Intro. [Recording date: February 16, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is February 16th, 2023, and my guest is cartoonist and author, Zach Weinersmith. He is the creator of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. This is his second appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in January 2018 talking about his book Soonish. Zach, welcome back to EconTalk.
Zach Weinersmith: It is very exciting to be here.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is a bit unusual. You have a book coming out called Bea Wolf, two words: first word, Bea, as in the short version of the name Beatrice; second word, Wolf as in the animal. Bea Wolf. I'm excited to say that, right now--it hasn't come out yet--but it is the number one release in children's Norse literature.
Zach Weinersmith: That's right.
Russ Roberts: No mean feat. Amazon describes it as, quote, "A modern middle-grade graphic novel retelling of Beowulf, featuring a gang of troublemaking kids who must defend their treehouse from a fun-hating adult who can instantly turn children into grown-ups." We're going to talk about Bea Wolf, your book, but we'll also talk about a lot of other things--poetry and life and whatever else comes up along the way.
So, let's start with the fact that this book is co-authored with an illustrator, even though you are an illustrator. Can you explain that?
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Well, I'm an American illustrator. Boulet a French illustrator, which puts him, like, an order of magnitude above us. That is changing by the way. But, there's a much deeper French literary tradition. I'm only half joking here. The French have a much deeper comics-as-a-storytelling respectable medium, and Boulet is basically top of that, in my opinion. And so, like, for a book like this, I could have done it myself, but I could easily point to places where he, I mean other than his much higher technical competence, there are a lot of subtle things he does that I would not have done.
I give an example, actually. There's a part early in the book, maybe we'll read later, about a boy who turns into a teenager--and this is portrayed as a sort of terrible thing that's happened to him. And, I think if I had done it, I could have illustrated it, but I would've made the teenager kind of gross and teenagery. Boulet drew him sort of handsome, and like it's not so bad that he's a teenager. It's very gentle; and I just love that. I would've done it like a stupid, bumbling way. And, he did it in this gentle, very French way. And so, it's been magical to work with him on this.
Russ Roberts: So, the illustrations are spectacular, and we can't show that in the audio version of this. But they are great, and you can get online and look at--and we'll link to the book, of course, and people can look at what the style is.
But the other question, of course, is: why would you write this book. Beowulf is an obscure, 1500-year-old poem written in--I don't even know what it is written in. It's been translated many times. It's somewhat Homeric in the sense that I think it was orally delivered during its beginnings and in probably many different versions. And, you're riffing on this totally inaccessible poem--at least in its original version--and turning it into a children's book. What were you thinking?
Zach Weinersmith: Well, so I'm an Old English literature major, so it is part of my working knowledge as a certain type of nerd.
But I--you know, Beowulf has a reputation such that people who read it get entranced by it. And, it does have these magical qualities in part because we know very little about it. For something like the Aeneid, we have something like eight or nine, like, book versions of it--manuscripts. For Beowulf, there's one; and it was almost lost in a fire. And so, we just have this one document. We don't know hardly anything about it. The scribes who wrote down the copy we have don't seem to necessarily have cared about it this much. And yet, it's one of the lasting poems in English.
Nobody wants to read Spencer's The Faerie Queene anymore. People find Milton very difficult. But, people will still pick up, like, the Seamus Heaney edition of Beowulf and read the first 30%--which is all monster fights--and kind of mumble through the middle part. But, there is something very compelling about it.
In terms of why I started writing it myself, I actually have a very particular story, which is I had this idea of doing a joke version where the joke is that it's kids, but they're getting turned into adults--which is obviously worse than death. And that just seemed funny to me.
But, it turned out to be rich because it adds this element of transition. And, the original Beowulf, I think, very clearly is a story about mortality. It's billed as a story about monster fighting, but it's really a story about the sort of impermanence of life and all that stuff.
I used to drive my daughter to preschool and we had a 20-minute drive in the morning. And, my daughter is very smart, but just will not pay attention to me--still doesn't pay attention to me. And, I swear she would ask me a question, she would be gone--before the question escaped her mouth, she would be somewhere else as I was talking.
But, for some reason, I started telling her this kid's version of Beowulf, and she was just utterly enthralled. She wanted to know what happened next. You could see her clenching her fists at different moments, like, appropriately. And weirdest of all--originally, I was just doing a sort of, like, okay version. And then, I started dipping into poetic techniques from the original, these little thins called kennings and alliterative verse with breaks between lines and stuff. And, she just seemed to it more. And, it was like the more I poured on the fifth-century quality, the more engaged she got. And, there were whole scenes I was going to cut out, but I did a version for her and she was so utterly braced by it that I felt I had to keep them.
And so, it just kept going. And then, eventually, I had a poem I thought was unpublishable. And, through a genuine series of coincidences, we managed to land it somewhere. And, I could go into that. That's probably too inside-baseball for people.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to the line--I don't mean to alarm you, Zach--but you said she's really smart, but she doesn't pay attention to you. The word 'but' could be replaced by 'therefore.' You have to be careful. Certainly, for children, that's not uncommon.
Russ Roberts: But, coming back to the book--Beowulf the original--is the story of a king who needs a savior because there's monsters that come out of the lake and dismember his men, his warriors. And so, Beowulf is this warrior king hires to kill Grendel.
SPOILER ALERT, by the way. If you want to skip the next 30 seconds because you want to read it, find out yourself what happens.
But, Grendel is this monstrous thing that comes out of the water and it turns out that that's the least of Beowulf's problems. His real problem is Beowulf's--excuse me--is Grendel's mother.
And, I have to just say--we're not going to go into this in detail, but I want to mention it--David Whyte, W-H-Y-T-E, wrote a wonderful book a while back called The Heart Aroused. And, The Heart Aroused is an attempt--very ambitious--it's an attempt to use poetry to deal with corporate life. A bit of--unimaginable, really. But, it's a wonderful book and he has a chapter on Beowulf. And, he argues that what Beowulf can help you see is that lurking below the surface of the lake are your real demons. They're hidden, they're in the darkness.
