The “Beowulf” poem, J.R.R. Tolkien stressed, is fundamentally about the very nature of heroism. Beowulf is, of course, a “noble pagan.” Given such a consideration, questions arise: Does he advance only his own will, or does he take into account God’s grace? Can true heroism even exist in a Christian world of grace, or must it always reflect its heathen and pagan roots?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s numerous—and now, thankfully, available—lectures on the medieval epic poem, Beowulf, pop as well as dazzle his audience in fascinating ways. No sentence is without insight, and no paragraph is without some unique revelation about Beowulf’s significance and relevance—to his world and to our own. The poem is not only perfectly coherent as a poem and as a story, but it was also written by “a single hand and mind.” Drawing upon the work of his friend and fellow parishioner, Christopher Dawson, Tolkien thought the poet a member of the first generation of Christian converts, written at “the time of that great outburst of missionary enterprise which fired all England,” having at the end of the enterprise, the greatest of all Englishman, St. Boniface.
The Beowulf poem, Tolkien stressed, is fundamentally about the very nature of heroism and all of the good and the bad that might surround the heroic. Beowulf is, of course, a “noble pagan.” Given such a consideration, innumerable questions arise. Is the hero brave? Is he a leader? Does he serve God or against God? Does he advance only his own will, or does he take into account God’s grace? Are the hero’s retinue there to serve him or the good of the realm or the realm of God? Even in his bravery, does the hero cause more damage to his society than peace would have? Can true heroism even exist in a Christian world of grace, or must it always reflect—in good and bad ways—its heathen and pagan roots?
Not surprisingly, especially given its origins in the Anglo-Saxon Middle Ages, the poem is as solidly pagan as it is solidly Christian. “The author of Beowulf was not a heathen, but he wrote in a time when the pagan past was still very near,” Tolkien explained, “so near that not only some facts were remembered, but moods and motives.” That the poem emerges in the nexus—a moment of profound transition—between pagan and Christian Europe only makes it more intriguing, as it offers us an insight not only into Christianity and paganism, but to that all-too-fleeting moment of overlap, conflict, and assimilation.
One finds the Christian element, most blatantly in the monsters of the poem, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. The former two, at least, come from the monsters, giants, and half-men that have plagued the world since the Curse of Cain. Though Beowulf challenged openly the three most hostile monsters, others lurked in this medieval tale: necromancers, orcs, barrow-wights, and undead. Some of these, such as the necromancers would have been plain, wicked Gnostics. Many of these creatures, the poet left vague—not because of any censorship that might have accompanied the arrival of Christianity, but because he believed the monsters and allied creatures were all simply tricks and “deceits of the Evil One.” Each foul beast was merely a part, an illusion, or a brief manifestation of the head of Demons. Quite real, but not worth invoking in the tale.
Tolkien is worth quoting at length here on the nature of the enemies.
The Old English féond on helle is a very curious expression. It implies, of course, that Grendel is a ‘hell-fiend’, a creature damned irretrievably. It remains, nonetheless, remarkable; for Grendel is not ‘in hell’, but very physically in Denmark, and he is not even yet a damned spirit, for he is mortal and has to be slain before he goes to Hell. There is evidently a confusion or twilight in the thought of the poet (and his age) about these monsters, hostile to mankind. They remain physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain (with the right sword). Yet already they are described in terms applicable to evil spirits; so here (*102) gǽst.7 Whether féond on helle is due to a kind of half-theological notion that one of the accursed things, of misshapen human form, being damned carried their hell ever with them in their hearts and spirits—or whether it is due to taking over a ‘Christian’ phrase carelessly (féond on helle just = ‘fiend, devil’)—is difficult to decide. The latter would demand that Christian phraseology was already well-developed and fixed when Beowulf was written. The phrase went on. In Middle English fend in helle is still used just as ‘devil’. Wyclif uses fend in helle of a very living and bodily friar walking about England. (It is to be remembered that féond properly = ‘enemy’ only, and still when undefined bears that sense in Beowulf.)
By tracing the monsters back to Cain, Tolkien brilliantly noted, the Anglo-Saxon nobility and aristocracy could claim to be rightful heirs of the Old Testament. Perhaps, as Tolkien wrote, the Beowulf poem served as a type of lost chapter from Genesis.
After all, Tolkien reasoned, the Christian Logos could permeate and transcend time, enlightening all men—past, present, and future—perhaps evil, too, might invade much of reality from the past to the future. Even better, perhaps some of the pagans who had yet to encounter formal Christianity, such as the Danish king, Hrothgar, might be saved in a full Christian sense as well.
Yet, Tolkien warns, much of the story is ahistorical. While, like the Arthur story, Beowulf as a man as well as the elements of the plot, probably did have some historical truth to them, the figure of Beowulf in the poem comes from the Otherworld, the realm of Faerie.
It had two fundamental materials. ‘Historial’ legend and Fairy Story. The ‘historial legend’ is derived ultimately from traditions about real men, real events, real policies, in actual geographical lands—but it has passed through the minds of poets. How far the historical realities of character and event have been preserved (more than some suppose, I fancy) in this way is a different question. The Fairy Story (or Folk-tale if you prefer that name) has at any rate been altered: for in this case it has been welded into the ‘history’.
Elements of Faerie, Tolkien argued, appear throughout the poem, but they have rather skillfully been interwoven into actual real world historical descriptions. The Faerie is also artfully obscured by references to Beowulf’s family and homeland and through the incorporation of Baltic folktales and folktale settings. It had two fundamental materials. “‘Historial’ legend and Fairy Story. The ‘historial legend’ is derived ultimately from traditions about real men, real events, real policies, in actual geographical lands—but it has passed through the minds of poets,” Tolkien claimed. “How far the historical realities of character and event have been preserved (more than some suppose, I fancy) in this way is a different question. The Fairy Story (or Folk-tale if you prefer that name) has at any rate been altered: for in this case it has been welded into the ‘history.’”
This is the second essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Beowulf” series.
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 J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 170.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 171.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 150.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 172.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 158-159.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 161.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 205.
 Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 236.
The featured image is an illustration of Beowulf and his men carrying the head of Grendel (1908) by J.R. Skelton (1865-1927), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.