"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" was a 1936 lecture given by J. R. R. Tolkien on literary criticism on the Old Englishheroicepic poemBeowulf. It was first published as a paper in that year in the Proceedings of the British Academy, and has since been reprinted in many collections.
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poem has almost been lost under the weight of the scholarship on it; that Beowulf must be seen as a poem, not just as a historical document; and that the quality of its verse and its structure give it a powerful effect.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.
J. R. R. Tolkien's essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", initially delivered as a lecture in 1936, is regarded as a formative work in modern Beowulf studies. In it, Tolkien speaks against critics who play down the monsters in the poem, namely Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, in favour of using Beowulf solely as a source for Anglo-Saxon history. Tolkien argues that rather than being merely extraneous, these elements are key to the narrative and should be the focus of study. In doing so he drew attention to the previously neglected literary qualities of the poem and argued that it should be studied as a work of art, not just as a historical document. Later critics such as Hugh Magennis who agree with Tolkien on this point have cited him to defend their arguments.
The essay is a redacted version of a series of lectures that Tolkien delivered to Oxford undergraduates in the 1930s. Notes for these lectures exist in two manuscript versions published together in 2002 as Beowulf and the Critics, edited by Michael D. C. Drout; these offer some insight into the development of Tolkien's thinking on the poem, especially his much-quoted metaphor of the material of the poem as a tower. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" is available in various collections including the 1983 The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays edited by Christopher Tolkien.
Rebuttal of earlier critics
Tolkien begins by noting that the original book has almost been lost under the extensive "'literature'" (his inverted commas) on the subject. He explains that Beowulf had mainly been quarried as "an historical document", and that most of the praise and censure of the poem was due to beliefs that it was "something that it was not – for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic;" or because the scholar would have liked it to be something else, such as "a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica." Tolkien gives an allegory of a man who inherits a field full of stone from an old hall. He builds a tower with some of it, but when people find the stones are older than the tower, they pull it down "to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions".
Tolkien quotes at length what the scholar W. P. Ker thought of Beowulf, namely that "there is nothing much in the story", and that "the great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style". Tolkien notes that Ker's opinion had been a powerful influence in favour of a paradoxical contrast between the poem's supposed defect in speaking of monsters, and (in Tolkien's words) its agreed "dignity, loftiness in converse, and well-wrought finish". Tolkien cites other critics, such as Raymond Wilson Chambers and Ritchie Girvan, who objected to the poem's "wilderness of dragons" and its unworthy choice of theme. Tolkien finds it improbable that "a mind lofty and thoughtful", as evidenced by the quality of the poetry, "would write more than three thousand lines (wrought to a high finish) on matter that is really not worth serious attention". He notes that heroic human stories had been held to be superior to myth, but argues that myth has a special value: "For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected." Finally Tolkien states directly "We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon."
Man in a hostile world
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) 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.
Structure: youth versus age
Further information: On Translating Beowulf
The general structure of the poem is then clear, writes Tolkien. "It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death." Part A (youth) is lines 1 to 2199; part B (age) is lines 2200 to 3182 (the end).
A secondary division of the poem occurs, Tolkien writes, at line 1887, after which all the earlier story is summarized, so a complete account of Beowulf's tragedy is given between 1888 and the end, but without the account of the gloomy court of Heorot, or of the contrast between the young Beowulf and the old Hrothgar.
The poem's metre, too, is founded on a balance of two halves to each line, "more like masonry than music". Tolkien argues that the poem is not meant to be an exciting narrative, nor a romantic story, but a word-picture, "a method and structure that ... approaches rather to sculpture or painting. It is a composition not a tune." Far from being weakly structured, it "is curiously strong". It
is not an 'epic', nor even a magnified 'lay'. No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: there is no reason why they should. Though if we must have a term, we should choose rather 'elegy'. It is an heroic-elegiac poem; and in a sense all its first 3,136 lines are the prelude to a dirge.