And, not only do they come to get you, but there's a mother of those demons, the thing that spawned them. And that is even scarier. Now I know your book doesn't deal with the mom, it just sticks with Grendel, at least for this edition.
Russ Roberts: I'm sure there'll be a sequel. But, you want to comment on that at all, or is that too weird?
Zach Weinersmith: No, that's interesting. No, no, no. Like I said, we don't know anything about Beowulf. The strong suspicion, as you said, is it's an oral poem and then it gets written down. But, what people often don't know, it gets written down finally in the 11th century, and then it's just in the attic of English literature. And, for many years, it was not considered good. It was considered this kind of weird thing, like, fit for finding references and philology and this thing. And, it's generally considered that J.R.R. Tolkien and another guy named Kerr [?W.P. Kerr?--Econlib Ed.] kind of said, 'No, no: This is really, really good.' And, they had their own interpretations of it.
And, what's interesting is it makes a great substrate for these sorts of interpretations, because we have no idea what--like, there are whole parts and it's not clear why they're there. There's a sort of mystery quality to it. And so, that is an interesting interpretation to me. It's not mine.
I would say, one of the most interesting things I've read about Beowulf, is there's a modern perspective that is, like: Maybe this is just not meant to be metaphorical. Maybe this is just like UTU [?utu? maybe meaning reward or retribution?--Econlib Ed.]--the fact that someone dies as a modern person as a universalized metaphor. But in fact, the people who have listened to it would've just been, like, 'Oh, it's sad that he died'--this real guy in this story.
So, for me, I take the same interpretation as Tolkien had, which is it's the story about--he referred to it as heroic, elegiac, meaning it is a story about dying and a kind of particular, you might say Northern or, that would've been his perspective on it.
It's interesting to think this idea of Grendel and his mother as sort of metaphor for lurking psychology. I guess the main reason I'm hesitant--and I don't want to get on too much of a tangent here--but we know there's a whole class of Norse stories in which there's just a second monster. It's like a standard storytelling technique.
And so, you can get--you have to be a little careful. You can press whatever metaphor you want onto it because it's your choice: it's how you feel about this poem. But there is a kind of anthropological aspect to it.
Russ Roberts: No, it is kind of cool, though. It's certainly a standard modern trope that you kill the thing you think you need to kill and then, oh, my gosh, there's this giant thing looming behind it. The fact that it's a mom is really unusual and I like that interpretation--David Whyte, and he does a lot more with it that goes on for pages, and very thoughtfully. I recommend that book, generally. It's a lovely book.
Russ Roberts: But, let's go back to what you mentioned quickly in passing. You said there's certain stylistic aspects of Beowulf--there's alliteration. There are what are called kennings, and you're going to tell me what that is in a second. And then, there's sort of the spacing.
Talk about what kennings are, and then read us an excerpt, the opening of your poem, your book.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. One of the things these old poems do--and there's several traditions that do it--is they use these little phrases that are almost like riddles. And they get used repeatedly so you know what they are. For example, a classic one is 'battle sweat'. And, if you're a person from this time period and you hear 'battle sweat', you know they're talking about blood. That's what they're saying. Or if you hear 'battle adder'--there's another one: adder, like a snake--which means an arrow. I believe that's right.
And so, one of the games they would play that makes the story very compelling, and I think it still really works as a reader, is you come up with these little phrases that allude to something else.
Another classic one is, I think 'seawood' means boat. 'Whale-road' is one of the often-used ones. It means the sea. It just adds a lot of richness to the text.
And, it's especially handy--I know this now--if you're trying to make alliterative lines: that is to say, lines that usually have at least two or three words that are important that start with the same letter in a short line, it is very hard to do that.
But, if you can, instead of--in my book, I have an original kenning which refers to a river as a 'sliding-sea,' and I needed that 's' sound. That's the only reason it's called that. I think it sounds nice. Yeah, it's one of my favorite just because it also sounds like a kid thing. You can imagine a Viking saying it, but you can also imagine a kid saying it.
Russ Roberts: And, these kennings, these phrases which modern poets, of course, use as well, they're typically hyphenated, at least in your book. I don't know if they're hyphenated in the original.
Zach Weinersmith: I'm not an expert in Old English. I know in translation, that's usually what's done. I don't know if a guy in the 7th century would've done that.
Russ Roberts: Okay, so let's hear the opening of Bea Wolf.
Zach Weinersmith: All right, let's do it.
Listen to the lives of the long-ago kids, the world-fighters,
The parent-uminding kids, the improper, the politeness-proof,
The unbowed bully-crushers, the bedtime-breakers, the raspberry-blowers,
Fighters of fun-killers, fearing nothing, fated for fame.
There was Tanya, treat-taker, terror of Halloween,
Her costume-cache vast, sieging kin and neighbor,
Draining full candy-bins, fearing not the fate of her teeth.
Ten thousand treats she took. That was a fine Tuesday.
And Shawn, peace-shatterer, shrieked he'd never depart the park.
His shame-blasted parents bargained: ice cream for silence.
But there lay no bargains between lion and lamb.
Forty sunsets they stayed, sleepless and sorrowing.
And Sonya, foam-slinger, shot so many skyward darts,
The summer blaze was blotted out, licorice-black,
And beneath that sun-starved night, no certainty reigned,
Save this: that Sonya would never assist the dart cleanup.
Russ Roberts: That's awesome. You sustain that--I'll call it bardic, that over-the-top style through the whole book. Am I right?
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. And, I've had a number of people who I showed the first chapter to tell me they were terrified to read the rest. Like, it would get boring. And they were surprised that they kept enjoying it. So, that was very reassuring.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about poetry generally. Poetry is a bit out of fashion these days. I think you're one of a handful of poets to appear on EconTalk. I'm a huge poetry fan, especially for children: spent a lot of time reading poems--literally poems, but also rhyming books, Dr. Seuss being an obvious example, but also one of my favorite books, I'll just mention here, for children, Seven Silly Eaters, magnificent book. And, poetry has a musical quality to it. It seems almost designed, when it's rhyming or rhythmic, to worm its way into our brains in a way that prose does not. Tell me what you think about that, both for children and for adults. What are your thoughts on that?
