Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics
Something was bothering J. R. R. Tolkien.
And in the Fall of 1936, he finally spoke to the British Academy about it.
It had to do with an Anglo-Saxon poem called Beowulf. It was a poem he’d been teaching for years. One he had translated and loved. But again and again scholars and critics belittled it because it included dragons (I know this is a touchy subject to bring up in a library full of dragons, but we’ll keep our voices low). The dragons, they said, were a sad mistake on the author’s part. They believed these monsters were below the poet’s talent, that he could have done better with his material.
And his defense of the author’s dragons—and the poem’s worth—is the overall theme of this exhibit.
As you go through this room, you’ll be able to move from photo to photo the way you move from object to object in a museum. Each photo is related to an idea inspired by Tolkien’s speech. And that idea is written out beside the photo, like a plaque next to an artifact.
The Monsters Under the Microscope
So why did the critics think the dragons a bad idea? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because they believed the author of Beowulf had a great opportunity to tell us solid facts about the very real past and instead he gave us dragons. “We really could have learned something!” they cried collectively. “If only the poet had thought of us anthropologists.” Or as Tolkien put it, the critics were feeling “disappointment at the discovery that [Beowulf] was itself and not something the scholar would have liked better.” I mean, why wasn’t it a history of Sweden, or a Nordic book of theology? Darn it, why was it only about a man slaying dragons? “Well, the poem must go to the lab if we’re going to get anything useful out of it,” the critics said, shaking their heads.
So Beowulf’s monsters were squeezed under the lens of a historical microscope to be scrutinized for facts. And what did the dragons look like at 1,250x? Like green, gloopy blurs. Just distractions. To Tolkien, the result was a loss of seeing what the poet actually wanted to do with the material. Don’t get me wrong, studying objects under high-powered magnification is admirable work. But if paint were only ever studied at the molecular level, we’d miss out on Monet’s Water Lilies.
From the Top of this Tower
So what was the poet doing? What were his Water Lilies? Tolkien gave us a hint when he told the British Academy the shortest story he had ever crafted.
“A man inherited a field in which there was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall.” Then he explained that from this old stone the man built a tower. His friends saw it and immediately realized, “without troubling to climb the steps,” that the stones were of historic interest. “So they pushed the tower over,” because maybe they could find hidden carvings, or tell where the man’s ancestors had gotten their building material, or—and then they got distracted with a coal deposit and “forgot even the stones.” Even the man’s family (though they thought the tower very interesting) wondered why he would build something so pointless. “But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea,” Tolkien told them.
Why bother with a story about monsters when there was so much information to be gained? Because of exactly this: writing about monsters allowed the poet to look out upon the sea. And not any sea we can find on earth, but that great, vast ocean in every man’s heart where he does battle, ship to ship. The poet wanted to see that.
The critics had another bone to pick. Beowulf, they said, muddled up a pagan tradition with a Christian one. The monsters are called “adversaries of God” and yet are “mortal denizens of the material world, in it and of it.” To the critics, this proved the poet was confused and that the early Anglo-Saxons couldn’t keep “Scandinavian bogies and the Scriptures separate in their puzzled brains.” But was that true? Was the poet really fumbling around with two traditions, blending them without purpose? He was a skilled poet, accusing him of being that clumsy with his material would be like accusing a skilled painter of not understanding how to blend paints to make a new color. No, I believe it’s worth our while to ask if the poet saw something in both traditions that made blending them irresistible, that perhaps, to him, they actually worked well together. Tolkien told the Academy, “In the poem I think we observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion.”
The Alchemy of Talent
“But the plot!” the critics cried. “It’s just so thin and cheap!” If the poet wasn’t going to give them a book on theology or history, they at least wanted something better than the basic hero story. I mean, why choose the slaying of dragons as a topic “when to our modern judgement there were at hand so many greater”?
Tolkien was at a loss for words. Okay, not really. He told the Academy, “This poetic talent, we are to understand, has all been squandered on an unprofitable theme: as if Milton had recounted the story of Jack and the Beanstalk in noble verse.” But let’s say Milton had recounted Jack and the Beanstalk in noble verse. “We should perhaps pause to consider whether his poetic handling had not had some effect upon the trivial theme; what alchemy had been performed on the base metal; whether indeed it remained base and trivial when he had finished with it.”
The critics had stripped the poem of its flesh and were rifling through its bones, pointing out that the skeleton was the same as that of every story. So nothing new. What a waste. Of course it is nothing new, Tolkien told them, but no, it is definitely not a waste. Every story has the same basic bones, what makes it of value is when it is touched by the strange and wild alchemy of human Talent. “Where then resides the virtue of Beowulf…? It resides, one might guess, in the theme, and the spirit this has infused into the whole.”
Hall of Stories
We would have solid memories indeed if we could recount, in detail, every story we’ve ever read. Our choices are endless. Our access protected. But you and I both know this is a young privilege. It wasn’t always this way. Tolkien reminded the Academy of this when he said,
“In considering a period when literature was narrower in range and men possessed a less diversified stock of ideas and themes, one must seek to recapture and esteem the deep pondering and profound feeling that they gave to such as they possessed.”
Have you ever re-read a book and realized how much you’d missed the first time around? Did you feel closer to the characters? Maybe sympathize with their struggles more? When looking at history and the stories that were told in the past, it’s crucial to remember people didn’t have access to Amazon. So the stories they possessed mattered. They read them over and over and they meant more and more. It was all they had.
Now comes the modern day. We love reading history and literature from all over the world. And here is where, for me, I know I can fall into, as Tolkien put it, “chronological snobbery”. I can look at the past and judge it through the lens of my privilege and good fortune. If I do, I will make the same mistake as the critics, though in the opposite direction. Because dragons are now accepted creatures in our fiction, I might say of Beowulf, “Well, here’s just another dragon.” And there it is—chronological snobbery. Beowulf’s dragon was not “just another dragon” to the hearers of the poem. It meant something profound. I must put my modern head aside for a moment and try to put myself in the place of those who stood in Heorot, that hall of stories, and heard, for the first or twentieth time about the fire-drake. What feelings would that monster have conjured up inside them as the cold fog rolled down the hillsides? More than it means to me as I walk down the fantasy isle at Barnes and Noble. I must remember the year in which I live and the effect it has on image and meaning.
So the critics took their punches. And, somehow, they all feel familiar. Perhaps we’ve heard these criticisms spoken of us? Of course, the words may have been a little altered (I’d guess anyway, I may be wrong), but the idea behind them is there. They come at us wave after wave: Why is your life about dragons? Don’t you know there are other more important facts to be interested in? Why are you building a new tower, and not the old hall? You have no sense of proportion. Oh, those two colors do not go together. I’ve seen your story before. Very predictable. I know exactly how it’ll end.
And we are our own most damaging critic.
Remember this: your life is about dragons because you’re a hero. You’re building that tower because you want to look out upon the sea. You blended those two colors, because you’re creating a masterpiece. You’re the alchemist of your life, even though you, the closest to the work, may sometimes fall short of seeing its enchantment.
Launch out on that ocean. Take that brave ship. Cut through those waves and slay the monsters. And a few critics if you have to.
Written by Deborah Marino, March 30, 2016.
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