A singular effect
Tolkien takes a moment to dismiss another criticism, that monsters should not have been made to appear in both halves. He replies he can see the point of no monsters, but not in complaining about their mere numbers; the poet could not, he argues, have balanced Beowulf's rise to fame through a war in Frisia, against death by dragon. Similarly, he dismisses notions that the poem is primitive: it is instead a late poem, using materials left over from a vanished age:
When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this;
Tolkien finishes by arguing that Beowulf "has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity;" and would still be powerful even if it came from some unknown time and place; but that in fact its language, Old English,
has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal – until the dragon comes.
Scholars and critics agree on the work's wide influence. Tom Shippey wrote that the essay "was seized upon eagerly, even gratefully, by generations of critics".Alvin A. Lee wrote that "Tolkien's manifesto and interpretation have had more influence on readers than any other single study, even though it has been challenged on just about every one of its major points."Seth Lerer wrote that the essay "may well be the originary piece of modern Beowulf criticism. … The strategies … control the fundamental assumptions of Old English scholarship for the next fifty years." R.D. Fulk commented that "No one denies the historical importance of this lecture. … opening the way to the formalist principles that played such a vital role in the subsequent development of further Beowulf scholarship. … the methodology … remains a model for emulation.".Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson call it in their Beowulf, An Edition (1998) "the most influential literary criticism of the poem ever written". George Clark calls it "The most influential critical essay on the poem", stating it without qualification or justification as a known fact.Michael Lapidge similarly names it "his widely influential critical discussion of the poem".
The scholar and translator Roy Liuzza commented that Tolkien's essay "is usually credited with re-establishing the fabulous elements and heroic combats at the center of the modern reader's appreciation of the poem." Liuzza at once went on to write, however, that "the separation of the poem into 'mythical' and 'historical' elements is a false dichotomy". He argues that if myth can condense and hold the deepest sources of tension between self and the social order, and dramatises current ideologies by projecting them into the past, then even the hero Beowulf's mythic fights are at the same time throwing light on society and history.
The historian Patrick Wormald wrote of the essay: "it would be no exaggeration to describe [it] as one of the most influential works of literary criticism of that century, and since which nothing in Beowulf studies has been quite the same." However, Wormald continues: "The arguments of Tolkien's paper were not universally accepted, and some of its effects would perhaps have been disowned by the author, but its general impact could be summarized by saying that most critics have learnt to take the Beowulf poet a great deal more seriously". Wormald added that
Tolkien argued powerfully that, for the Germanic mentality that gave birth to the myth of Ragnarök, the monsters of the poem were the only appropriate enemies for a great hero, and thus shifted Beowulf from the irrelevant fringes to the very centre of the Anglo-Saxon thought world. This naturally encouraged a pre-existent tendency to square the poem with what else was known of the 'serious' levels of Anglo-Saxon thought - chiefly the Latin scholarship of the Church. Secondly, Tolkien went far towards vindicating the structure of the poem by arguing that it was a balance of contrasting and interlocking halves. His thesis not only convinced many critics but inspired them to follow his example, with the result that Tolkien's own position has been outflanked. Whereas previous generations of scholars, Tolkien included, had been quite prepared to explain what they considered structural and stylistic blemishes as interpolations, modern writers seek evidence of artistic refinement in some of the poem's least promising features.
Michael D. C. Drout similarly describes the essay's importance and arguments, writing that it
is the most important article ever written about Beowulf … Tolkien's shadow looms long over Beowulf scholarship. Much of this influence is because of the enormous success of [the essay], which is viewed as the beginning of modern Beowulf criticism. … Tolkien was so influential ... because he developed a big-picture reading of the poem that has found favour with several generations of critics. … [He] made the first widely accepted case for viewing Beowulf as aesthetically successful, and he showed how the monsters in Beowulf were symbolic (not allegorical) representations of chaos and night, set in opposition to stability and civilization. … Thus, Tolkien interpreted the theme of Beowulf to be that "man, each man and all men and all their works shall die," a theme consistent with the heathen past but one that "no Christian need despise." It was this theme, Tolkien argued, that brought the great dignity to the poem that even scholars who had regretted the monsters had noted.