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Poetry has gone through a similar process that comics have actually, where, at least in our culture--that is to say, like, Anglophone culture generally--it is considered either a kind of derelict art form for academics, or it is for children. And, I think that's unfortunate.
It's funny. What's strange to me--and I can speculate about this but I don't know why--is if you go back and you read a book from, as late as like the 1940s or 1950s, a regular person will pop in some lines of verse just to be, like, 'Oh, I was reading this recently.'
One thing I think about, there's an almost forgotten author who I quite a bit, named Lilias Haggard. And, she was a woman who just wrote sort of, like, country writing. And, she would slip in little bits of verse.
But that's not the fascinating part. I remember--I think I can recite it from memory--there's a bit of poetry she put in a book and it was addressed to, I think she said it was addressed to a hawk and it was,
Oh, have you quite forgot
those flights out[?] resting thought
before this homely lot[?] half-tamed your opinions.
The flowers and the stars
were once your only bars
and where the north wind soars[?] were your dominions.
And, the fascinating thing--I mean wonderful--but also, she just put it in: I remember her saying something like, 'I heard this recently.' And it's like unimaginable culturally, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Zach Weinersmith: People don't do this anymore. We don't write letters where we'd say, 'By the way, I came across this,' or 'By the way, here's a little poem I wrote for you.' But, for her, it was just normal. It wasn't a flourish or anything like that. It was just a thing she would do.
And, what was fascinating, too, is she didn't know where it came from. I was able, with the modern Internet, to find it. I actually bought the book by the guy; and all the other poems were terrible. She somehow got the good poem.
And, the other funny part is actually addressed to a goose, which kind of ruins the whole thing.
But, you can see it was engaged in this kind of process of sharing stuff. This used to be part of our culture. And somehow it got murdered; and I don't know why. And, I think it's unfortunate. It's not just like a genre went away: it's not like country music went away. It's like music went away. It's a whole type of art that no one engages with.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's a bit of a mystery. Obviously--we'll get to this later--poetry often, not always, but often requires work. And, work is a bit of out of--it's a bit out of fashion. I love the poems that I have at my fingertips. I wish I had more. We've talked a little bit about this before on the program. But, last night, I was at dinner and I had an urge to quote "Ulysses," by Tennyson. And, I know--I don't know--I probably know 20 lines of "Ulysses" by heart. I once knew the whole thing. I recited in eighth grade--thank you, Miss Keneen, which I've mentioned before. But, it's lovely to have it at your fingertips. I looked it up and I read it off my phone, the piece I wanted that was not at my fingertips--but just the thing I love.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. I'm curious to ask: I know you are now at a university whose goal is to have people actually read the books people talk about. And, it's an interesting idea. I don't know--it may never have been tried. But I'm interested in: Do you force them to memorize? Because that's another thing you're not supposed to do that I think is extremely valuable. I think Harold Bloom said somewhere, 'You basically cannot understand a poem you haven't memorized.' I think that's a little much, but I would at least say there's--you will never get deep understanding.
And, part of that is because, in order to memorize, you have to make sense of it. Like, because it's very hard to remember something that's just gibberish. It would be very hard to remember a 100 lines of nonsense. But, like, 100 lines of the Iliad is quite doable.
Russ Roberts: As far as I know--I can't speak for every faculty member--we teach The Iliad and The Odyssey here, and I don't know whether people memorize any bits of it or chunks of it. But here's what your observation reminds me of: An actor who memorizes, say, Shakespeare for a role has to understand it to be able to speak it. And, as you say, otherwise, it's just gibberish, especially in that weird Shakespearean sort-of English, but not the English we speak exactly, but somewhat related. And, to memorize it and to be able to deliver it must give an actor--a serious, Shakespearean actor--a tremendous insight into the meaning. Or should.
Zach Weinersmith: I think so. Yeah, it should. I feel that way. Like you, I've far too few verses committed to memory. But I do have some. And, I do feel like, when you read it, it's fine. When you commit it to memory, it's like putting a little room in your personality.
The other thing--like, non-trivially, by the way--I imagine a lot of people being hesitant about this thing, but, like, it's very easy to memorize a lot of verses. You'll surprise yourself. If you start trying to memorize something and just add a line a day, you would think would top out somewhere. And, it just becomes very natural. It's part of your working knowledge.
And, the other thing--and this is getting dangerously close to talking about ROI [Return on Investment] for poetry, which I don't want to say--but like, for instance, you're on a walk by yourself and you're not sure what to do with yourself. And, you can sum it up, this whole story and you can do it and there's something very engaging about it. Like, you don't feel bored. It feels almost like it's part of the human brain that's supposed to be there.
If you were a farmer in a field a few 100 years ago, you would have probably had a large collection of ballads in your head--well, most of which would have just been stories. You just had these: it's like a quality-of-life thing. It makes your life better that you can do this for yourself.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think that[?] song does that for most modern readers--excuse me--modern humans. But, there's something--I mean poetry, part of it is, what I'm trying to say here about parenting, I think, is interesting. If I play you, my child, the music, the soundtrack of my life--so, for my children, I would be playing them Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, some Madama Butterfly, some Frank Sinatra a little bit later--did not Sinatra when I was young, but loved him and still like him quite a bit: They don't like any of that. I don't know whether I'm a big exception or not, or an exception. But, I think often, children--teenagers--want their own soundtrack, and their lives are different and their soundtrack is different. Their friends are listening to free music.
There are kids who have old souls: They want to listen to Sinatra. But generally, they want their own music.
And so, the music that my kids got immersed in--that was mine--tended to be musicals that spoke to them--Wicked, Hamilton, and [?] Les Mis--those that would be our big three. And then, a little bit of Barenaked Ladies, and some other fun songs that we loved.
But poetry is totally different. So, poetry, they have as part of their soundtrack. It's just not with the melody. It's their own melody.
So, all I'm trying to say in a long roundabout way is that I think it's nice to give your kids poetry because they're more likely to take it with them than they're likely to take your favorite music of your teenage years, say. Whereas the poems that you loved as a child, because your parents read them to you, they may love them just because you read those poems to them.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. That's interesting.
