COVID-19 Lessons for World Leaders From Medieval Literature

Once again, we are looking to leaders for protection. But how they offer it must change.

FPM / Getty / Peter Lorimer / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The world is different today—and not just because of the coronavirus. Events seem to turn it more quickly: Viruses become pandemics in weeks; medical challenges become life-and-death emergencies in days; and freedoms, once sacred, are removed in minutes live on TV. Once secure and prosperous societies now seem precariously vulnerable.

The reality, of course, is that the world is different—it has never been quite as small. It took the Black Death years to reach Europe in the 14th century. It took the coronavirus a matter of weeks. The politics of this pandemic reflect this—jarring and seemingly out of control, forced into a furious sprint just to keep up with the exponential math of epidemiology. But while the world is different, certainly, at least, in Europe where life has largely been locked down, humans are not. Then as now, we fear death and crave security and search for leaders who fend off one with the other. One after the other, in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and now finally here in Britain, after Boris Johnson’s address to the nation last night, Europe’s prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors have sought security by switching off their economy, ordering that no one leave their home, and empowering the police to fine anyone who does so for anything other than life’s essentials.

Battle analogies are everywhere. And for good reason. “The way ahead is hard, and it is still true that many lives will sadly be lost,” Johnson warned. “But in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.” This was Johnson as war leader, urging each and all to do their duty.

By using the language of war, Johnson inevitably both invites comparisons with history, and suffers in light of them. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Karl Marx wrote. As was then, as is now. Each country today, as it battles the coronavirus, has its own memory weighing on its leaders. No American president is entirely free of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, no French leader of Charles de Gaulle, no British prime minister of Winston Churchill.

In Britain, the weight of Churchill is, perhaps, most crushing—the tale, as it is related to young Britons, too heroic and uncomplicated not to be, no other national hero standing quite as tall. The Blitz spirit, keeping calm and carrying on, fighting on the beaches, and never giving in are what is expected, whether it is Brexit or COVID-19. In times of national crisis, people turn to what they know—to the myths and caricatures that define them.

In his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Johnson has sought refuge in the classic Churchillian mix of defiance and confidence, previously reassuring the nation it will “get through this” even if “many more families are going to lose loved ones.” Last night, he plunged deep into this well, ordering the country to stay at home, not asking people to do so but telling them they “must.” He did not do so with Churchillian swagger. “No prime minister wants to enact measures like this,” he said solemnly, no hint of the smirk that can often escape his control when he’s uncomfortable. Johnson has not quite been convincing in this emergency-leader role in which he has suddenly been cast. He has been calm—too calm for many—but also uncertain and hesitant, moving more slowly than Emmanuel Macron, dogged by an inability until, perhaps, last night to convey the kind of simple messages in power that he proved so able to do when campaigning for power.

Last night was Johnson’s big moment. He did not fluff it, but nor did he soar—it was solid, serious, and authentic, peppered with Johnsonian fist clenches but shorn of unnecessarily verbose language. But it was also late, days after Macron, Angela Merkel, and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar had made similar sermons. Too late? Too reluctant? Or well timed, nerve held? We will not know for weeks, if not months.

Even among members of Parliament belonging to his Conservative Party and to advisers close to Johnson that I spoke with, there have been clear signs of tension over his handling of the crisis. One adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss internal government deliberations, voiced concern that the government’s messaging had been too nuanced to get through to the public, and that Johnson’s instinctive libertarianism had been a drag on more decisive action. The public appears to be largely behind Johnson—for now—with satisfaction in his leadership jumping five points since the crisis began, according to one poll.

This, though, may prove a temporary respite as the death count begins to accelerate. Before Johnson’s address to the nation, The Times of London published an editorial damning his leadership through the crisis as “behind the curve,” accusing him of squandering time and sowing confusion when decisive action was needed. “The country needs to know that Mr Johnson has a coherent strategy,” the leader of Britain’s establishment newspaper summarized. “Otherwise the prime minister who dreamt of being Churchill may find himself cast as Neville Chamberlain.” Johnson’s problem, however, is that he—of course—cannot be Churchill. Nor for that matter is COVID-19 the Second World War. As others have noted, pandemics cannot be fought on the beaches and landing grounds; keeping calm and carrying on is not the right thing to do; and blood, toil, tears, and sweat are, frankly, unhelpful. Today, the challenge is isolation, not invasion. The model of leadership, then, is different, and Johnson will need to find his own voice, battle slogans, and costume.

But in leading, Johnson cannot escape the history he inherits, nor should he try to. In 1940, Churchill reached back to England’s past, to the Knights of the Round Table and the Crusaders, whose challenges, he told the nation, were “prosaic” in comparison with what now faced them. Churchill, in fact, was not the creator of the warrior-leader myth, but an inheritor of it. Before him were the Duke of Wellington and Richard the Lionheart and Henry V. And before them were King Arthur and Beowulf.

I thought of Beowulf over the weekend as criticism of Johnson’s leadership began to mount, people unhappy with what they saw as either his fatalistic response or his overreaction. The folk memory of warlike national effort was alive, but confused: Did it mean Britain should keep calm and carry on, or fight the virus to the death? The lessons from the past were unclear.

In Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon elegy composed sometime between the sixth and 11th centuries, the eponymous hero achieves glory by killing two man-eating monsters terrorizing a neighboring people before returning to rule his homeland for 50 years—only to perish in a battle with a dragon in which both monster and hero are killed. It is the story of marauding man-eaters and the arrival of a deliverer—a warrior leader, whose final act is to sacrifice his own life to protect his people.

Here, in Beowulf, I thought as I listened to the poem, was a story for today. The monsters in the poem are all a threat to the safety of the societies in question. But they also represent something more. “They literally kill people—and sometimes eat them—but they also embody the behaviours that threaten to undermine the social fabric that holds human communities together,” writes Victoria Symons, a lecturer of Old and Middle English literature at University College London. “Peace is fragile in the world of Beowulf, and it can be easily overturned by greed, or feuding or social isolation.”

As Johnson seeks to lead his country through this latest crisis, the same threats abound: individual greed, whether over food or personal freedoms, undermining the national effort required to contain the coronavirus, feuding over what to do about it and, of course, social isolation.

Yet the attributes that brought Johnson to power may prove inadequate in dealing with the new threat, just as Beowulf’s militaristic prowess was not enough to save him in the end. In Britain, Johnson’s cheery can-do optimism and political dexterity saw him rise to the premiership in the Brexit crisis. But these characteristics might not necessarily work in a pandemic, which requires a grasp of detail, seriousness, ability to throw away old dogmas in the face of the new threat, and bold action.

According to Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize–winning poet who produced his own translation of Beowulf in 1999, the juxtaposition of youthful vigor and skills eroded by time jumps out at the reader as the hero struggles to fight off the dragon:

Beowulf was foiled

of a glorious victory. The glittering sword,

infallible before that day,

failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have.

This is the reality now facing Johnson and other global leaders. Can they rise to the new challenge, or will their glittering sword—the political skills that saw them to the top—fail them this time?