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Poetry, Beowulf and Tolkien


Continuing my series of posts from the Companions' Facebook page, and this week we have an exciting tie, with 301 engagements each! So I will post each article separately in the interests of fair play.

Here is the second post, discussing poetry, Beowulf and Tolkien.

Only around 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive and Beowulf comprises around 10% of these, at about 3,000 lines.

On 25th November 1936, three years before the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Professor JRR Tolkien delivered his seminal lecture to the British Academy - "Beowulf: the monsters and the critics"  - in which he changed our view of the poem.

First of all, Tolkien said, we should understand what the poem is not:

“Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due  either  to  the  belief  that  it  was  something  that  it  was not—for  example,  primitive,  pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery  that  it  was  itself  and  not  something  that  the  scholar  would  have  liked  better—for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.”

Beowulf, he suggested, had been seen primarily as history rather than literature, and it seemed the poem was viewed with embarrassment by the literary establishment. Tolkien argued strongly that the poem was in fact a complex and important piece of art, worthy of recognition for its poetic quality, and that the illusion of historical content was a product of art and not actual documentary evidence for a particular period. This did not stop it being valuable as a resource for Germanic custom, belief and linguistics, but it should always be viewed through the lens of poetry.

“So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

Tolkien also argued against the prevailing view of the time that a focus on folk tales and fantastic content (monsters, magic etc) was trivial, childish and not worthy of serious attention. He argued in favour of a mythological mode of imagination which cannot be mechanically analysed, “For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.” In contrast, the monsters allowed the poet to examine themes of evil, humanity and mortality.

“it  is  in  fact  written  in  a  language  that  after  many  centuries has  still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky”

A full copy of the talk with appendices and notes can be found here:


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