09 Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Title: Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics
Author(s): J. R. R. Tolkien

Full Text:
[In the following excerpt from a 1936 British Academy lecture, Tolkien asserts that Beowulf, in addition to possessing
historical and linguistic significance, is the most successful poem in Old English literature based upon its aesthetic qualities.]
I have read enough, I think, to venture the opinion that Beowulfiana is, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one.
It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem. It has been said of Beowulf itself
that its weakness lies in placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important on the outer edges. This is one of the
opinions that I wish specially to consider. I think it profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it.
Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art….
So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so
interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely
independent even of the most important facts (such as the date and identity of Hygelac) that research has discovered. It is
indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical
misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely
a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense—a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not
unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and
not an historical object. The lovers of poetry can safely study the art, but the seekers after history must beware lest the
glamour of Poesis overcome them.
Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was
something that it was not—for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic;
or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better—for
example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica….
It is not surprising that it should now be felt that a view, a decision, a conviction are imperatively needed. But it is plainly
only in the consideration of Beowulf as a poem, with an inherent poetic significance, that any view or conviction can be
reached or steadily held….
Although there is plainly considerable difference between the later Norse and the ancient English form of the story alluded to
in Beowulf, already there it had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the
greatest of heroes—he waes wrenccena wide maerost [“he was the most famous hero-adventurer”]. A dragon is no idle fancy.
Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in
significance than his barrow is in gold….
Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon
enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind—as tha se wyrm onwoc,
wroht waes geniwad; stonc aefter stane [“By then, also, the dragon had wakened and with it new strife. It slithered and
sniffed along the stone walls”], 2285—in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the
conception, none the less, approaches draconitas [“dragonishness”] rather than draco [“dragon ”]: a personification of
malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not
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good or bad (the evil aspect of all life). But for Beowulf, the poem, that is as it should be. In this poem the balance is nice, but
it is preserved. The large symbolism is near the surface, but it does not break through, nor become allegory. Something more
significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and
yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North. And this, we are told, is the
radical defect of Beowulf, that its author, coming in a time rich in the legends of heroic men, has used them afresh in an
original fashion, giving us not just one more, but something akin yet different: a measure and interpretation of them all.
We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon. Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men
caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to
the wall. But Beowulf, I fancy, plays a larger part than is recognized in helping us to esteem them. Heroic lays may have dealt
in their own way— we have little enough to judge by— a way more brief and vigorous, perhaps, though perhaps also more
harsh and noisy (and less thoughtful), with the actions of heroes caught in circumstances that conformed more or less to the
varied but fundamentally simple recipe for an heroic situation. In these (if we had them) we could see the exaltation of
undefeated will, which receives doctrinal expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon. But though with
sympathy and patience we might gather, from a line here or a tone there, the background of imagination which gives to this
indomitability, this paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged, its full significance, it is in Beowulf that a poet has
devoted a whole poem to the theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with
the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time. The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre….
Beowulf is not … the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is 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 laene: eal scaeceth leoht and lif somod [“life is
transitory: all men leave this world and life together”]. 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, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion.
I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the
underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness. The key to the fusion-point of imagination
that produced this poem lies, therefore, in those very references to Cain which have often been used as a stick to beat an
ass—taken as an evident sign (were any needed) of the muddled heads of early Anglo-Saxons….
It is through [a blending of Christian and Norse materials and traditions] that there was available to a poet who set out to
write a poem—and in the case of Beowulf we may probably use this very word— on a scale and plan unlike a minstrel’s lay,
both new faith and new learning (or education), and also a body of native tradition (itself requiring to be learned) for the
changed mind to contemplate together. The native “learning” cannot be denied in the case of Beowulf. Its display has
grievously perturbed the critics, for the author draws upon tradition at will for his own purposes, as a poet of later times
might draw upon history or the classics and expect his allusions to be understood (within a certain class of hearers). He was
in fact, like Virgil, learned enough in the vernacular department to have an historical perspective, even an antiquarian
curiosity. He cast his time into the long-ago, because already the long-ago had a special poetical attraction. He knew much
about old days, and though his knowledge—of such things as sea-burial and the funeral pyre, for instance—was rich and
poetical rather than accurate with the accuracy of modern archaeology (such as that is), one thing he knew clearly: those days
were heathen—heathen, noble, and hopeless….
