J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Monsters and the Critics

69-1-bLiz Milner penned this review.

These seven essays provide a glimpse into Tolkien’s intent as a scholar, translator of texts, and novelist. Just as Sir Gawain’s shield device, the pentangle, gave graphic evidence of how Gawain’s virtues were inextricably linked, this book shows how Tolkien’s interests in philology (i.e., historical linguistics) and the art of fantastic fiction were bound together, each giving life to the other.

The essays, (six of which were first delivered as lectures), cover a thirty-year period of Tolkien’s career. They include topics such as BeowulfSir Gawain and the Green Knight, fairy-stories, the role of the English and Welsh languages in Britain’s linguistic history, an explanation of Tolkien’s hobby of inventing languages, and Tolkien’s retirement speech.

The book begins with the two Beowulf lectures, “The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Translating Beowulf.” These lectures, among many other things, can be read as sort of a warm-up for a defense of The Lord Of The

“The Monsters and the Critics” was a lecture given in 1936 to the British Academy. This lecture caused a total shift of focus in the way scholars viewed the Old English poem, Beowulf.

In the post-New Age world, it’s hard to grasp what Tolkien was refuting. Today, the prevailing wisdom is that folklore and mythology are the keys to spiritual enlightenment. They are handy watering places for us as we follow our Road To Bliss. Tales of magic, monsters and the like nourish us, for they clue us in to bits of reality that we cannot grasp through the scientific method.

In Tolkien’s day, however, scholars held that mythology was the product of a primitive mentality. Poems such as Beowulf were considered useful mainly as sources of old English vocabulary words and could hardly be considered great art. Moreover, they felt that there was something childish about mythology. The Beowulf poet, they said, had lowered himself by focusing on Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel, Grendel’s Mom and the Dragon when he could have been detailing the human interactions of Beowulf’s tribe, the Geats, or perhaps giving an account of their military and diplomatic history. The consensus was that the poem was irrevocably marred because the Beowulf poet’s brilliant language did not fit his low theme. Also, the important elements of the poem (wars, divided loyalties, and grand passions) were unaccountably kept at the periphery of the narrative, while the “trivial” stuff was placed at its heart. The focus on the monsters, they said, was “an inexplicable blunder of taste.”

Tolkien, however, argues that in his encounters with these creatures from Hell, Beowulf confronts evil in its most pure form. He writes, “It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme is so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone.”

Even in these essays, the storyteller is at work. Tolkien keeps moving from academic, critical language into allegory, painting pictures with words. In arguing that Beowulf was not merely a historical document to be mined for Old English words and customs, he invents the story of a man who inherits a field filled with ancient stones. The man builds a tower. Later, critics come and knock down the tower so that they can analyze ancient inscriptions on the stones. They criticize the man for building the tower and remain completely unaware that “from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”

“The Monsters and the Critics” is not written for a general audience. It was written for scholars who had, among other things, a knowledge of the Old English and Latin languages and a familiarity with Beowulf and the critical analyses it has spawned. Tolkien’s language in this essay is rich and allusive. It’s not a text that one can breeze through. (Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf with its parallel English and Old English texts was a huge help in following the arguments.)

The second Beowulf essay, “On Translating Beowulf” (1940), is divided into two parts. Part I provides an explanation of Tolkien’s practice as a translator and the pitfalls he sought to avoid. His emphasis as a translator was on selecting the word that best fit the tone of the poem. He defends the Beowulf poet’s use of high sounding language that was anachronistic even in his time. He also uses the works of earlier translators of Beowulf to give hilarious examples of what to avoid when translating an ancient text. The second part of the essay is an examination of the meter of Beowulf. Earlier scholars of Beowulf had analyzed the poem as a historical document or as a source of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and not as a work of art. Tolkien seeks to demonstrate that the Beowulf poet was a consummate artist working in a very difficult medium. To this purpose, he explains how meter and alliteration work together to form the scaffolding of the poem. In Beowulf, meter and alliteration are interdependent. The poet didn’t just choose words that alliterated; he also had to place the alliteration on the syllables that bore the proper stress. The object was to achieve a balance between the first half of the line and the second, and finding just the right word was arduous work for the poet and a near-impossible labor for the translator.

Taken together, “The Monsters and the Critics” and “Translating Beowulf” seem strangely prescient. With a little tweaking, they could easily serve as a defense of The Lord Of The Ringsagainst charges that its high sounding language was at variance with the “juvenile” plot.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is taken from a lecture that Tolkien presented at the University of Glasgow in 1953. The 14th century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had an immense impact on the shaping of Middle-earth. Gawain had all the qualities that Tolkien associated with a great fairy story. First, it was rooted in an older inherited mythology and received part of its life and vividness from this. Secondly, the use of these older elements created a tension with the Christian morality that lurked between the lines of what seemed to be a straightforward tale of chivalry and adventure.

