Beowulf Lives! Or Why Would a Nice Professor Like Tolkien Tell Stories about Nasty Monsters - Christopher Garbowski
Once upon a time there was an obscure ancient poem of approximately three thousand lines thrust upon largely reluctant students by imperturbable philologists, who, inadvertently or not, blocked the entrance to the work's hidden treasures. One of those students remembers how he felt deceived by the scholars teaching him the poem: "When I was a student I preferred to call its language Anglo-Saxon", reminisces Frank Kermode, "regarding the official description, Old English, as a trick, a means of getting into an English course a work in a remote Germanic dialect" (18). The happy ending for this tale came when an unusual event took place: earlier scholars primarily stressed its philological and antiquarian importance, yet one of their number had the gumption to declare and argue persuasively in a public lecture of 1936, entitled "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", that the poem was actually a great work of art. Kermode continues: "It would not be easy to think of a parallel to this occasion, a professorial lecture that changed a generation's attitude to a document of national and historical importance." (ibid.)
And the ending to this scholarly tale could have remained 'happy': generation after generation of students would continue to study the poem, at least as long as canonic literature continued to maintain its grip on the curricula, and every now and then a major poet, perhaps a Nobel laureate (see Kermode), or scholar would translate the epic of the great Geat hero and his struggle with several monsters into vivid 'New' English. To a large extent this actually did take place. But the plot thickens:
That same philologist of path-breaking-lecture fame, (you guessed it!) J.R.R. Tolkien, claimed in another lecture a couple of years later, entitled "On Fairy-Stories," that "there is no true end to any fairy-tale" (Monsters 153). As if to prove his point, Tolkien took the Beowulf tale and reworked it: first as a children's story called The Hobbit, published in 1937, and then as "a children's book for adults" (Stirling 15), i.e. The Lord of the Rings, in 1954-5. The critics were confounded, especially since adults read the latter work; again and again, it seemed. What's more, in a major British poll conducted by the Waterstone book chain and Channel 4 television several years before the millennium ended, "adults" voted the trilogy the book of the century. To add insult to injury, the Folio Society1 decided they would check what readers of "serious" books thought, and yet again Tolkien came out on top, graphically validating the bold claim of an earlier critic, that the author "belongs to the same century as Proust, Joyce and Eliot, and is read with pleasure by many of the same readers" (Rosebury 4). Subsequent polls have somewhat modified the results (oops! I forgot the Amazon.com survey), but the damage was done. The gap between the critics and the reading public was exposed.
As Brian Rosebury suggests in Tolkien: A Critical Assessment, echoing Tom Shippey, the success of The Lord of the Rings and the subsequent inability of the critical establishment to understand the nature of its appeal to a mature readership at the very least raises questions as to the reliability of the critical tools at the disposal of the former (3-6). Rosebury feels that one of the reasons at the base of the problem lies in the rather unique nature of the work, which makes it difficult to come to general conclusions. The trilogy has inspired numerous imitators, but there is no real work that matches it in the sub-genre spawned by its success. It reminds me personally of the case of Madame Murasaki's court romance The Tale of Genji - popular in the eleventh century Japan of its origin, inspiring many imitators, but none of substance. Moreover, I find Genji, considered the precursor of the modern novel, with its mix of fantasy and realism, its meditation on the transient nature of existence, not to mention its lack of irony, not all that distant to The Lord of the Rings in spirit. And Tolkien seems to have been somewhat familiar with the tale of the "Shining Prince", published in Arthur Waley's translation by Allen & Unwin, the publisher of his Middle-earth fiction; oddly enough, he also referred to his novel as a "tale".
The "tale" in effect refers to Tolkien's conscious interest in literature based on oral traditions: the Beowulf epic on the one hand, and the related Nordic sagas, the Finnish Kalevela, and simple fairy stories. This substantial rejection of naturalism stems in part from the observation that the stuff of the latter dates very quickly. The author approvingly reminded listeners and readers that "Long ago Chesterton truly remarked that, as soon as he heard that anything 'had come to stay', he knew it would be very soon replaced - indeed regarded as pitiably obsolete and shabby" (Monsters 148-9). In his fiction Tolkien searched for a formula that would plumb what he felt were the sources of narrative art, transcending the chronocentrism of strictly naturalist prose.
One wonders whether Tolkien was familiar with the ideas of Milman Parry on how oral art influenced epics. In his Beowulf lecture the former proffers some similar observations on the structure of the Old English epic that had been largely influenced by oral or near-oral sources. Unsurprisingly, the rambling, episodic nature of Tolkien's fantasy fiction has a marked oral texture. The author himself suggested that the trilogy is best read aloud. A feature of oral art is the strong audience involvement it presupposed and could evoke. Tolkien's work might be said to share this feature in the surprising participatory response the Middle-earth fiction has generated.
