December 29, 2023

J R R Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics


Wikipedia - Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics:

Tolkien argues that the original poem has almost been lost under the weight of the scholarship on it; that Beowulf must be seen as a poem, not just as a historical document; and that the quality of its verse and its structure give it a powerful effect. He rebuts suggestions that the poem is an epic or exciting narrative, likening it instead to a strong masonry structure built of blocks that fit together. He points out that the poem's theme is a serious one, mortality, and that the poem is in two parts: the first on Beowulf as a young man, defeating Grendel and his mother; the second on Beowulf in old age, going to his death fighting the dragon.

The work has been praised by critics including the poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney. Michael D. C. Drout called it the most important article ever written about the poem. Scholars of Anglo-Saxon agree that the work was influential, transforming the study of Beowulf.

. . .In Tolkien's view, the poem is essentially about a "man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time". The underlying tragedy is man's brief mortal life. Grendel and the dragon are identified as enemies of a Christian God, unlike the monsters encountered by Odysseus on his travels. What had happened is that Northern courage, exultant, defiant in the face of inevitable defeat by "Chaos and Unreason" (Tolkien cites Ker's words), fuses with a Christian faith and outlook. The Beowulf poet uses both what he knew to be the old heroic tradition, darkened by distance in time, along with the newly acquired Christian tradition. The Christian, Tolkien notes, is "hemmed in a hostile world", and the monsters are evil spirits: but as the transition was incomplete in the poem, the monsters remain real and the focus remains "an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die".

Tolkien returns to the monsters, and regrets we know so little about pre-Christian English mythology; he resorts instead to Icelandic myth, which he argues must have had a similar attitude to monsters, men and gods. The Northern gods, like men, are doomed to die. The Southern (Roman and Greek) pagan gods were immortal, so to Tolkien (a Christian), the Southern religion "must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy": death and the monsters are peripheral. But the Northern myths, and Beowulf, put the monsters, mortality and death in the centre. Tolkien is therefore very interested in the contact of Northern and Christian thought in the poem, where the scriptural Cain is linked to eotenas (giants) and ylfe (elves), not through confusion but "an indication of the precise point at which an imagination, pondering old and new, was kindled". The poem is, Tolkien states, "an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one", obviously not with modern ideas of "literal historical fidelity". The poet takes an old plot (a marauding monster troubling the Scylding court) and paints a vivid picture of the old days, for instance using the Old Testament image of the shepherd patriarchs of Israel in the folces hyrde (people's shepherd) of the Danes.

An excerpt from, "Slaying Monsters" by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, May 26, 2014:

“Beowulf” was most likely written in Britain—by whom, we don’t know—in around the eighth century. (That is Tolkien’s date. Some scholars put it later.) The plot is simple and exalted. Beowulf is a prince of the Geats, a tribe living in what is now southern Sweden. He is peerlessly noble, brave, and strong. Each of his hands has a grip equal to that of thirty men. He is alone in the world; he was an orphan, and he never acquires a wife or children. Partly for that reason—because he has no one to behave toward in an intimate way—he has no real psychology. Unlike Anna Karenina or Huckleberry Finn, he is not a filter, a point of view, standing between us and his world.

. . .Tolkien may have put away his translation of “Beowulf,” but about a decade later he published a paper that many people regard as not just the finest essay on the poem but one of the finest essays on English literature. This is “ ‘Beowulf’: The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien preferred the monsters to the critics. In his view, the meaning of the poem had been ignored in favor of archeological and philological study. How much of “Beowulf” was fact, and how much fancy? What was its relationship to recent archeological finds?

Tolkien saw all this as an evasion of the poem’s true subject: death, defeat, which come not only to Beowulf but to his kingdom, and every kingdom. Many critics, Tolkien says, consider “Beowulf” to be something of a mess, artistically—for example, in its mixing of pagan with Christian ideas. But the narrator of “Beowulf” repeatedly says that, like the minstrels who entertain the knights, he is telling a tale from the old days. “I have heard,” he says. “I have learned.” Tolkien claims that the events of the poem, insofar as they are real, occurred in about 500 A.D. But the poet was a man of the new days, when the British Isles were being converted to Christianity. It didn’t happen overnight. And so, while he tells how God girded the earth with the seas, and hung the sun in the sky, he again and again reverts to pagan values. None of the people in the poem care anything about modesty, simplicity (they adore treasure, they count it up), or humility (they boast of their valorous deeds). And death is regarded as final. No one, including Beowulf, is said to be going on to a better place.

Video Title: J R R Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics. Source: Dr Scott Masson. Date Published: March 8, 2023. Description:

Tolkien's lecture on Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics, is a watershed mark in studies in Anglo Saxon. Tolkien rounds on the critics of the poem who dismiss its literary merits. 

Of greater interest here is the way in which Tolkien seems to emulate some of the features he talks about in relation to Beowulf in The Lord of the Rings.