The only good thing to be said about really rotten times is that they are clarifying. The shock of rising floodwaters returns us to the first, most fundamental things. Set spinning in strong currents, we feel for a foothold and scan the sky for stars to steer by. Luckily, we human beings—uniquely privileged and vulnerable hominids—have long experience with catastrophe. Some old and durable writings may help us to reckon with the ruinous tide.

Take Beowulf, than which few books could be more timely. As J. R. R. Tolkien observed in his landmark essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” written in 1936 when rough beasts were on the prowl, the poem is an elegy more than an epic. Its ancient theme, Tolkien writes, is the general tragedy of human existence: “that man, each man and all men, and all their...


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