Saturday, January 5, 2008

Call Him Grendel

When I was 12 years old and in the seventh grade, I was sneaking a smoke in the bathroom between classes when a gang of boys – maybe seven or eight of them – crowded into the room.

I only remember two of the boys – some kid with a big cocky grin, and another kid who I will call Greg.

Greg was the strangest-looking kid in the school. He walked hunched over, with his mouth permanently open. His skin appeared to be grey. His hair was a nondescript dishwater brown. He had these bizarre glasses that magnified his eyes but made them look fuzzy. He was the only kid in school for whom I felt pity.

Apparently the kid with the big cocky grin had been picking on Greg, I guess because he figured such a pathetic-looking kid wouldn't be much of an opponent.

It turned out Greg was. The fight lasted all of ten seconds. I saw something I had never seen before: Greg got this kid in a headlock, and instead of punching him as expected, made his free hand into a claw and tried to pull his opponent's face over the top of his head. That vicious technique impressed me very much, as did the shortness of the fight.

The kid with the big cocky grin, instigator of the fight, went in ten seconds from being a bully to begging Greg to stop hurting him. I'll never forget the look of complete terror and shock on his face.

That episode instantly reminded me of a story I had read only a few weeks before. I didn't understand it until I saw that fight. The title of the story was "Call Him Lord," by Gordon R. Dickson, and it was about the fact that bullies are cowards.

In the story, the son of the Emperor of the Galaxy visits a planet to, unknown to him, be tested for his fitness to rule. What he thinks is his bodyguard is actually the man testing him. The future Emperor gets into two fights. He starts both, and in the first wins before the guy can fight back. In the second, the guy fights back, and the son runs. At the end of the story he attacks his bodyguard, who kills him. When the Emperor asks the bodyguard what was his son's fatal flaw, the answer given him, in the next-to-last line of the story, is, "Lord, he was a coward."

I've never seen an exception to that comment in my life. Bullies are cowards. They always think they're tough until someone gets the best of them, and then they collapse into a quivering mass of fear.

The observation that bullies are cowards goes back thousands of years. The oldest story I've read about this connection is Beowulf. In it the monster Grendel has great fun slaughtering all the warriors until Beowulf shows up. Grendel realizes he's in for a real fight, and coward that he is, runs from Beowulf. Beowulf catches him anyway, to Grendel's great misfortune.

In my life I have never seen a bully who can be reasoned with. The only thing they understand is violence. I've yet to see one who realizes he is a coward; all think they are tough. None are.

There is another name for bullies-who-are-cowards. They are also known by such names as "armchair warriors" and "chickenhawks." They are the kind of guys who rabidly support wars, when they were never even in the military. In fact, they tried their darndest to avoid service. They slander their opponents as traitors, when they are the traitors. What they are, exclusively, is mouth.

Such people are bullies, and like all bullies, are cowards who cannot be reasoned with. It's a waste of time.

Since such people are cowards, when someone gets the best of them – which sooner or later always happens – they'll run. It's their nature, even though they don't know it.

Like Grendel, these armchair-warrior chickenhawks enjoy slaughter. Unlike Grendel, they won't – can't – do the murder on their own; they want someone else to do it for them.

Whenever I see these armchair warriors, I think of that kid with the big cocky grin, who, within ten seconds, was pathetically begging – in public – to not be beaten anymore.

Obviously, cowards who start fights never finish them.

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