The Poetry Foundation. Accessed 14 January 2022.
American Rhetoric: Movie Speech—“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) Accessed 14 January 2022

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