In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture to the British Academy entitled, "Beowulf: Monsters and the Critics." It completely transformed scholarship related to Beowulf. The paper, published in the following year, was based on a longer work, "Beowulf and the Critics" that would not see publication for 66 years. The volume in which we receive it includes two versions of "Beowulf and the Critics," labeled "A" and "B" by the editor Michael Drout. According to Drout, comparing both versions to Tolkien's British Academy lecture allows us "a glimpse into the workings of a great mind engaged in a struggle with a complex problem." He also notes that the differences between the versions are too great "to redact some kind of 'best text.'" Be that as it may, I chose to read only the longer B version of the work and skip Drout's copious notes that make up half the volume. Much to my loss, I'm certain, but too many other books remain unread for me to spend the time that Drout's work deserves.
Tolkien's essay (or short book) takes to task the literary critics and historians who had to that time dominated Beowulf scholarship. Literary critics criticized the poem for its disorganization, disproportion, and adolescent focus on the monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon. It was deemed to be a hodge-podge of pre-Christian folklore, with the most interesting parts mentioned, not in the main story line, but in passing and in narrative tangents. Furthermore, the integrity of the poem was seen to be compromised by the additions of Christian passages tacked on by an embarrassed Christian compiler. Historians merely neglected the poetic features of the work to focus on the clues it gave to life in the early Middle Ages in Northern Europe.
Tolkien found all of these critiques without merit. For Tolkien, the author of Beowulf was a poet of the caliber of Homer or Virgil. Beowulf provides us with one of the best literary celebrations of the Northern European medieval ethic. It is a clear expression of the Northern European hero, seeking glory in this world by vanquishing evil, with a commitment to doing so no matter the cost to himself. Critics saw the main story to be Beowulf's fight with Grendel. The fights with Grendel's mother and the dragon were merely redundant. Against this, Tolkien claims that the final contest with the dragon is an vital component of the story. Without it, the work would fail to fulfill its poetic purpose. It also serves as a necessary counter-weight to earlier struggles.
On Tolkien's view, the story begins with a young man risking all for fame and glory in a noble effort to free a beleaguered people from an devastating scourge -- Grendel. Doing so, he unexpectedly finds himself faced with the even greater task of defending his wards against an even greater terror -- Grendel's mother. That he does not flinch from his duty is an expression both of his desire for glory and his commitment to duty. The final struggle comes to Beowulf fifty years later when he is no longer the indomitable young hero of Hrothgar's hall. Nonetheless, he takes up sword and shield to face the dragon. His doom is evident, but for the hero of Northern lore, failure always eventually comes. What is important is how we behave in the face of it.
Tolkien also makes a strong case against reading the Christian passages as an alien addition to the poem. Instead, Tolkien concludes that the poem was written by a Christian during a time in which paganism was still a going concern in England and that the syncretism of pagan and Christian elements is a natural expression of the Christian author who has not yet discarded his sympathies for the pagan ethic.
Tolkien's reading of Beowulf is compelling, but what is more interesting is what this reading reveals about Tolkien. In many ways, Tolkien is describing himself when he writes of the author of Beowulf. Despite Tolkien's staunch commitment to Catholicism, he had great sympathy for the pre-Christian pagan ethic, and in all of his work, he found ways to coherently integrate both sensibilities into his work. It also is interesting to note that he would have to defend his own writing against critics in the same way that he defended the Beowulf author. He, too, would be attacked for an adolescent fascination with fantasy and monsters.
Besides Tolkien's case for the Beowulf author, "Beowulf and the Critics" is a rich vein of Tolkien's biting wit. His criticism of the critics is chocked full of laugh-out-loud put downs. Some of them probably unfair, but no less entertaining for that. Beowulf and the Critics is a fine work. Someday, I'll return to read the A version and Drout's copious notes and I'm sure it'll be equally worthwhile.