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Overview[ edit ] J. Tolkien 's essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", initially delivered as a lecture in , is regarded as a formative work in modern Beowulf studies.
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neglected literary qualities of the poem and argued that it should be studied as a work of art , not just as a historical document. 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. Tolkien's argument[ edit ] Rebuttal of earlier critics[ edit ] Tolkien's essay repeatedly responds to comments by William Paton Ker.
He explains that Beowulf had mainly been quarried as "an historical document",  and that most of the praise and censure of the poem was due to beliefs that it was "something that it was not — for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an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.
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". 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 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".
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. The Christian, Tolkien notes, is "hemmed in a hostile world", and the monsters are evil spirits: 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": 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".
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On Translating Beowulf First folio of the Beowulf manuscript, c. 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. The poem's metre, too, is founded on a balance of two halves to each line, "more like masonry than music".
It is a composition not a tune. No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: 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, lines are the prelude to a dirge. 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: 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.
Tom Shippey wrote that the essay "was seized upon eagerly, even gratefully, by generations of critics". 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.
Fulk commented that "No one denies the historical importance of this lecture. Robinson call it in their Beowulf, An Edition "the most influential literary criticism of the poem ever written".
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. 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.
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. 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.
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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.
Niles observed that "Bypassing earlier scholarship, critics of the past fifty years have generally traced the current era of Beowulf studies back to ",  meaning to Tolkien's essay, which he called "eloquent and incisive". 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.
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. Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail".
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. A Translation and Commentary , has been linked to the essay. Tolkien stated, for instance, that Beowulf was not an actual picture of Scandinavia around 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.
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Shippey argued that there was evidence from the chronology given in the 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.
The Monsters and the Critics". Proceedings of the British Academy. The Monsters and the Critics. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism.
University of Notre Dame Press.