Drout then remarks on the paradoxical success of the essay:
The massive influence of "The Homecoming" and "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" is in some ways ironic. The great majority of Tolkien's work on Beowulf was of the sort represented by the textual commentry in Finn and Hengest—detailed, philological, historical, and infinitely painstaking. Yet the most influential of Tolkien's discussions of the poem are those in which he makes the greatest unsupported (or lightly supported) generalizations and in which he discusses the poem in the broadest possible terms. Tolkien would perhaps have seen a fundamental continuity between the detailed and philological and the broader and more interpret[at]ive work, but because of the accidents of publication—and because of Tolkien's great gift for rhetoric—only the latter has shaped the field of Beowulf criticism.
John D. Niles observed that "Bypassing earlier scholarship, critics of the past fifty years have generally traced the current era of Beowulf studies back to 1936", meaning to Tolkien's essay, which he called "eloquent and incisive". Niles argued that the essay quickly came to be a starting point, as scholars from then on assumed—with Tolkien—that the poem was "an aesthetic unity endowed with spiritual significance." In Niles's view, Tolkien thought that the battles with monsters and the sombre, elegiac tone of the poem expressed the "artistic designs of a deep thinker, religiously enlightened, who let his mind play over a lost heroic world of the imagination", in other words that the Beowulf poet was a man much like Tolkien. Niles cited George Clark's observation that Tolkien left Beowulf scholars with the "myth of the poet as brooding intellectual, poised between a dying pagan world and a nascent Christian one." Niles noted that Tolkien's view of the melancholic vision of the Beowulf poet, and of the heroic fatalism of the poem's leading characters, was not wholly new, but that his view of the poet himself as a hero was.
Joan Acocella, writing in The New Yorker, calls it "a paper that many people regard as not just the finest essay on the poem but one of the finest essays on English literature." She adds that "Tolkien preferred the monsters to the critics."
Regina Weinreich, reviewing The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays in The New York Times, wrote that the title essay "revolutionized the study of the early English poem Beowulf, in which a young hero crushes a human-handed monster called Grendel. Against the scorn of critics, Tolkien defends the centrality and seriousness of literary monsters, declaring his own belief in the symbolic value of such preternatural representations of sheer evil." Weinreich added that "Beowulf, like other ancient legends, served to nourish Tolkien's imagination."
John Garth, writing in The Guardian, describes the paper as "still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship. Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail". Garth notes that
Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not.
Tolkien's paper was praised by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his critically acclaimed translation of Beowulf. He wrote that the "epoch-making paper" stood out in considering Beowulf as literature. Heaney argued that Tolkien "took for granted the poem's integrity and distinction as a work of art", and showed how the poem achieved that status:
Tolkien assumed that the poet had felt his way through the inherited material - the fabulous elements and the traditional accounts of a heroic past - and by a combination of creative intuition and conscious structuring had arrived at a unity of effect and a balanced order. He assumed, in other words, that the Beowulf poet was an imaginative writer rather than some kind of back-formation derived from nineteenth-century folklore and philology.
Heaney called the paper's literary treatment "brilliant". He suggested that it had changed the way that Beowulf was valued, and that it had started "a new era of appreciation" of the poem.
New light from Tolkien's Beowulf translation
Tolkien's own translation of Beowulf, published posthumously in 2014 as Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, has been linked to the essay. Shippey has argued that the translation throws light on "what Tolkien really thought in 1936". Tolkien stated, for instance, that Beowulf was not an actual picture of Scandinavia around 500 AD, but was a self-consistent picture with the marks of design and thought. This might leave the reader wondering, commented Shippey, what exactly Tolkien meant by that. Shippey argued that there was evidence from the chronology given in the 2014 book, supported by the work of scholars such as Martin Rundkvist, that there was serious trouble among the eastern Geats, with migration and the taking over of mead-halls by new leaders, at that time, just as portrayed in the poem.
- Icelandic: Arndís Þórarinsdóttir, trans. (2013). Bjólfskviða: Forynjurnar og fræðimennirnir. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag. ISBN 9789979663096.
