J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics (Michael Drout, editor)

cover, Beowulf and the CriticsOnce upon a time – don’t groan please! – there was an obscure Oxford don by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien (at the time that he wrote these volumes, he was basically unknown by anyone outside of England or academia), who created a universe that is much beloved by millions of folks who might otherwise never have read fantasy at all. Or sat through hours upon hours of film tellings of a fantasy universe. What few of those readers realize is that Tolkien did not create The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings and the related volumes now known as The History of Middle-earth out of whole cloth, but rather used bits and pieces of older weavings – sometimes much older weavings, such as Beowulf. Now me dear readers, Tolkien did much more than merely borrow from Beowulf. No, he delved so deeply into this epic that he wrote a nearly five hundred page study of it, and of the other folks who have studied it.

Now ’tis true that “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” a reprint of the Sir Israel Gollancz 1936 lecture, has been available for years. Beowulf and the Critics is an expanded retelling of it. Tolkien did the world an invaluable service when he delivered his lecture to the somewhat stuffed shirts of the British Academy. In doing so, he rescued this ancient ballad from the hands of all-too-boring linguists, historians and archaeologists who could put their audiences to sleep with their silly arguments over the meaning of a single line – or sometimes, a mere word. Popular myth among critics is that he brought it to the attention of poets – now I know who to blame for bringing it to the attention of that Irish poet – and the readers who’ve cherished the poem ever since. (Maybe, maybe not. I hated it as a school lad, but grew to love it. The Howard Chickering Jr. translation is my favourite, and the best way to appreciate it as I noted in the review I did, is to ‘gather a group of friends, get some good mead, and sit around the fire of an open hearth on a cold winter’s night taking turns telling the entire tale. You may well wake with a headache – as Beowulf and his men did on many a morning – but you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of the Beowulf saga. Just remember to firmly bolt the door before you go to sleep!’)

Now, I remain convinced that those poor sods who read Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics do so largely because they have fallen in love with the writer after reading The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings – which means they’d read anything he wrote. Bad mistake. Really bad mistake. Tolkien’s nonfiction requires a different approach. Not that these essays aren’t worth reading, as Tolkien’s a master storyteller in any form. I fondly remember finding a copy of his Tree and Leaf collection which has an essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ followed by the story ‘Leaf By Niggle’, both of which are excellent. (What’s that? Aren’t we discussing Beowulf and the Critics? Eventually, eventually.) But for most mortals, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings are all you to know of the good don and his writings.

So why should you read Beowulf and the Critics? Good question. Beowulf and the Critics – see, I got there! – is a frustratingly charming tome that indeed contains everything that J.R.R. Tolkien knew about Beowulf except for his translation of the ballad itself. Though it has been stated that ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation and commentary on the Old English poem Beowulf is to be published in due course in an edition edited by Dr. Michael Drout’, the Tolkien estate has said that no, there are no plans at the present time to do so. So one must make do with this work. This edition of Beowulf and the Critics includes both previously unpublished versions of Tolkien’s lecture (referred to as ‘A’ and ‘B’), each being rather substantially different from the other and from the final published essay that most folks know. It also includes a description of the manuscripts, complete textual and explanatory notes, and a detailed critical introduction that explains Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon scholarship, specifically as regards Beowulf and also in a more general context. Now this is typically dense academic stuff, but fascinating. In, as I noted above, a frustrating manner.

It is true that here Tolkien’s complex and convoluted argument is made more straightforwardly than it was in the earlier published essay. Many of the veiled literary references and allegorical allusions that are given short shrift in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics are here spelled out. Spelled out in long and often tedious detail. Useful tedious detail, but not much more useful than the originally published shorter version. Just keep in mind that our dear don was writing a treatise on Beowulf that takes into account the entire thousand-year history of that ballad as a cultural object. Bloody Hell! He does a rather neat job in some forty-five or so pages of giving you everything, and I mean everything, you’ll ever need to know ’bout Beowulf. Just drink lots of very strong coffee before reading it – you’ll need the caffeine!

One blogger noted that ‘suddenly everyone wants to talk about Beowulf and the Critics…’ but I doubt that; there can’t be that many folks interested in this sort of study. But serious Beowulf students will want this tome. I came away from it with an understanding of Tolkien’s fascination with Old English. And perhaps that’s the reason you’ll also want to read it. It becomes very obvious that the Middle-earth saga that Tolkien created is, at its very heart, his retelling of the myths and history of an England that is no longer. Noted Tolkien scholar Jane Chance says that what he created in the Middle-earth saga was ‘a mythology for England’, as England has no unified mythology. Not being English, nor an expert in matters of English mythology, I can’t say if she is correct. But I will say that I believe that Beowulf and the Critics suggests that she is wrong. Beowulf shows that England has the roots and branches of a very old tree when it comes to mythology. Beowulf gives way to Merlin (by way of the Welsh), to Arthur Pendragon (yes, Welsh in origin, too), to Robin Hood and many more through the years, until Tolkien takes it all and gloriously retells it.

(Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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