I wonder why that is, though. Why should music be so temporal and poetry as this--I mean, I guess because they can apply their own way to sound it as part of that. But that's an interesting point.
Russ Roberts: No, I think the reason--actually, I don't think it's so different. I think most of the poems--my dad loved Keats. I have a lot of trouble reading Keats. I can read him a little. And, I like to read him, to remind me of my dad. But, the poems I love that my dad read to me or told me about were more Kipling, which are rhythmic, rhyming poems. Or Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott, what are sometimes called story poems. And, those tend to stay around, unlike I think the music part.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Kipling is a very good example, I think. So, my understanding is he would literally listen to folk music in his head and sort of tap on his table as he wrote. And you can--I don't recommend it because it's not for everyone. This guy named Peter Bellamy, who actually tried to reconstruct what he might have been listening to and sing it with it. It's not beautiful music. It's very English, very screaming, bleeding, shouting ballads. But, you could almost feel like you're in a--like, you're really there dying of cholera, too. Yeah. That's interesting. Yeah. Kipling is an interesting one to me because he's obviously, being an arch-colonialist, is very much on the outs now. But you just--he's so unreasonably good.
And, just the sound of words--I mean, the only Kipling people know is If, which I considered to be fairly mediocre Kipling. Like, it's Kipling doing life advice, like, 'Be your best self'-type of stuff. Which is fine because it's Kipling: He's the best at it.
But, there's so much more depth there, it's almost astonishing. And, yeah, Kipling is one--I have memorized a bit of--he's, he's--no, not in this one. I was planning to steal a line from him if I get to do a sequel. There's a poem he wrote called "Gentleman-Rankers." Which is just--so, one of the very best poems ever written, to my mind. And there's a part that--I'll probably get this slightly wrong, but it goes something like:
If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And, all we hold most distant and most dear
Should cross the snoring barrack room and return to wake our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
And, here's the really good part:
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters,
and the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Can you blame us if we drug ourselves from pain?
And so, I love that.
I want to be clear. It's: 'Every secret, self-revealing'--that's: self, hyphen, revealing--Every secret is revealing itself.
So, the theme is there's this guy, is a gentleman ranker, meaning he should have been in a higher social status in this weird 19th century British system. And, for whatever reason--either his parents were broke or there was some fall from grace--he's now with the regular men. And this is an impossible position to be in, in this culture. It's hard to relate to and specific now, but I think it's very easy to relate to in general that feeling of, like, being not in the place you thought you would be.
And, that scene of him looking at the ceiling--"every secret, self-revealing,"--it's, like--like, only Kipling. It rhymes and alliterates. You could see all of his shame is just dancing above his head. And so, I was trying to steal that line, 'every secret, self-revealing,' but I don't know where to put it. I just wanted--
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the original Beowulf, the 1500-year-old poem. Is it worth reading?
Zach Weinersmith: Oh, yes.
Russ Roberts: I mean, Bea Wolf is worth reading. That, we've established.
Zach Weinersmith: Good[?], Bea Wolf.
Yeah, let me talk about that. So, what is Beowulf? Beowulf, like you said, is an oral poem, we think. It has elements--we think that because it has elements that are oral poem-ish, but we don't know.
But, it seems plausible that, because there was this story that, probably had its origins in a lot of different traditions, somewhere in medieval Northern Europe.
And in the 11th century--the version we have gets written down, probably copied from a copy of a copy--but, anyway, it's a story--it is usually presented as a kind of monster fight in three acts. Which I think is basically wrong. It's how you will mentally condense it if you read it, is: There's this--Hrothgar, the King, builds a great hall. Then this monster from hell, Grendel, comes and trashes it and eats a bunch of his friends. And, this is very sad.
And, they don't know what to do. And, for 12 years, everything is sad. And then, this guy Beowulf comes over the sea and he's just stronger than any man and he rips the monster's arm off to kill it. And then, his mother comes and gets the arm back, and I think eats somebody while she's there. And then, so, Beowulf has to go fight that monster alone.
[SPOILER ALERT!] And then, the next part that people remember is usually later: Then you flash forward. Beowulf is, like, seventy years old, about, and he has to fight a dragon. And it's his last fight.
There's actually a huge middle part that to most people is fairly baffling. Beowulf is just rife with what are called digressions, but that's controversial. There's a guy named Kevin Kiernan, who is one of the top scholars on this. And, he said, 'You shouldn't think of them as digressions: they're just stories inside the story. But, if you think of them as digressions, the whole thing doesn't work, because they're a huge part of the percent of this story.' But, let me not get off on a tangent.
The thing I want to focus on that makes this story really fascinating is, it's as if you were watching, like, I don't know, Die Hard or Rambo or something.
It's a straightforward monster story--beautifully told, but basically a fight story about a guy who could beat up monsters. And then, all of a sudden, he is old; and he's still strong, but he's not what he used to be. And, there's a last fight he has to perform. And, the very best scene in it that people, you don't remember because they just want to think about these monster fights, is this part where Beowulf, the old king, goes out with 11 men and they're supposed to stand by him because he has done all the right things: he's given them treasure and he's stood by them and he's told stories with them--they're friends. They all check out. They're all too afraid, and they leave him.
Except for one guy, named Wiglaf. You don't get the sense that he's a particularly tough guy, but he has a sense of honor. To my mind, the best part in the whole book is Wiglaf saying basically, 'How dare you wear the armor he gave you as you walk away from this fight he's going to die in?' And, they go away.
So, like I said, you could take an anthropological view and just say, 'Look, this is just a thing that happened and it's a very human-like story.' If you want to get into metaphor, for me, if you've ever done something hard, you've had that feeling of, 'I thought we all believed the same thing together.' And, it turns out everybody else was faking.
If you ever tried to make an art project, you might find yourself surrounded by people who profess their love of art. But, when the chance to make an extra dollar comes, they're not standing beside you anymore.