- ^ abcDrout, Michael D. C. (2007). Beowulf: Tolkien's Scholarship. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Taylor & Francis. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-415-96942-0.
- ^ abcdefgNiles, John D. (1998). "Beowulf, Truth, and Meaning". In Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P. p. 5. ISBN 0-8032-6150-0.
- ^ abShippey, Thomas A. (1998). "Structure and Unity". In Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. p. 163. ISBN 0-8032-6150-0.
- ^ abLe, Alvin A. (1998). "Symbolism and Allegory". In Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 240. ISBN 0-8032-6150-0.
- ^ abLerer, Seth (1998). "Beowulf and Contemporary Critical Theory". In Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 328,330. ISBN 0-8032-6150-0.
- ^ abFulk, R.D. (1991). "Preface". In Fulk, R.D. Interpretations of Beowulf. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP. pp. xi–xii. ISBN 0-253-32437-8.
- ^Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, p. 14, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1
- ^ abcdAcocella, Joan (2 June 2014). "Slaying Monsters: Tolkien's Beowulf". The New Yorker. Retrieved 23 November 2014.
- ^Magennis, Hugh (2011). Translating Beowulf: Modern Versions in English Verse. D.S.Brewer. pp. 6, 15–17. ISBN 978-1843842613.
- ^ abSharp, Tom. "J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf and the Critics. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout (Review)". San Francisco State University. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 5.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 6.
- ^ abTolkien 1997, p. 7.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 8.
- ^Tolkien 1997, pp. 10-11.
- ^Tolkien 1997, pp. 13-14.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 15.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 17.
- ^Tolkien 1997, pp. 19-20.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 21.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 23.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 25.
- ^ abTolkien 1997, p. 26.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 27.
- ^ abTolkien 1997, p. 28.
- ^ abcTolkien 1997, p. 30.
- ^Tolkien 1997, p. 31.
- ^ abTolkien 1997, p. 33.
- ^Tolkien 1997, pp. 33-34.
- ^Mitchell, Bruce; Robinson, Fred C. (1998). Beowulf: An Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631172260.
- ^Clark, George (1998). Bjork, Robert E.; Niles, John D., eds. The Hero and the Theme. A Beowulf Handbook. University of Nebraska Press. p. 279. ISBN 0-8032-6150-0.
- ^Michael Lapidge (January 1996). Anglo-Latin Literature, 600-899. A&C Black. p. 273. ISBN 978-1-85285-011-1.
- ^Liuzza, Roy (2013). Beowulf: Facing page translation (2nd ed.). Ontario, Canada: Broadview. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-55481-113-7.
- ^ abcWormald, Patrick (15 April 2008). Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and its Historian. John Wiley & Sons. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-470-69265-3.
- ^ abWeinreich, Regina (17 June 1984). "In Short: THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS: And Other Essays. By J. R. R. Tolkien". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- ^ abcGarth, John (22 March 2014). "JRR Tolkien's translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 November 2014.
- ^ abcdeHeaney, Seamus (2000) . Beowulf. Faber and Faber. p. xi. ISBN 0-571-20376-0.
- ^Shippey, Tom. "JRR Tolkien's Beowulf with Dr. Tom Shippey - Lecture 3". Signum University. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
- ^Rundkvist, Martin. "Mead-Halls of the Eastern Geats"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 16 March 2015. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
In the nineteen-twenties, there were probably few people better qualified to translate “Beowulf” than J. R. R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien. He had learned Old English and started reading the poem at an early age. He loved “Beowulf” and would declaim passages of it to the private literary club that he had founded with his schoolmates. “Hwæt!” (“Lo!”) he would begin. (He did the same, later, as a professor, at the beginning of Old English classes. Some of the students thought “Hwæt!” meant “Quiet!”) He also loved stories, especially medieval ones, with lots of wayfaring and dragon-slaying—activities prominent in his books “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” In 1920, he began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He needed money—by now he had a wife and children—and he supplemented his income by marking examination papers. Anyone could have told him that he should translate “Beowulf.” How this would have advanced his reputation! Finally, he sat down and did it. He finished the translation in 1926, at the age of thirty-four. Then he put it in a drawer and never published it. Now, forty years after his death, his son Christopher has brought it out (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is a thrill.