[Beowulf’s author] is concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man,
each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be
so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret,
is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the
history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say “culture” or “civilization”) ends
in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated— it does not arise out of the material. We get in fact a poem from a
pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a
general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he
was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from
within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with
the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse. Grendel inhabits the visible world and eats the
flesh and blood of men; he enters their houses by the doors. The dragon wields a physical fire, and covets gold not souls; he is
slain with iron in his belly. Beowulf’s byrne was made by Weland, and the iron shield he bore against the serpent by his own
smiths: it was not yet the breastplate of righteousness, nor the shield of faith for the quenching of all the fiery darts of the
Almost we might say that this poem was (in one direction) inspired by the debate that had long been held and continued after,
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and that it was one of the chief contributions to the controversy: shall we or shall we not consign the heathen ancestors to
perdition? What good will it do posterity to read the battles of Hector? Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? [“What has Ingeld to do
with Christ?”] The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas [“piety”] which treasures the memory
of man’s struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned. It would seem to have been
part of the English temper in its strong sense of tradition, dependent doubtless on dynasties, noble houses, and their code of
honour, and strengthened, it may be, by the more inquisitive and less severe Celtic learning, that it should, at least in some
quarters and despite grave and Gallic voices, preserve much from the northern past to blend with southern learning, and new
It has been thought that the influence of Latin epic, especially of the Aeneid, is perceptible in Beowulf, and a necessary
explanation, if only in the exciting of emulation, of the development of the long and studied poem in early England. There is,
of course, a likeness in places between these greater and lesser things, the Aeneid and Beowulf, if they are read in
conjunction. But the smaller points in which imitation or reminiscence might be perceived are inconclusive, while the real
likeness is deeper and due to certain qualities in the authors independent of the question whether the Anglo-Saxon had read
Virgil or not. It is this deeper likeness which makes things, that are either the inevitabilities of human poetry or the accidental
congruences of all tales, ring alike. We have the great pagan on the threshold of the change of the world; and the great (if
lesser) Christian just over the threshold of the great change in his time and place: the backward view….
But we will now return once more to the monsters, and consider especially the difference of their status in the northern and
southern mythologies. Of Grendel it is said: Godes yrre baer [“he bore God’s wrath”]. But the Cyclops is god-begotten and
his maiming is an offence against his begetter, the god Poseidon. This radical difference in mythological status is only
brought out more sharply by the very closeness of the similarity in conception (in all save mere size) that is seen, if we
compare Beowulf, 740 ff., with the description of the Cyclops devouring men in Odyssey, ix— or still more in Aeneid, iii.
622 ff. In Virgil, whatever may be true of the fairy-tale world of the Odyssey, the Cyclops walks veritably in the historic
world. He is seen by Aeneas in Sicily, monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens [“a fearful, hideous, prodigious monstrosity”],
as much a perilous fact as Grendel was in Denmark, earmsceapen on weres waestmum … naefne he waes mara thonne aenig
man other [“misshapen, stalked marshy wastes in the track of an exile, except that he was larger than any other man”]; as real
as Acestes or Hrothgar….
[Southern mythology does not have] the monsters in the centre—as they are in Beowulf to the astonishment of the critics. But
such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges and under suspicion of being connected with
the Government. 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 honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. “As a working
theory absolutely impregnable.” So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary
ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with
the gothlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw
clearly: the wages of heroism is death….
I think that the passages in Beowulf concerning the giants and their war with God, together with the two mentions of Cain (as
the ancestor of the giants in general and Grendel in particular) are specially important.
