I just this day finished reading A COMPANION TO BEOWULF by my friend and classmate Ruth Johnson. It was remarkably clear, well written, concise, and chock full of fascinating insights and observations.
Let me in particular remark on her last chapter, which concerned Tolkien and Beowulf. I had not heretofore been aware of how large a figure JRR Tolkien loomed in the scholarship of the epic poem BEOWULF, nor what a great influence his seminal essay The Monster and the Critics, had in turning the attention of the academic world from the historical to the literary merits of the poem.
Ruth Johnson makes the argument that Lord of the Rings is an updated version of BEOWULF. No, not the events, but the world, the worldview, the motif, the techniques, and especially the approach toward religion.
It is to be noted that many critics faulted Tolkien for not including anywhere in Middle Earth any description or hint of rituals, rites, temples and cults with adorn the vivid backdrops of other works of fantasy. Except for a few indirect hints that there is a High God somewhere, and angelic powers the elves revere, Lord of the Rings is perhaps unique among fantasies in that there is no mention of the religious side of society or the spiritual side of man.
But, of course, Tolkien is not unique: he is following BEOWULF. The poet of BEOWULF (so Tolkien interpreted the evidence) wished to depict his pre-Christian ancestors in the admirable light men are right to have for their ancestors, but without attributing to them a Christian faith they could not have had.
In these modern times, when Christian and Postchristian struggle for the souls of men, and the popular picture of the Christian is of a book-burner rather than the preserver of pagan literature, it is often hard to recall the respect with which the Christian imagination held their pagan fore-bearers and preserved their works. One need only open any random page of Dante or Milton, for example, to see the thickly clustered references to pagan myths reflected with considerably more reverence than more modern and sarcastic depictions of the gods of old.
As with Roman Christian and the classical pagans, so with Old English and his Norse fathers, at least in this case. The way the poet of BEOWULF handled the delicate matter of showing the old days and the old ways as noble but, deprived of Christ, doomed, was to pass over the differences in a pregnant silence, and yet emphasizing those cardinal virtues that pagans and Christian alike admire, particularly fortitude and honor.
So too here did Tolkien with his Middle Earth and their peoples: the foremost virtue emphasized again and again in Tolkien was the Beowulfian virtue of continuing a fight even after all hope is exhausted. The melancholy pronouncements of gloom and doom are scattered throughout the War of the Ring, yet also match the elegiac quality of Beowulf’s last battle against the dragon of the barrow, and much of the tone in side tales mentioned in Beowulf.
The Beowulfian attitude toward fate or ‘Wyrd’ seems a blend of the pagan notion of inescapable fate woven by the Three Sisters, or the Christian notion of fate as the decree and will of God. A similar attitude might be detected in Middle Earth. Frodo nowhere lauds the fact that it is his free choice to carry the burden of the cursed One Ring, as, for example, Neo from THE MATRIX does in the climax of that trilogy. Instead, the wise Gandalf tells Frodo that Bilbo was “meant” to find the Ring, as if by some divine will above and beyond the will of any creature in Middle Earth, even Sauron the Dark Lord. Meant by whom? As in Beowulf, it is not said, but the silence implies something like ‘Wyrd’ or the will of heavenly powers.
Tolkien borrowed so much from Beowulf and the Old English, that the description of Medusheld (Mead-Hall) in Rohan might be taken as the twin of Hereot. Unferth, who sits at the feet of Hrothgar and scorns Beowulf at his first appearing...
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