“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.
This unself-consciousness gives that world a sparkling vividness. Here are Beowulf and his men, after a journey, sailing back to Geatland (this and all uncredited translations are by Tolkien):
Forth sped the bark troubling the deep waters and forsook the land of the Danes. Then upon the mast was the raiment of the sea, the sail, with rope made fast. The watery timbers groaned. Nought did the wind upon the waves keep her from her course as she rode the billows. A traveller upon the sea she fared, fleeting on with foam about her throat over the waves, over the ocean-streams with wreathéd prow, until they might espy the Geatish cliffs and headlands that they knew. Urged by the airs up drove the bark. It rested upon the land.
The boat must have been enormous—it carries Beowulf and what seems to have been at least a dozen knights, plus their horses, their battle gear, and heaps of treasure. The timbers groan. Yet the boat fairly flies, gathering a necklace of sea foam. Then, suddenly, the men see the cliffs of their homeland and, mirroring their eagerness, the boat lands in five short words.
That passage is speed incarnate. Others, many others, are portraits of dark or light, such as the description of dinnertime at Hearot, the King of Denmark’s mead hall:
There was the sound of harp and the clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the first beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth, a vale of bright loveliness that the waters encircle; how triumphant He set the radiance of the sun and moon as a light for the dwellers in the lands.
But outside the hall there lurks a monster, Grendel. Grendel hates music, and for twelve years he has been coming to Hearot after dark, to prey on the Danish knights. The poet describes one of Grendel’s visits:
The door at once sprang back, barred with forgéd iron, when claws he laid on it. He wrenched then wide, baleful with raging heart, the gaping entrance of the house; then swift on the bright-patterned floor the demon paced. In angry mood he went, and from his eyes stood forth most like to flame unholy light. He in the house espied there many a man asleep, a throng of kinsmen side by side, and band of youthful knights. Then his heart laughed.
He seized one sleeping man, “biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down. Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.” How lovely, the bright-patterned floor. How appalling, Grendel’s dinner.
“Beowulf” is the story of the hero’s defeat of three successive monsters. The first is Grendel. The Geats are allies of the Danes, and Beowulf, who by then seems to be about thirty, decides to go to Denmark and rid it of this menace. It is hard to say what Grendel looks like. He is apparently about four times the size of a man. He has claws; he does not speak. But he also has human qualities. He has to enter Hearot by a door. When wounded, he bleeds, as Beowulf soon discovers. With his powerful hands, the hero grabs Grendel’s wrist and tears off his arm and shoulder. His shoulder! He then hangs the whole business—shoulder, arm, hand—from the rafters. Imagine the Danish knights drinking their mead as half of Grendel’s torso drips blood onto them. Grendel is the most real of the monsters. (It means something that he is the only one of the three who has a name.) As Seamus Heaney, another “Beowulf” translator, has written, Grendel “comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark.” Almost with embarrassment, you pity him somewhat. (Tolkien describes how, after the fight with Beowulf, Grendel, “sick at heart,” dragged himself home, “bleeding out his life.”) He is also a bit childlike. It is no surprise that John Gardner, in his 1971 novel “Grendel,” portrays the monster as a boy.
One reason Grendel seems childlike is that he has a mother. When her son comes home to die, Grendel’s mother goes on a rampage. So Beowulf must suit up again. The mother lives in a chamber below a stinking swamp: “The water surged with gore, with blood yet hot.” Beowulf dives right in, with his helmet on. His knights, afraid to join him, stand at the edge of the water. Grendel’s mother is waiting for him—with helpers, a gang of sea monsters, which tear at him with their tusks, to soften him up. Finally, she takes over. Demon or not, she clearly loved her son, and she goes at Beowulf with a blinding fury. The hero finds that his famous—and previously invincible—sword, Hrunting, is of no use against her plated hide. It bounces off her. But he sees, close by, another sword, forged by giants, which no man can pick up—except him. He waves it through the air, piercing the monster’s throat and breaking her neck bone. This is more horrid even than Beowulf’s removal of Grendel’s arm and shoulder, or, at least, it feels more painful. (It also shows a man killing a woman.) Before he leaves the den, Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, lying nearby. Normally, the poet says, it would have taken four men to pick up that head. But Beowulf carries it alone, to the surface, and hands it to his knights. When they get back to the mead hall, they tug it around by its hair, as a game.
