Arguably one of the finest stories in the Western Tradition, “Beowulf” concerns the advent of a hero and his timely end. Throughout, questions of fate, free will, good, and evil predominate. Most prominent, though, are the theological questions of will and grace, one pagan and the other Christian.

In 1926, when merely a thirty-four year old academic, J.R.R. Tolkien translated the greatest of medieval epics, Beowulf, into a prose story, line for line and plot point for plot point. While lacking the flair of poetic translations such as that by Seamus Haney in the year 2000, Tolkien’s Beowulf has style and class, consistency and depth. The heroic, not surprisingly, is heroic, and the monstrous is monstrous. In essence, Tolkien’s Beowulf is as Tolkienian as Tolkien’s own Middle-earth mythology is Beowulfian. Not only does Tolkien employ Beowulfian language in his own mythology, but he takes entire scenes—such as Bilbo’s challenge of Smaug or Aragorn’s arrival in Rohan—from the Beowulf story.

Though only one year into his Oxford professorship at the time of his translation, Tolkien would come to hone, rather significantly, his own ideas on the poem over the following several decades. Tolkien lectured repeatedly on Beowulf—as a whole and in its parts—while at Oxford, he wrote his famous “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” in 1936 for the British Academy, and referenced and drew inspiration from the poem in many of his most original works. In 2014, Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s son and heir, published not merely his father’s pioneering translation of the poem from 1926, but he also included Tolkien’s commentaries, his lectures, and several original poems and stories revolving around Beowulf. The 2014 book, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary Together with Sellic Spell, is a treasure.

Arguably one of the finest stories in the Western Tradition, Beowulf tells the story of the advent of a hero as well as his timely end. Throughout the story, questions of fate, free will, good, and evil predominate. Most especially prominent, though, are the theological questions of will and grace, one pagan and the other Christian.

Seeking glory, the Geat Beowulf and his chosen men sail to Denmark, offering their services (and muscle) against a marauding and rapacious monster, Grendel. A relative of the Biblical Cain, Grendel is living flesh and blood, but he also possesses a demonic soul of darkness. He craves blood, sinew, and bone, offering only mayhem and chaos. “Him in days of old the dwellers on earth named Grendel; of a father they knew not, nor whether any such was ever before begotten for him among the demons of the dark,” Tolkien wrote.[1] Skillfully, Beowulf mortally wounds the monster in hand to hand combat, pulling out his arm and shoulder and sending him back to his lair to die.

Dread fear came upon the northern Danes, upon each of those that 640 from the wall heard the cries, the adversary of God singing his ghastly song, no chant of victory, the prisoner of hell bewailing his grievous hurt. Fast was he held by that most strong in body’s might in that day of men’s life here.[2]

Grendel’s mother, in rage, then attacks the Danes and their new allies, the Geats, and Beowulf must defeat her as well. Chasing her underground and underwater, Beowulf discovers a mighty blade in her keeping. With the blade, Beowulf kills the mother as well as decapitates Grendel. Fifty years later, after Beowulf has returned to Geatland and ruled successfully as a king, a dragon, having slept for 300 years, awakes when a thief unwittingly steals a small goblet from his treasury. Blinded by fury, the dragon lays waste to the surrounding villages. Once again, Beowulf returns to battle, now an old, but deeply learned and skilled, warrior. Trusting twelve faithful men (eleven warriors and one witness), Beowulf challenges the dragon. His will, however, no matter how strong, was rooted in pagan belief as well as in, possibly, Christian grace, but with too much of the former and too little of the latter.

Then was the guardian of the barrow after that 2165 warlike stroke in fell mood; murderous fire he flung—wide the flames of battle sprang. No triumphant cry of victory then uttered he from whom the Geats had love and gifts of gold: his naked blade had failed him in the cruel deeds of battle, as never should it have done, that iron tried of old. No pleasant 2170 fare was his that day, (nor such) that the renownéd son of Ecgtheow should of his own will forsake that field on earth; against his will must he inhabit a dwelling otherwhere, even as each man must, leaving the brief days of life.[3]

Evenly matched, however, Beowulf and the dragon fight to the death, though—in echo of the Christ story—with all of Beowulf’s companions but one (Wiglaf) deserting him in the heat of battle. Though a pagan, Beowulf’s soul departs “to seek the judgment of the just.”[4] Yet, the betrayal stung. Like St. John at the cross of our Lord, Wiglaf stood to the end next to his Lord, Beowulf. The loss of the king and the betrayal of his men, however, might well signal the end of the Geats as a proud and independent people. Still, Wiglaf has transcended his lord, Beowulf, at least in ethics and morality. Beowulf, however brave, had fought for the advancement of his own glory. In this, he was and always will be utterly pagan. Wiglaf, however, fought as a subordinate, striking at evil in the noble love of his master. Unlike Beowulf, however great, Wiglaf fought in love, thus serving admirably and willingly as an agent of the Almighty. To be sure, God’s presence hovers over the entire Beowulf story. Whatever his own wishes, Wiglaf could only serve, not move, the will of God. Wiglaf “could not, dearly though he wished it, keep upon the earth his captain’s life, nor any whit avert the Almighty’s will. God’s Doom was ever the master then of every man in deeds fulfilled, even as yet now it is.”[5] God is, Tolkien translates, “the true King of Victories,” and even the wise only see the truth of eternity dimly.

A mystery it is where a man of prowess and good heart shall meet the end of his allotted life, when no longer may he among his kin dwell in the hall, his mead drinking. Even thus it was with Beowulf: when he sought out the barrow’s guardian, his guile and malice, he knew not himself through what means his parting from the world should come about. To this end had the mighty chieftains, those that there had laid it, set a deep curse upon it even until the Day of Doom, that that man should be for his crimes condemned, shut in the houses of devils, fast in the bonds of hell, tormented with clinging evil, who should that place despoil.[6]

This is the first essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Beowulf” series.

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Notes:

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2014), 52.

[2] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 35.

[3] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 88.

[4] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 95.

[5] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 96.

[6] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 102.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Death of Beowulf” (1908) by J.R. Skelton (active 1888-1927), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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