And, I love that scene very dearly, and I'm hoping to make a sequel just to have a kid yell that at some other kid: 'How dare you leave when it got most difficult?'
And so, that's what takes it from just a meathead monster story to really beautiful story. And, ultimately, Beowulf is killed. It's another spoiler alert.
He's killed and you don't get the sense that it's going to be okay. What's so wonderful about the story, almost the last line before the last stanza, Beowulf is set on a pyre and it burns and they're surrounded by enemies who know that their champion is dead. The line--it's always translated the same way. The line is, 'Heaven swallowed the smoke.' And, you're like: Man, you can't end an American movie that way--'Heaven swallowed the smoke.' That's it. Like the insouciant sky watches as doom is about to unfold. And, the women are wailing because they know what happens to women when the war comes.
And, that's the end. So, it's a story that's like--like I said, as if you had Rambo for a while and then all of a sudden, Rambo is reckoning with what it means that this was all in some sense pointless. And, it's just beautiful.
[END SPOILER ALERT]
Russ Roberts: The line that comes to my mind is, 'Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. Do not on this our wedding day,' which is the theme song for High Noon. And, High Noon is that story, right? High Noon is the person who has a duty to defend and to live, and he stands by it. And everyone else, at least in the short run--no spoiler alert here; I mean, no spoilers here--everyone else runs away and he is alone facing the demons, the dark side, the bad people. And, that's what that movie is about.
It is interesting that Beowulf's never been made into a Marvel movie or some movie.
Zach Weinersmith: There was a movie. I think in 2007, there was one written by Neil Gaiman and one other guy--the CGI [computer-generated imagery] has not aged well--and they actually pretty substantially changed the story. But, there is a movie--it's not really Beowulf exactly. It deviates pretty strongly from the original. But, this is a whole conversation we don't want to have.
Russ Roberts: It's 'Bea Coyote.' It's not really the same, it's just--anyway.
Zach Weinersmith: Yes, right. I got it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, sorry.
Russ Roberts: Now, we just did a riff on--I just said a riff on High Noon, and it raises the question of why we should read a book like Beowulf or a book like The Odyssey by Homer that is, quote, "old." We make our students read it here at Shalem. When I asked one of the faculty if it was hard to get students to read The Iliad, say, they said, 'Well, all of our students have been in--why would you read a book that old about some Trojan War a thousand years ago?' And, they said, 'Well, all of our students have been in the army and they really can relate to vengeance, courage, death, fear,' which is what that book is about. Post-trauma. PS, what is it? Post--
Zach Weinersmith: PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder].
Russ Roberts: PTSD. What does it stand for?
Zach Weinersmith: Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Russ Roberts: That's it. Thank you. I wanted to get 'syndrome' in there. It's not: It's 'Disorder'. Sorry about that.
So, they can relate to all those things and it's timeless. Is Beowulf timeless? Is it just cool to read this kind of book because it's still in print? Why should we read it?
Zach Weinersmith: Like I said, if it just had the first--so to speak--half, it's not [?]. If it just had the first monster fights, it would be, like, a fun story.
Because it has this last part where you get him as an old man--there's more to it. There's also a part where he remembers it--actually, an often-forgotten portion is a particularly beautiful kind of poem in the poem--is about this thing where there's a king and one of his sons accidentally kills the other son. And there's a poem--we don't quite know what it means, but one interpretation is that it's describing a similar situation, which is a father whose son is a criminal who gets hanged.
And, the sense of it is this feeling of someone being killed. The loss of your child, the most emotionally traumatic thing you can imagine, but made worse because you can't observe the normal rites, you can't do what it takes to sort of make peace. To me, that's a very Norse-poem feeling.
Maybe it was Kerr wrote somewhere that--there's another line I want to steal. And, he didn't say it quite this way, but he said something like: Hopeless struggle is made perfect--right?--made perfect by hopelessness. So, the idea is, like, in these Norse stories, you know that doom is going to win. It's not going to be like a Marvel movie. Eventually, doom will overtake the world, chaos will win, night will fall. And so, how does any of this matter in the meantime?
And, the way it matters is that you view the hopelessness of the situation is what makes the struggle perfect. It's not something you're doing to get $10.
Like, there's a moment when Beowulf has slain the dragon but been mortally wounded. It's a little off-putting when you first read it. Because he turns to the one guy who stayed with him and he says, 'Before I die, could you show me all the gold the dragon had?' Which is kind of a weird thing to do: 'Show me the big bucks we just made.'
But, what he's actually doing, and it says this in the poem, I believe, is basically it's a sense that all these people will be taken care of even though they just betrayed me. And, that's the kind of struggle within hopelessness that I think you can draw from it.
To my mind, it's much more beautiful than--if you watch a Marvel movie, the point is: We had to get together as friends to save the day. In Beowulf it's--ultimately, Beowulf is put on a pyre and there's an even chance everyone he tried to take care of who just betrayed him will be killed. And, that's just the end.
To me, I mean, you can [?] it however you want, but what I love about that is: If you know doom is unfolding eventually--there is no way out--then it really matters that a sword was broken in a fight with the enemy, right? Because it's just going to happen now. It's forever because it's limited in time, right? Like, it's not like you're going to get some eternal reward out of this. I mean, you might say in a Viking sense, 'You'll get eternal glory.' And, of course, these people were Christians, so they had some belief that there was going to be an afterlife for them. But, there is this, kind of like, it's this pointless doom cycle. You sort of do what you can while you're here to protect these people.
So, to me, that's the really pretty thing in Beowulf.
Russ Roberts: Cool. I was also thinking about the iconic nature of storytelling and the handful of themes there are; and there's something[?] beautiful about the timelessness of certain types of stories. And, to understand where they came from, that we actually have some of the original stories. It's why you should read the Bible. I think whether you're religious or not, it's why you should read Shakespeare. It's why I should read Homer. Maybe it's why you should read Beowulf--because, we're all the children of those works of art.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Beowulf, what I suspect is probably the original story or one of the original stories, which you still see. It's the same story you get in a Kung Fu movie now, which is: you set up two characters who are known to be invincible and then you just keep talking about how they're invincible. And, now they have to fight. And, I think as social apes, there's a very compelling story to hear[?], because it's like: Who's going to be in charge of us? So, that story is so all over the place you don't even notice it. Every single Kung Fu movie ever made is: There were two invincible men and let's see who's more invincible now.