Beowulf’s third fight, which takes place back home, in Geatland, is with a dragon, who, unlike Grendel and his mother, is less a monster than a symbol. He is not sad or weird. Indeed, he is rather glamorous. He is fifty feet long and breathes fire. He has wings—he can fly—and he doesn’t live in a nasty fen. He has a nice cave, where he guards a treasure that has been his for three hundred years, and which he feels strongly about. But now someone has come and stolen a jewelled cup. This enrages him, and he begins incinerating the Geatish countryside.
Many years have passed since Beowulf killed Grendel and his mother. He has become the King of the Geats and ruled them for fifty years. He is about eighty years old now, and tired. Still, to protect his people he must eliminate this menace. He sets out, but “heavy was his mood.” Speaking to his knights, he reviews his great deeds. He bids them farewell. In what is probably the poem’s most iconic image, he goes and sits on a promontory that juts out over the sea. (This says everything. Beowulf will soon be part of nature—the land, the sea.) As always, he insists on going into the contest alone. His knights, relieved, slink off into the forest. The dragon emerges from the cave, “blazing, gliding in loopéd curves.” Beowulf brings his huge sword down on the monster’s body, but, as with Grendel’s mother, it doesn’t make a dent. The dragon sinks his teeth into the hero’s neck. His blood “welled forth in gushing streams.”
Will he lose the fight? No. Not all his men ran into the forest. One young knight, Wiglaf, stayed and, unbeknownst to the King, followed him close behind. Seeing Beowulf wounded, Wiglaf rushes forth and stabs the dragon “a little lower down.” As the poet is too polite to say, Wiglaf took better aim than Beowulf did, and thus weakened the dragon to the point where the old man could go in for the kill. Beowulf has not lost his touch: “he ripped up the serpent.” That’s the end of the dragon—the Geatish knights unceremoniously dump the body over a cliff—but it’s also the end of Beowulf. Wiglaf unclasps the King’s helmet, and bathes his wounds, to no avail. In the final lines of the poem, we see the knights, in tears, riding their horses in a circle around Beowulf’s tomb. “Thus bemoaned the Geatish folk their master’s fall, comrades of his hearth, crying that he was ever of the kings of earth of men most generous and to men most gracious, to his people most tender and for praise most eager.”
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.
Another aspect of “Beowulf” that critics seeking a tidier poem deplore is the constant switching of time planes: the time-very-past, in which a noble tribe created the treasure that becomes the dragon’s hoard; the times-less-past (there are several), in which we are told of the greatness and the downfall of legendary kings and heroes; the time-present, in which Beowulf kills the monsters; the time-future, when other peoples, hearing of Beowulf’s death, will make bold to move against the Geats, and will conquer them, pressing them into slavery. Geatish maidens scream as they imagine it. They know that it will come to pass. This is like something out of “The Trojan Women.”
As the time planes collide, spoilers proliferate. When Beowulf goes to meet the dragon, the poet tells us fully four times that the hero is going to die. As in Greek tragedy, the audience for the poem knew the ending. It knew the middle, too, which is a good thing, since the events of Beowulf’s fifty-year reign are barely mentioned until the dragon appears. This bothered many early commentators. It did not bother Tolkien. The three fights were enough. Beowulf, Tolkien writes in his essay, was just a man:
And that for him and many is sufficient tragedy. It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone: lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod (life is transitory: light and life together hasten away). So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast.