They are directly connected with Scripture, yet they cannot be dissociated from the creatures of northern myth, the
ever-watchful foes of the gods (and men). The undoubtedly scriptural Cain is connected with eotenas and ylfe [“giants” and
“elves”], which are the jotnar and alfar of Norse. But this is not due to mere confusion—it is rather an indication of the
precise point at which an imagination, pondering old and new, was kindled. At this point new Scripture and old tradition
touched and ignited. It is for this reason that these elements of Scripture alone appear in a poem dealing of design with the
noble pagan of old days. For they are precisely the elements which bear upon this theme. Man alien in a hostile world,
engaged in a struggle which he cannot win while the world lasts, is assured that his foes are the foes also of Dryhten, that his
courage noble in itself is also the highest loyalty: so said thyle and clerk.
In Beowulf we have … an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one—literal historical fidelity founded on
modern research was, of course, not attempted. It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the
heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical. So far from being a confused semipagan
—historically unlikely for a man of this sort in the period—he brought probably first to his task a knowledge of Christian
poetry, especially that of the Caedmon school, and especially Genesis. He makes his minstrel sing in Heorot of the Creation
of the earth and the lights of Heaven. So excellent is this choice as the theme of the harp that maddened Grendel lurking
joyless in the dark without that it matters little whether this is anachronistic or not. Secondly, to his task the poet brought a
considerable learning in native lays and traditions: only by learning and training could such things be acquired, they were no
more born naturally into an Englishman of the seventh or eighth centuries, by simple virtue of being an “Anglo-Saxon,” than
ready-made knowledge of poetry and history is inherited at birth by modern children.
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It would seem that, in his attempt to depict ancient pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of
the good for truth, he turned naturally when delineating the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament. In the folces hyrde
[“guardian of the people”] of the Danes we have much of the shepherd patriarchs and kings of Israel, servants of the one God,
who attribute to His mercy all the good things that come to them in this life. We have in fact a Christian English conception
of the noble chief before Christianity, who could lapse (as could Israel) in times of temptation into idolatry. On the other
hand, the traditional matter in English, not to mention the living survival of the heroic code and temper among the noble
households of ancient England, enabled him to draw differently, and in some respects much closer to the actual heathen
haeleth [“hero” or “warrior”], the character of Beowulf, especially as a young knight, who used his great gift of maegen
[“strength”] to earn dom [“glory”] and lof[“praise”] among men and posterity.
Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Sweden about A.D. 500. But it is (if with certain minor
defects) on a general view of a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought. The
whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet’s contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past,
pagan but noble and fraught with a deep significance— a past that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity
of sorrow. This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly
darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground….
The criticism that the important matters are put on the outer edges misses this point of artistry, and indeed fails to see why the
old things have in Beowulf such an appeal: it is the poet himself who made antiquity so appealing. His poem has more value
in consequence, and is a greater contribution to early mediaeval thought than the harsh and intolerant view that consigned all
the heroes to the devil. We may be thankful that the product of so noble a temper has been preserved by chance (if such it be)
from the dragon of destruction.
The general structure of the poem, so viewed, is not really difficult to perceive, if we look to the main points, the strategy, and
neglect the many points of minor tactics. We must dismiss, of course, from mind the notion that Beowulf is a “narrative
poem,” that it tells a tale or intends to tell a tale sequentially. The poem “lacks steady advance”: so Klaeber heads a critical
section in his edition [of Beowulf]. But the poet was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. 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. It is divided in consequence into two opposed portions, different in matter, manner, and length: A from 1 to 2199
(including an exordium of 52 lines); B from 2200 to 3182 (the end). There is no reason to cavil at this proportion; in any case,
for the purpose and the production of the required effect, it proves in practice to be right.
This simple and static structure, solid and strong, is in each part much diversified, and capable of enduring this treatment. In
the conduct of the presentation of Beowulf’s rise to fame on the one hand, and of his kingship and death on the other,
criticism can find things to question, especially if it is captious, but also much to praise, if it is attentive. But the only serious
weakness, or apparent weakness, is the long recapitulation: the report of Beowulf to Hygelac. This recapitulation is well
done. Without serious discrepancy it retells rapidly the events in Heorot, and retouches the account; and it serves to illustrate,
since he himself describes his own deeds, yet more vividly the character of a young man, singled out by destiny, as he steps
suddenly forth in his full powers. Yet this is perhaps not quite sufficient to justify the repetition. The explanation, if not
complete justification, is probably to be sought in different directions.
