J.R.R. Tolkien argued that while Christianity gave the heroes a new point upon which to focus, the enemies of the heathen gods remained, too, the enemies of the Christian God. Beowulf, by challenging all that is spawned in Hell, has, by default, become the ally of all that destined to Heaven.

Inducted into the prestigious British Academy in 1936, a full year before he would publish The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien elected to speak on the greatest, the most noble, and the longest of medieval Anglo-Saxon poems, Beowulf. He had already lectured on Beowulf numerous times during his courses at Oxford, and he had especially focused his lecturing and teaching on “lines 1251-1650,” the section of the poem that “narrates the attack on Hrothgar’s hall by Grendel’s mother” and her demise by the hand of Beowulf.[1] Remembering one of Tolkien’s lectures, W.H. Auden explained: “I do not remember a single word he said but at a certain point he recited, and magnificently, a long passage of Beowulf. I was spellbound.”[2] Given the fine attention he had so ably brought to the subject, Tolkien understandably had much to contribute to the topic. He delivered his address on November 25, 1936.

At the beginning of his talk, Tolkien noted that few critics had gotten their criticism of Beowulf correct. “It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem,” he explained. They spent so much time criticizing the minutia of the poem, they missed the intent of the poem itself. “It has been said of Beowulf itself that its weakness lies in placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important things on the outer edges.” To be certain, Tolkien continued, this actually was true, but of the criticism, not of the poem. “I think it profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it.”[3] Such critics, Tolkien lamented, are like men who tear down an ancient tower to understand its purpose, little realizing the tower had existed simply to give the pleasure of far sightedness to its maker. By analyzing Beowulf, its lesser critics have come, like the destroyers of the tower, close to destroying the poem. Yet, Tolkien noted with much delight, Beowulf, such a powerful poem, has remained standing, despite its friends and enemies.

High toned, lofty, and dignified, “Beowulf is more beautiful, that each line there is more significant (even when, as sometimes happens, it is the same line), than in the other long Old English poems.” Instead, by creating his own unique sense of history—no matter how feigned—the Beowulf poet went beyond mere folklore and deeply into the much more difficult as well as more satisfying realm of mythology.

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

As with the tower, we tear it apart at our own peril as well as its own. Afterall, Tolkien believed, the Beowulf poet had moved his story not only from folklore to myth, but he had also embraced and blended it all with sheer and unadulterated heroism. In the end, fewer things were greater than such heroism, the gift—perhaps to this very day—of the northern imagination.

It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.[4]

One cannot help but reminded of Romano Guardini’s similar sentiment as expressed in his End of the Modern World:

Deeply significant for the new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit. The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the migrating peoples and the armed marches of the Germanic tribes revealed a new spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the infinite. This mobile and nervous soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation. There it grew mightily. In its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking the boundaries of the world.[5]

To be sure, Tolkien continued, one must recognize that this heroism was a pure pagan and heathen heroism—“heathen, noble, and hopeless.” Yet, Tolkien asked, was the poet ready to throw all of his pre-Christian characters into hell? Most certainly not, he assured his listeners. “The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man’s struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned.”[6]

Within the poem itself, the old world and its traditions merged neatly (for the most part) with the arrival of the new philosophy, theology, and New Testament. “At this point,” Tolkien claimed, “new Scripture and old tradition touched and ignited.”[7]

Profoundly, Tolkien argued that while Christianity gave the heroes a new point upon which to focus, the enemies of the heathen gods remained, too, the enemies of the Christian God. After all, Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon all hated the gods as well as God. Beowulf, by challenging all that is spawned in hell, has, by default, become the ally of all that destined to heaven.

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[1] John Ryan, “Tolkien’s Formal Lecturing and Teaching,” Seven 19 (2002): 48.

[2] W.H. Auden, “Making and Judging Poetry,” Atlantic (January 1957), 46.

[3] JRRT, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 5.

[4] JRRT, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 25-26.

[5] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998), 9.

[6] JRRT, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 23.

[7] JRRT, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 26.

Editor’s note: The featured image is by Mark Anderson and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

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