According to Tolkien, “Beowulf” was not an epic or a heroic lay, which might need narrative thrust. It was just a poem—an elegy. Light and life hasten away.
Few people—indeed, few literary scholars—can read “Beowulf” in the original Old English. Most of them can barely refer to it. The characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey, poems that were written down more than a millennium before “Beowulf,” are known even to people who haven’t read their source. Achilles, Hector: in some parts of the world, babies are given these names. But people do not know the names of the characters in “Beowulf,” and, if they did, they still wouldn’t know how to pronounce them: Heoroweard, Ecgtheow, Daeghrefn. That is because Old English, as the standard language of the Anglo-Saxons, preceded the Norman invasion, in 1066, when the French, and their Latinate language, conquered England. Here are the lines, at the opening of “Beowulf,” that Tolkien used to shout out to his literary club:
Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
This sounds more like German than like English. If you don’t know German, it doesn’t sound like anything at all.
Old English did not become an object of academic study until the mid-nineteenth century, and by that time there was little chance of its being included, with Greek and Latin, as a requirement in university curricula. Also, little of the surviving Old English literature is artistically comparable to what Greece and Rome produced. In consequence, it was treated as a sidelong matter. In Tolkien’s time, Oxford required that students specializing in English literature know the language well enough to be able to read, and translate from, the first half of “Beowulf.” That is why Tolkien had a job: at Oxford, for decades, he taught the first half of “Beowulf.”
Then, there were the conventions of Old English poetry. “Beowulf” does not rhyme at the ends of its lines, and it doesn’t have a rhythm as regular as, say, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Instead, each line has a caesura, or a division in the middle, and the two halves of the line are linked by alliteration. (Look at the opening line that Tolkien recited to his literary club: “Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum.”) The pattern of the consonants creates the stresses, and thereby the rhythm.
What is the modern translator to do with this? It is hard, in discussing Tolkien’s translation, not to compare it with Seamus Heaney’s famous 2000 version. Heaney was a poet by trade—indeed, a Nobel laureate in literature—and to him it would probably have been unthinkable to translate “Beowulf” as anything but verse. He also chose to obey the “Beowulf” poet’s prosody: the caesura, the alliteration. As for tone, he says that the language of “Beowulf” reminded him of his family’s native Gaelic: solemn, “big voiced.” This magniloquence, it seems to me, is the leading edge, linguistically, of Heaney’s poem. It is an Irish-sounding translation, and he wanted it that way.
To achieve all this, he had to make some compromises. Consider the lines where Tolkien shows us Grendel eating a knight. The monster seizes the man, “biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down. Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.” In Heaney’s translation, the monster, picking up the knight,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.
Here, for the sake of alliteration and rhythm, we lose, among other things, the great gobbets (what a phrase!), the idea of using a man as food, and, most unfortunately, the picture of Grendel eating the feet and hands. Heaney’s “hand and foot” seems to mean just that Grendel went from the top of the man to the bottom. We don’t have to imagine, as we do in Tolkien’s translation, the monster crunching on the little bones and the cartilage—harder to swallow, no doubt, than the “great gobbets.” We’re forced to think about what it would be like to eat a man.
The same problems arise from line to line. Heaney, to his credit, took responsibility for this poem, and turned it into something that regular people would want to read, and enjoy. (Who knew that a translation of a poem more than a thousand years old, about people killing dragons, could reach the top of the Times best-seller list?) In the words of Andrew Motion, in the Financial Times, Heaney “made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece.” I have no doubt that Heaney grieved over some of the choices he had to make, but by his rules he had to act as an artist, create a new poem. This is the sacrifice always made in a “free” translation. To help those who could read Old English, he reproduced the original on facing pages.
Tolkien, though he wrote poetry, did not consider himself primarily a poet, and his “Beowulf” is a prose translation. In the words of Christopher Tolkien, his father “determined to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem, far closer than could ever be attained by translation into ‘alliterative verse,’ but with some suggestion of the rhythm of the original.” In fact, the alliteration is there throughout. Consequently, you can tap out the rhythm, with your foot, line by line. But Tolkien doesn’t insist on any of this.