For one thing, the old tale was not first told or invented by this poet. So much is clear from investigation of the folk-tale
analogues. Even the legendary association of the Scyldingcourt with a marauding monster, and with the arrival from abroad
of a champion and deliverer was probably already old. The plot was not the poet’s; and though he has infused feeling and
significance into its crude material, that plot was not a perfect vehicle of the theme or themes that came to hidden life in the
poet’s mind as he worked upon it. Not an unusual event in literature. For the contrast— youth and death—it would probably
have been better, if we had no journeying. If the single nation of the Geatas had been the scene, we should have felt the stage
not narrower, but symbolically wider. More plainly should we have perceived in one people and their hero all mankind and its
heroes. This at any rate I have always myself felt in reading Beowulf; but I have also felt that this defect is rectified by the
bringing of the tale of Grendel to Geatland. As Beowulf stands in Hygelac’s hall and tells his story, he sets his feet firm again
in the land of his own people, and is no longer in danger of appearing a mere wrecca, an errant adventurer and slayer of
bogies that do not concern him.
There is in fact a double division in the poem: the fundamental one already referred to, and a secondary but important
division at line 1887. After that the essentials of the previous part are taken up and compacted, so that all the tragedy of
Beowulf is contained between 1888 and the end. But, of course, without the first half we should miss much incidental
illustration;we should miss also the dark background of the court of Heorot that loomed as large in glory and doom in ancient
northern imagination as the court of Arthur: no vision of the past was complete without it. And (most important) we should
lose the direct contrast of youth and age in the persons of Beowulf and Hrothgar which is one of the chief purposes of this
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section: it ends with the pregnant words oth thaet hine yldo benam maegenes wynnum, se the oft manegum scod [“till age
took from him the joy of his strength—a thing that harms many”].
In any case we must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale. The very nature of Old
English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end,
and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an
opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often
rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music. In this fundamental fact of poetic expression I
think there is a parallel to the total structure of Beowulf. Beowulf is indeed the most successful Old English poem because in
it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony. Judgement of the verse has often gone
astray through listening for an accentual rhythm and pattern: and it seems to halt and stumble. Judgement of the theme goes
astray through considering it as the narrative handling of a plot: and it seems to halt and stumble. Language and verse, of
course, differ from stone or wood or paint, and can be only heard or read in a time-sequence; so that in any poem that deals at
all with characters and events some narrative element must be present. We have none the less in Beowulf a method and
structure that within the limits of the verse-kind approaches rather to sculpture or painting. It is a composition not a tune.
This is clear in the second half. In the struggle with Grendel one can as a reader dismiss the certainty of literary experience
that the hero will not in fact perish, and allow oneself to share the hopes and fears of the Geats upon the shore. In the second
part the author has no desire whatever that the issue should remain open, even according to literary convention. There is no
need to hasten like the messenger, who rode to bear the lamentable news to the waiting people (2892 ff.). They may have
hoped, but we are not supposed to. By now we are supposed to have grasped the plan. Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the
theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable
victory of death.
“In structure,” it was said of Beowulf, “it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous,” though great merits of detail were
allowed. In structure actually it is curiously strong, in a sense inevitable, though there are defects of detail. The general
design of the poet is not only defensible, it is, I think, admirable. There may have previously existed stirring verse dealing in
straightforward manner and even in natural sequence with the Beowulf’s deeds, or with the fall of Hygelac; or again with the
fluctuations of the feud between the houses of Hrethel the Great and Ongentheow the Swede; or with the tragedy of the
Heathobards, and the treason that destroyed the Scylding dynasty. Indeed this must be admitted to be practically certain: it
was the existence of such connected legends— connected in the mind, not necessarily dealt with in chronicle fashion or in
long semi-historical poems—that permitted the peculiar use of them in Beowulf. This poem cannot be criticized or
comprehended, if its original audience is imagined in like case to ourselves, possessing only Beowulf in splendid isolation.