This essay provides another key to what Tolkien was attempting to do in Lord Of The Rings. He writes that for the Gawain poet, the adventure “was scenery, background, or else machinery: a device for getting Sir Gawain into the situation which he wished to study.” The temptation of the hero is the common theme in both Gawain and The Lord Of The Rings and there are many similarities between Gawain and Frodo. Both seem to be insignificant at the start of the story. Gawain is the least of Arthur’s knights, and Frodo is considered odd and “un-hobbitlike” by his neighbors. Both Gawain and Frodo are innocents who become involved in their adventure because of a sense of duty and humility and not because of pride or recklessness. Both are presented with a supreme test and both seem to fail at the final moment. Gawain yields to the irresistible temptation of the green girdle, while Frodo tries to keep The Ring. The true nature of their tests isn’t revealed to them (or the reader) until nearly the end of the story. It’s a classic “bait and switch” situation. Gawain believes he’s being tested for courage when he’s actually being tested for chastity. Frodo’s mission succeeds not because he is courageous and loyal, but because he shows pity on Gollum. Thus, in both Sir Gawain and The Lord Of The Rings, Christian virtues of chastity and charity trump the pagan virtues of courage and fortitude.

Another theme that is common to both works is forgiveness. Gawain and Frodo are forgiven for their faults. They not heroes because they are perfect, but because they strive to overcome their weaknesses. In both works this forgiveness is symbolized by a visible mark of shame that is transmuted into a badge of honor. Gawain’s green girdle is transformed into the Order of the Garter, while Frodo’s loss of a finger is commemorated in “The Lay of Frodo Nine-fingers and the Ring of Doom.”

“On Fairy Stories” (1939) is Tolkien’s attempt to reclaim fairy tales for adults. Fairy tales, he says, are not intended for children. The association between children and fairy tales is largely a historical accident; fairy stories only became a part of children’s literature when they went out of fashion and like all cast-offs, they ended up being relegated to the nursery.

Tolkien goes on to explain his theory of sub-creation. Sub-creation, he writes, can only happen when fantasy achieves “the inner consistency of reality.” In the most powerful fantastic literature, the author creates a “secondary world.” This is different from a “willing suspension of disbelief,” for the reader must accept that some of the basic “laws” of the secondary world are different from the “laws” of our world. Inside the secondary world, “what he [the author] relates is “true”: it accords with the rules of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are…inside.” Therefore, it is critical that sub-creator apply his rules consistently—otherwise, the reader will be jerked back to this reality. Part of the disdain for fantastic literature comes from the fact that the “secondary world” is so hard to achieve—most fantastic worlds come out half-baked.

The most extreme form of the secondary world is the Faërian Drama, which as the name suggests is an art form that can only be practiced by Fairies and otherworldly beings.

“Faërian Drama…can produce fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect…is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian Drama you yourself are, or think you are, bodily inside its Secondary World…you are in a dream that some other mind is dreaming.”

Tolkien is also careful to make a distinction between enchantment and magic. “Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World….it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.”

This reminded me of the conversation between Sam and Galadriel concerning Elven “magic” and Galadriel’s insistence that what she practiced was not magic. I’d always assumed that she was referring to some kind of superior technology, but this passage made me suspect that she might be referring to the enchantment of a Faërian Drama. This would help to explain why time behaved differently in Lothlorien than in the outside world.

Finally, Tolkien deals with the function of fairy-stories. Far from being children’s entertainment, he says, fairy-stories fulfill very critical adult needs. Fairy stories offer Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation and children have less need of these than adults do. Unfortunately, all four of these things are held in low repute by a society that values Facts and Utility. Fairy-stories are considered the most extreme form of escapist literature and escapism is universally considered “bad.” In this, he says, critics confuse the “Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

He then embarks on a defense of fantasy. Fantasy, he says, frees us from the domination of observed ‘fact,’ it makes us see our commonplace world with new eyes because it has the advantage of “arresting strangeness.” The highest function of fairy-stories and fantasies is to depict “the Great Escape” from death. Tolkien goes on to describe his concept of the “Eucatastrophe,” a sudden surprising turn toward happiness. The Eucatastrophe brings the consolation of the happy ending and the joy of deliverance. He links the Eucatastrophe with the idea of salvation by describing it as “joy, joy beyond the walls of the world.”

“English and Welsh” (1955) was a lecture delivered one day after the publication of ROTK. Welsh, Tolkien writes, is the key to the aspects of the evolution of English that aren’t explicable through the study of the Germanic languages. He promoted the study of Welsh as means of better comprehending the history of English. Welsh was, of course, the model for Tolkien’s second Elvish tongue, Sindarin.

“A Secret Vice” is an essay on Tolkien’s hobby of inventing languages. In the essay, Tolkien says that there is a fundamental linkage between language and mythology, and no true language can exist without a concomitant mythology.

The final essay, “A Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford, ” is Tolkien’s attack on the drive for “professionalization” that was turning English Departments into “B.Litt. sausage-machines.”

Tolkien was especially concerned about his own field, philology. The misuse of philological evidence to bolster crackpot theories of Aryan racial superiority had given the field a bad name. Moreover it had become divided between philologists such as Tolkien who used philology as a tool to imaginatively reconstruct entire cultures, and those who sought to “sanitize” the field by making it “scientific” and devoting their energies to exacting studies of minutia. At the same time, philology was being squeezed out of Literature Departments. (Eventually, Oxford’s courses in philology were absorbed into the Linguistics Department and Philology has, for decades, been the discipline that dares not say its name.)

The Monsters and the Critics is a very rewarding read for a Tolkien geek, but of very limited appeal to a general reader. The book requires a fairly extensive understanding of Tolkien’s cultural context, the scholarly world he inhabited, and the ancient literature that was the focus of his professional career. For a general reader these essays are likely to seem difficult and sometimes incomprehensible.

(Sir Isreal Gollancz Memorial Lecture British Academy, 1936)


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