Such acts of faithfulness do not necessarily make his poem more accessible to the modern reader than Heaney’s free translation. Especially because Tolkien reproduces the “Beowulf” poet’s inversions (“Didst thou for Hrothgar king renowned in any wise amend his grief so widely noised?”), his translation is probably harder to read. But you get used to the inversions; you can understand the sentence even if you have to read it twice. And what is won by the archaism—or just by the willingness to sound strange, as in the “feet and hands”—is a rare immediacy.
Why did Tolkien never publish his “Beowulf”? It could be said that he didn’t have the time. As he was finishing his translation, he got the appointment at Oxford and had to move his family. Such a disruption can put a writer off his feed. A few years later, he began “The Hobbit,” which, with its three sequels, in “The Lord of the Rings,” took up many of his remaining healthy years. It has also been argued, by Tolkien’s very sympathetic biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, that he was too much of a perfectionist to let the poem go. Christopher Tolkien, in the introduction to “Beowulf,” says that, in editing, the typescript he worked from—and this was a “clean” copy, a retyping from preceding marked-up copies—was full of changes, plus marginal notes as to other, possible changes. Christopher also supplies a commentary consisting of Tolkien’s lectures on “Beowulf” and the notes he wrote to himself before and after the lectures. This material, which Christopher says he cut substantially, is longer than the poem: two hundred and seventeen pages, as opposed to ninety-three. So although Tolkien told his publisher in 1926 that he had finished the translation, he went on fiddling with it for a long time. When he published “The Hobbit,” in 1937, a number of his colleagues said to him, “Now we know what you have been doing all these years!” But he wasn’t just writing “The Hobbit.” He hadn’t stopped working on “Beowulf.”
Was this really due primarily to perfectionism? “Beowulf” was by no means Tolkien’s only translation from Old English, and he gave a number of them, such as “Pearl” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the same treatment that he gave “Beowulf.” Both “Pearl” and “Sir Gawain” were actually set in print, but Tolkien could not bring himself to write the introductions, and so the contracts lapsed. Nor should it be thought that Tolkien’s problem was that he feared criticism from other scholars of Old English. “The Hobbit,” too, though it was not an academic enterprise, was laid aside for years, until a representative of the publisher George Allen & Unwin went to Oxford to see Tolkien, borrowed the typescript, read it, and prevailed upon him to complete it.
Another possible explanation for Tolkien’s putting “Beowulf” aside—a theory that has been advanced in the case of many unpublished manuscripts—is that the work was so important to him that if he finished it his life, or the life of his mind, would be over. I think this makes some sense. “Beowulf” was Tolkien’s lodestar. Everything he did led up to or away from it. This idea suggests another. Tolkien was a serious philologist from the time he was a child. He and his cousin Mary had a private language, Nevbosh, and wrote limericks in it. One of their efforts went:
Dar fys ma vel gom co palt “Hoc
Pys go iskili far maino woc?
Pro si go fys do roc de
Do cat ym maino bocte
De volt fact soc ma taimful gyroc!”
(“There was an old man who said ‘How / Can I possibly carry my cow? / For if I were to ask it /To get in my basket / It would make such a terrible row!’ ”) Later, he made up a private alphabet, and then another, to use in writing his diary.
As an adult, Tolkien could read many languages—and he made up more, including Elvish—but the number is not the point. Even in secondary school, Carpenter says, “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all.” Or, in the words of C. S. Lewis, his closest friend, for a time, in adulthood, he had been inside language. Perhaps he couldn’t come back out. By this I don’t mean that he couldn’t talk to his wife or his postman, but that Old English, or at least that of “Beowulf,” was where he was happiest. He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one. The sympathy may have gone even deeper. Like Beowulf, Tolkien was an orphan. (He was taken in by his grandparents.) He grew up in the West Midlands, and said that the “Beowulf” poet, too, was probably from there. He did not have difficulty living in a world of images and symbols. (He was a Catholic from childhood.) He liked golden treasure and coiled dragons. Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love. ♦