For Beowulf was not designed to tell the tale of Hygelac’s fall, or for that matter to give the whole biography of Beowulf, still
less to write the history of the Geatish kingdom and its downfall. But it used knowledge of these things for its own
purpose—to give that sense of perspective, of antiquity with a greater and yet darker antiquity behind. These things are
mainly on the outer edges or in the background because they belong there, if they are to function in this way. But in the center
we have an heroic figure of enlarged proportions.
Beowulf is not an “epic,” not 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: him tha gegiredan Geata leode ad ofer eorthan unwaclicne
[“the Geatish people then built a pyre on that high ground, no mean thing”]: one of the most moving ever written. But for the
universal significance which is given to the fortunes of its hero it is an enhancement and not a detraction, in fact it is
necessary, that his final foe should be not some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by
imagination for just such a purpose. Nowhere does a dragon come in so precisely where he should. But if the hero falls before
a dragon, then certainly he should achieve his early glory by vanquishing a foe of similar order.
There is, I think, no criticism more beside the mark than that which some have made, complaining that it is monsters in both
halves that is so disgusting; one they could have stomached more easily. That is nonsense. I can see the point of asking for no
monsters. I can also see the point of the situation in Beowulf. But no point at all in mere reduction of numbers. It would really
have been preposterous, if the poet had recounted Beowulf’s rise to fame in a “typical” or “commonplace” war in Frisia, and
then ended him with a dragon. Or if he had told of his cleansing of Heorot, and then brought him to defeat and death in a
“wild” or “trivial” Swedish invasion! If the dragon is the right end for Beowulf, and I agree with the author that it is, then
Grendel is an eminently suitable beginning. They are creatures, feond mancynnes [“solitary sinners against mankind”], of a
similar order and kindred significance. Triumph over the lesser and more nearly human is cancelled by defeat before the older
and more elemental. And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment: not in earliest youth, though the nicors are
referred to in Beowulf’s geogothfeore [“period of youth”] as a presage of the kind of hero we have to deal with; and not
during the later period of recognized ability and prowess, but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when
men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth. The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but
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die upon his death-day.
I will conclude by drawing an imaginary contrast. Let us suppose that our poet had chosen a theme more consonant with “our
modern judgment”; the life and death of St. Oswald. He might then have made a poem, and told first of Heavenfield, when
Oswald as a young prince against all hope won a great victory with a remnant of brave men; and then have passed at once to
the lamentable defeat of Oswestry, which seemed to destroy the hope of Christian Northumbria; while all the rest of Oswald’s
life, and the traditions of the royal house and its feud with that of Delta might be introduced allusively or omitted. To any one
but an historian in search of facts and chronology this would have been a fine thing, an heroic-elegiac poem greater than
history. It would be much better than a plain narrative, in verse or prose, however steadily advancing. This mere arrangement
would at once give it more significance than a straightforward account of one king’s life: the contrast of rising and setting,
achievement and death. But even so it would fall far short of Beowulf. Poetically it would be greatly enhanced if the poet had
taken violent liberties with history and much enlarged the reign of Oswald, making him old and full of years of care and glory
when he went forth heavy with foreboding to face the heathen Penda: the contrast of youth and age would add enormously to
the original theme, and give it a more universal meaning. But even so it would still fall short of Beowulf. To match his theme
with the rise and fall of poor “folk-tale” Beowulf the poet would have been obliged to turn Cadwallon and Penda into giants
and demons. It is just because the main foes in Beowulf are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant than this
imaginary poem of a great king’ s fall. It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of
human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes, and surpasses the dates and limits of historical
periods, however important. At the beginning, and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a
visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts— lixte se leoma ofer landa fela [“its
gold-hammered roofs shone over the land”]— and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring
lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. Grendel is maddened by the sound of harps.
And one last point, which those will feel who to-day preserve the ancient pietas towards the past: Beowulf is not a
“primitive” poem; it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing,
a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of
imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. 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; and though Beowulf
may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and
peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it
contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after
many centuries 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….
Source Citation
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-295. Rpt. in
World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale’s Literary Criticism Series. Ed. Polly
Vedder. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.
Document URL
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