Russ Roberts: Talk about the fact that your book is not a morality tale. Somewhere in, at least Western art, it became acceptable to tell stories to children that didn't merely lift them up, that didn't have a moral lesson. Most of Western literature, certainly--especially for children--is supposed to inculcate moral values. Your book is about fun. Is that just like a marketing trick, Zach? Or do you want to defend it more broadly?
Zach Weinersmith: I want to defend it utterly. I think that is a kind of English and American quirk. I think if you pick up a French kid's book--I mean it's not that the French don't do that stuff--but it's much easier to find a book where the kids are just--like, I mean Pippi Longstocking is that way, right? Pippi Longstocking--she has a kind of value system, something like honor maybe, but it's not like she tells you to brush your teeth. It's just the opposite.
So, to me, it's important. I'll get this slightly wrong, but I think Joyce was the one who said, There are three kinds of books,'--I think the way he said it was in a very Joycean way. He said, 'There's propaganda, pornography, and then the rest is art.' And so, meaning: propaganda is brush your teeth, don't be racist, stuff, I believe and I foist on my kids because that's what one does. And, pornography, he just means stuff that you do because it's fun. And then, there is literature, which is the other thing. And, in the United States, I think we mostly have propaganda. Even stuff that's aimed at teens is almost invariably pushing morals, pushing morals, pushing morals in a way that I find very disconcerting.
I remember reading--if you read Boswell's diaries, like, he will go to a play and he will write in his diary, 'It was a good play because had this message that,' blah blah, blah, blah, blah--which I thought it was very foreign, but it's still there. By the way, complete hypocrisy, too. He was meanwhile doing bad things in alleyways in London.
And, I think that's what a lot of us are doing now, is we're foisting propaganda on our kids.
We don't do it to ourselves. And, that's the other thing. Can you imagine we were watching Star Wars, and Darth Vader turned to you and said, 'By the way, colonialism was bad.' And, it's like, we all agree colonialism was bad, but if you can't tell it with a story, it's not good media.
So, I do this stuff--I give my kids media that pushes values because I believe in them and that's what parents need to do. There needs to be a place for just, like, actual art for kids that gives you that expansive 'art is good' feeling. That's the place we're all ultimately hoping to get. I would even say part of why it's bad to be anti-Semitic is you're circumscribing people's ability to go make those good things that make being a human worth doing. It's not an end in itself. I mean, it's good thing to do. But the end is that people are free to do things that really matter and that last.
So, this book is not teaching any values. The kids have values, but their values, like, sharing and--
Russ Roberts: Candy--
Zach Weinersmith: Yes, candy. That's right. They're oriented around getting what is good and they have a kind of honor system, but it's not any recognizable universal value system.
But, to me, what I wanted and hopefully get toward it, is that this is, like Beowulf, ultimately a story about living well, knowing that this is all going to end at some point. Right? So, you can't kill people in a kid's book, or at least you have to be careful about it. The point is these kids are going to lose their childhoods. And it's just going to be over for them. And, they know that. And so, they are having this idealized, get-it-perfect childhood under the specter of doom.
And so, that is what I wanted to give. I don't care about--I mean, I do care about being good to the environment and brushing their teeth and all this stuff. I tell my kids this stuff. I do. But there's this other thing. And, kids need it too, the same as adults do.
Russ Roberts: Sweet. For those of you [?] earlier, antidote to moralizing, I recommend "The Storyteller," by Saki. It's a masterpiece. And, you will like it, Zach. It is consonant with your anti-value values.
Actually, I think it's a really good point. If we nag our kids all the time, by the way, we'll often turn them into something that's the opposite of what we want because they'll get tired of being nagged. And certainly, there's room for joy and delight and something sweeter.
Russ Roberts: One of the things you mentioned to me before we did this interview is that this book--writing this book helped you focus. Explain.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. It's something I've been thinking about more and more lately. So, we all have this problem now where we have trouble focusing, right? Because there's so much awesome media. And, I would say more, a lot of the media we consume is designed by the platform to kind of break down attention span. Because one of the things--very counterintuitive to me, except it's obviously true--is that you can increase people's engagement with something by destroying their attention span.
So, if you've ever been on TikTok, it's like magic. I read the average time spent on a video on TikTok is under four seconds. Right? So, it's a complete breakdown of attention span, which I think, kind of counterintuitively, increases engagement. It makes you stay because your attention span is destroyed.
And so, the question is how do you get back from that? And, of course, there's an obvious answer which is, like: Tune out of social media. But, that's hard to do for a lot of us. For some of us, it's for business, but also it's the way you connect with people.
I think it helps to have something where you have no choice but to tune in. So, I got to thinking about this: There's a book by Francis Su, and I'm embarrassed I'm blanking on the title of it. But, he made a really interesting argument, which it was about: Why do we do math? Why do pure math? Why study math if you're not a mathematician? And, one of the arguments he made is that the act of studying mathematics inculcates, basically everything we think of as a virtue. Things like patience, humility, struggling with a difficult concept. It also teaches community because it's very--very--hard to teach yourself unless you're, like, Gauss. You can't just do it. Probably not even Gauss could. Right? You need the community; you need to rely on other people.
Basically just about any virtue you can think of, making yourself learn number theory or something does it. And there's a lot of stuff that works this way. I think poetry is a really good example, though.
You mentioned Shakespeare earlier. Shakespeare is known--I think of Shakespeare's density without obscurantism. Neaning, you do have to sit and see what he's saying, but there's no attempt to, like, befuddle you. Like, there is in some modern poetry. There's no attempt to be so confusing that you can't figure out how brilliant this thing is.
Russ Roberts: It's not like Hegel, who supposedly would lecture on purpose incoherently because he knew his students would then struggle to try to figure it out. It's like a cruel prank.
