Today’s release of Tolkien’s Beowulf: Translation and Commentary not only offers us a glimpse into Tolkien’s early endeavors in translating the epic poem, but also publishes for the first time his own Beowulf-inspired short story Sellic Spell. Not included in this work, however, is his excellent and game-changing lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. Originally delivered in 1936 and published in 1983 as part of a collection of lectures and essays edited by his son, Christopher, the lecture addresses the state of Beowulf criticism and aims to change the way scholars look at the anglo saxon work, declaring that, “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art. It is Beowulf then, as a poem that I wish to speak” (5).
While it is well known that the early medieval poem Beowulf was an influential work for Tolkien, it might be somewhat lesser known that Tolkien had an equally, if not more, important role in shaping modern Beowulf scholarship. In this lecture Tolkien defends Beowulf as a poem and as a tragedy, arguing, “He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy” (18). This poignant response is aimed to critics such as W.P. Kerr and Raymond Chambers, who believe that there is “nothing much in the story” (10) and that “the poem puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges” (11).
The “irrelevances” Beowulf critics point to are the three episodes in which Beowulf fights monsters. W.P. Kerr compares these episodes with the exploits of traditional heroes of tragedy saying, “there are other things in the lives of Hercules or Theseus besides the killing of the Hydra or of Procrustes” (10). The monster battles in Beowulf are certainly the bulk of the poem and some are even told twice (once by the poet narrator and then again in dialogue). And while it is true that little else happens to Beowulf besides these adventures, Tolkien argues against their belonging in “the outer edges.” He states, “the monsters…are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem” (19). And for Tolkien, Beowulf’s most significant underlying theme is the idea that “lif is læne” (life is loan) (19). Nothing illustrates this more than the three separate encounters with monsters, for each fight focuses on the tragedy of the life cycle and of human mortality.
In his first battle with Grendel, for instance, Beowulf is a man in his prime. He is not merely fit and able, but a man with extraordinary strength and seemingly endless endurance. Grendel knows immediately “he had never encountered, in any region/of this middle-earth, in any other man/a stronger hand grip” (Beowulf lines 751-3). Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother further proves he is an exceptionally strong youth. These scenes illustrate Beowulf’s strength as a man and highlights what Tolkien calls his “first achievement” (28). But they also hint at the tragedy of man, for Beowulf fights not for his love of life, but for fame and to be remembered: the poet tells us “So must a man/ if he thinks at battle to gain any name/a long living fame, care nothing for his life” (Beowulf lines 1534-6). Beowulf fights because his life is loaned and he wants to be remembered after death.
In Beowulf’s third encounter with a monster (this time with the dragon) the tragedy of “being man” comes to the forefront. Tolkien states that in this episode, “Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the theme” (30). The fight with the dragon does not only mark Beowulf’s death, but the end of his life. By now, Beowulf is an old man and his kingship and life is coming to an end with or without the dragon. Where the first two fights represented Beowulf’s crowning achievements and seemingly endless youth, this last fight represents his final battle and, as Tolkien states, the “inevitable victory of death” (30). Thus Beowulf does not need to be more like the hero of a traditional tragic epic to be a tragic figure. His tragedy, like the ordinary man, is in life; it is ultimately living and fighting and dying that is “sufficient tragedy” for everyone.