Russ Roberts: I don't know if that's true. I apologize, Friedrich [Hegel], if I've been unfair to you. But, I did hear that from a philosopher once.
Zach Weinersmith: I've heard that story, too. And I also--as someone in the arts, I know people who do this. If you don't have genius available, you can fake it. I mean, we all do this to some extent, trying to sound smarter than we are.
But, Shakespeare generally is not inscrutable in that way. He'd be inscrutable because--he's speaking modern English, but it's an earlier version of it, so there are words that are misleading. And then, also, he likes to be very dense with language.
So, if you want to understand a Shakespeare's sonnet, I got [?] very end into this because I did a joke book about Shakespeare's sonnets and I was surprised: You can't tell a joke about something unless you've actually understood it.
And so, I actually ended up--to make a joke--reading these sonnets very carefully and reading commentaries. And, it's really enjoyable. And, you can't tune out: you can't check your email halfway through because you'll lose the thread in a way that's not true in, like--I love reading P.G. Wodehouse. He's wonderful. He's one of my favorite authors ever. But, you can tune out. You could probably miss half a chapter and still basically know what's going on. You know? There's a lot of filler, and that's okay. That's part of why I enjoy it. But, Shakespeare, you can't, especially not in a sonnet.
And, I think poetry rewards you this way generally. Like, if you really want to understand it, you have to sit and you have to not be listening to music and you have to not be talking to anyone. You have to turn off your phone. And so, in other words, instead of just saying, 'I'm going to turn off my phone'--which is very hard to do--you can engage in an activity like reading poetry that has these other rewards, but also compels you to engage in things that you yourself probably see as virtues, like patience and humility.
Russ Roberts: Grit, determination, what is sometimes called sitzfleisch: the ability to keep your bottom attached to the chair.
Russ Roberts: But, the problem is, Zach--the problem is we just give up. If I'm trying to read a Shakespeare sonnet, and this is a virtue of Bea Wolf, by the way, over Beowulf. Bea Wolf is very accessible and flamboyant and bombastic and exuberant. So, it's easy to enjoy. At the same time, it's not totally light. There's stuff going on there verbally that's delightful. But, if you tell me, 'I want you to grapple with the Shakespearean sonnet so you can understand Zach's really entertaining jokes about it,' I'm just going to probably go back to TikTok, is what I'm worried about. Isn't that a problem?
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, sure. I know you're trying to lead me to give a speech here and I'm happy to give it. I think what it is,is: the reason your attention span is so easy to destroy is just simply that--like, if you woke up at 6:00 in the morning, which I do because I have small children who are vomiting, and you just got down with a piece of paper and you said, 'What would I have liked to have done with today?' you would never, ever once say six hours of Instagram. Maybe somebody: 'I want to be so retired that I could write that down and execute and feel good about it.' But, I think very few people feel that way.
And, maybe that doesn't mean they want to learn Milton, I think maybe they should. But, if you wrote down the things you would've liked to done, maybe it's not Shakespeare sonnets, maybe that's not your thing, but the things you would write down are substantially different from the things you would actually do.
I did a joke about this. I've been thinking about this a lot lately where there's whole question of--was it Nozick who proposed the idea of when you get in the engagement box and have an unreal life experience?
Russ Roberts: The experience machine. It's in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Zach Weinersmith: Experience machine. That's right.
Russ Roberts: I'm giving a talk tonight and I'm quoting it, I'm referencing it. So, that's weird. But, go ahead, Zach. Keep going.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, that's weird. It's funny I called it 'engagement box,' because that's what we do now.
So, my joke was, it's funny--so, in the modern world, I almost feel like it misses the point, because it's, like, 'Would you get in[?] it or not?' Well, [?] from whether you--because it's an ought question: Ought you get in the box? But, there's this other matter of would you get in the box if it sort of wheedled its way into your life? Do you know what I mean? I think there's an argument that effectively, if you find yourself on Instagram, or whatever it is, three hours a day, you are in the Experience Machine.
But, it's weird--when people talk about the Experience Machine, I think they're imagining sitting on the beach with a beautiful partner and someone serving you daiquiris. But actually, we will invest in this false universe for something we don't even find rewarding. Like, most of us will trip into the machine without wanting it.
I think most people when they encounter this idea of Nozick's, will say, 'No, I would never get in it. I don't know if I believe them.' And, yet we do it at least part-time.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that's part of what my talk is about. And, the Experience Machine--just for those who don't know it--you climb into a tank with electrodes attached to you and you can pre-program it to experience anything you want. You can feel like you're President of the United States; you can cure cancer; you're a rockstar. Or you're just sitting on the beach. Whatever it is-- and you'll feel as if it's real--I think I made this up, but you could do it for the rest of your life. And it elapses in real-time. So, when they unplug you, you're dead, and for the rest of your living--until you're dead--you have this sensation of doing these things, but you don't actually do them.
Nozick used that example because in 1974--when he wrote the book--of course, no one would hook themselves up to that. And, yet I have seen people talk about it in modern times--meaning in the last five years--where they ask a group of people would they want to be in the machine, and a bunch of hands go up. Of course, mostly younger people. And, the 'ought' is just ignored. It just that, 'That sounds fine. I'm in.' But, your insight that much of what we do today is the equivalent of that is, of course, true.
We were talking about poetry earlier, whole time. One of my favorite lines--I don't totally agree with it, but it's a beautiful line--is Wordsworth. He says, "The world is too much with us... Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Attack on commercial life or materialism. And, I did a modern version the other day on Twitter: Clicking and scrolling lay waste our powers. And, we spend a lot of time doing that.
And then, you get the little notification: You spent an average of 17 hours on your phone this week. That's 20% more than last week. Or the reverse. And, you feel good about yourself or worse about yourself. It's quite fascinating that we struggle to lead the lives we want to lead.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, yeah, it's unfortunate. Like I say, I think most of us are too weak. I include myself in this to completely say I'm just going to noob out.
And also, there's real value in these things. I don't want to gainsay that, right? So, I've been working on a research project for a few years, and it's very useful for me to go to Twitter and say, 'Hey, does anyone know where I can pull a paper on this topic?' And so, like, it's this weird thing: it feels like reaching into lava to get some, like, treasure out. You know what I mean? I can engage with this thing. I know it's going to destroy my attention span. That's what it's designed to do, and it works on me. But, man, the stuff I can get out of it is so tremendous.
So, it's a tough balance. And that's again--where you come back to poetry and mathematics and I'm sure there's other stuff like this. I've heard some people say it about some types of athletics, too; that seems to me to be a bit different. But similar: Do something where you have no choice. Where, if you lose your attention span, you lose. And, I find it really gives you something back.
I've started--this is a slightly related thing--but it's like, when I do a lot of illustration and when I draw, it's hard for me to listen to an audiobook or something while I draw. It has to be very light. And so, I listen to music. And now I will--if I put on music, I have to listen to the whole album, even if there are songs I don't like, and that sort of thing. I'm just: ways to kind of claw back your attention by focusing more on the thing that's happening.
So, poetry is much, much more powerful, I think. But, there are lots of ways to do it.
Russ Roberts: Well, I have a son taking a class on Milton right now, and he loves it. I can't read Milton, and confessed similarly. I've tried to read Paradise Lost; can't do it. I even have a book that he happened to have bought before he took the course called, Reading Paradise Lost: it's just to help you. And, I tried to love it. I got a little out of it. But, the idea that there is a master teacher or a master trainer who with their help can open this inaccessible world that is too hard for you to enter on your own. So, you want to do a triathlon, but you start and you're like, 'It's impossible.' You try to read Paradise Lost: It's impossible.
But, if I tell you, 'Over here is a class you can take online,' or 'Over here is an instructor you can hire and they will open up this treasure chest for you'--but 'It won't be easy, by the way. They're not going to give you a pill that'll let you be in shape or a pill that will let you read Milton effortlessly. They will instruct you in the skills you need for these things.' That's also deeply appealing to people.
It's just sort of an interesting tension there. Right? 'We won't do the easy thing, which is to watch TikTok or scroll through Twitter, whatever it is. But if you tell me--I know you can't climb Mount Kilimanjaro today, but if you follow these rules or this instructor, it will be within your reach,' that also deeply appeals to us.
Zach Weinersmith: It does. Yeah. I will say Milton is great and readable as long as Satan is talking. That's when the good guys show up, that it gets more like--the joke on Milton is that he was the greatest gift to Satan in history. He did everything short of giving him a two-headed guitar. It is just like, Satan is so cool.
But, yeah, I know exactly what you mean. And, that goes back to this virtue of humility. You can't teach yourself poetry--especially someone like Milton who is indeed very dense and often uses this, like, syntax that can be confusing if you're not used to it, it does require that person to hold your hand and walk you through it until you get strong at it. And, that's a wonderful feeling. You know?
And then, the payoff again is: You get to read this. It's actually an incredible book, Paradise Lost is.
I was just reading someone's commentary on it, they were saying--maybe it was Harold Bloom--they were saying, it's like the first cinematic book. And, when you read about this massing of Satan's armies after they've been cast out, and they'd hold this grand council and Satan talks about how he'll get on the throne and endure being in proximity to heaven as the leader. It's like, 'Oh, it's so good.'
But, as you say, it's hard to read. It helps to have read--I found it easier since making myself read Beowulf, because there's just certain syntactic things that are in epic that you have to get used to. But yeah, yeah: it's naturally community-building when something is hard.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with Bea Wolf, your book. You did this, I think you say, and I believe you that this was a labor of love. It wasn't meant to be your next big thing. It was something you did because your daughter liked the idea of it and it spoke to you, and it's deeply thrilling that it speaks to anyone else. Talk about that project. It's a wonderful thing. I'm so happy for you, that it's a beautiful book. So, talk about that.
Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, the word I would use is, it's been romantic--in the old sense of, like, uncanny, almost. You know what I mean? Before romantic meant shirtless guy on a book cover, like Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote romances and Edgar Allan Poe wrote romances. And, it feels like something strange has happened to me that I have trouble--I've spent afternoons just kind of walking, wondering about it. Because, I wrote this book--what I handed to Boulet was a column of words, just a poem, like, a poem that is not from our millennium. I mean, it's got modern jokes and all that, but it',s like, this old style nobody reads anymore. The joke around the house was how we were going to get rich with this 600-line unrhymed verse epic for eight-year-olds.
I thought it was a book--Fabio Rojas, I don't know if you've ever interviewed him: he's a sociologist. And, he said he always tells his students, 'Write for the library, write for the library. Write thinking that I'm going to do this right so that in 40 years, this lonely book of mine, someone's going to pick it up and say: Ah, this answers the question I needed answered. And, the conversation can continue in the future.' And, that's how I thought about this book, because I thought--I'd hopefully make enough money to get to do a sequel or whatever it was, but I did not think--I thought most people would be baffled.
And so, it has been like, the genuine shock of a lifetime, how many people, not only enjoyed it, but enjoyed it for the right reasons. Like, some people enjoyed it because there were jokes and it's about childhood, but people told me they were genuinely moved by it. I've had several people tell me that if they had read it as teenagers, it would've been formative for them, which was shocking to me because that was not at all my intention.
And so, I don't know--it's been just the most fascinating experience in my life. I feel like the world is very different than I thought it was. I think I had been way too cynical. I thought this thing where a person--a regular person--could enjoy a poem was basically dead. And, I think, like I told you, I'd done a joke about The Iliad on Twitter and I had a guy who was like, 'Oh, I'm not a poetry guy, but this Iliad thing, this is interesting.' Like, what has happened? I think everybody thinks poetry is the worst slam-poetry thing you ever attended. The fact that you could come up with a book like this--that there is no other book like it, not in this millennium, and that it's gotten--like, we're on our third printing and we haven't even--the book's not even out yet.
And so, I don't know what to make of it. It's just been genuinely and utterly magical. I don't know what the future holds, but it's been the most wonderful experience, at least career-wise, of my life.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Zach Wienersmith. Zach, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Zach Weinersmith: Thanks. It was lovely.