Currently the plethora of internet pages and discussion groups devoted to the author's work provide evidence of the constant dialogue of readers with his mythopoeic world. At a similar level, artists taking advantage of the desire for as palpable a sense of participation in Middle-earth as possible have given rise to a virtual industry of illustration, ranging from amateur efforts displayed in personal web pages to the professional calendars, not to mention Tolkien encyclopaedias, atlases, etc. The illustrations are worth a study in themselves and although they rarely attain a high artistic level they indicate the wide-ranging associations the author evokes in different artists. For instance, the 1978 Bakshi adaptation, an illustration-in-motion, shows the artistic involvement of the generation that gave us Yellow Submarine, and, coincidentally, how the creator of Fritz the Cat could completely lose his sense of humour when he came to Tolkien. The animated adaptation is echoed by some interesting illustrations in David Day's Tolkien: The Illustrated Enclopedia , such as "Window of the Sunset" (121) and "The Dead Men of Dunharrow" (134-5), that use collage/multi-media techniques to striking effect.
If illustrations and quasi-reference works are examples of a desire to enter Middle-earth as fully as possible, the furthest-reaching example of participatory response aroused by Tolkien, aside from the intense but transitory cult of the sixties and seventies, is the development of role playing games. The creators of the seminal Dungeons & Dragons among others have admitted the influence of Tolkien's work on their game. Whatever else might be claimed about these games, they are not a passive activity. Some teachers and even psychotherapists have utilized them with surprisingly creative (Lancaster 73) or positive therapeutic results (Blackmon). Mention must also be made of Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which, so to speak, combines both "illustration" and "role-playing" and has evoked an extraordinary response in its own right (Web site TheOneRing.Net received over 13 thousand fan reviews of the film within six months of the first installment's release [and counting!]).
A question worth serious consideration in regards to the above is whether in this period of pronounced "secondary orality", as it has been termed (Ong 136-8), due to the rise of television and internet, with the concurrent decline of traditional reading, is it not the case that primarily an author capable of stimulating an intense sense of participation in his or her work can maintain relevance for any significant duration of time to a large body of readers?
Likely most people familiar with Beowulf came across it during childhood in one of the numerous adaptations of the epic, thus associating it with their youthful reading. Tolkien's fiction often incurs similar associations: with somewhat more generosity the critic Kirsten Stirling places The Lord of the Rings in the category of children's books for adults. There may be more truth to this claim than Stirling realizes without the implied degree of self-deception that her argument requires of adults to enter "the wide-eyed paradise of childlike reading" (18). It is worth contemplating Tolkien's own evaluation of the novel which in his correspondence he claimed is fundamentally a Catholic work. What does a Catholic work imply, besides consistency with a given set of truth claims?
In relation to children, the Catholic church underwent a substantial revolution at approximately the turn of the last century of which Tolkien was cognizant. Under the auspices of Pius X, the church decided to administer the Eucharist, its central sacrament, to younger children. This had the profound consequence of necessitating that the essence of the church's truth claims be taught to its youngest members in order for them to participate as fully as possible in the mass, and amounted to an acceptance of the premise that despite their profundity, these truths can be presented simply. The development can be understood as a logical consequence of the fact that in principle Catholicism is opposed to Gnosticism, the belief that the truth can only be known and attained by a select few - a way of thinking not too difficult to detect in some "secular" intellectual currents.
In effect, the above development meant that the church must of necessity speak with one voice to all its members, whether to children or adults 2. Adults would naturally comprehend these truths differently, more "profoundly", it would be hoped, but duplicity is avoided. As a child convert this aspect of Catholicism seems to have been closer to Tolkien than to adult converts such as Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, and is consistent with his implied criticism of the double-addressee in the Victorian tradition of children's literature that he espoused in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" (Monsters 136). Whatever the weaknesses of Tolkien's fiction it must be admitted that there is no double standard in regard to the values he proposes for adults and those for children. Perhaps this accounts in part for why it is one of the few major literary works of the twentieth century that is avidly read by different generations - no mean feat in a century renowned for the widening of the generation gap!
Another point worth mentioning in relation to the above is that the values imbued in The Lord of the Rings are consistent with Christian ethics, but do not strictly speaking conform to them. What I mean by this is that the characters who live out these values, or mature to them, do so spontaneously, as it were, and not as a part of a Christian culture. It is not difficult to see how for an author with Tolkien's beliefs fantasy would be a superb testing ground for natural law, the conviction that there exists an innate ethical code that humanity by and large adheres to. Aragorn expresses as much when he proclaims to Eomer that "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men" (Two Towers 48). Whatever Tolkien's intent may have been, for not a few contemporary readers this moral "spontaneity" might be appealing in that it coincides with what philosopher Charles Taylor suggestively calls an "ethics of authenticity," the largely unarticulated ethics of a highly individualistic society. Ethics of authenticity do not necessarily preclude traditional values, but consider them a matter of choice.
Such an oddly (or "inadvertently") contemporary value system is one thing, but for a book to be considered so significant by a sizeable group of mature readers, the former must be seriously tested. As Taylor puts it, "The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions" (40). The enduring response to Tolkien's fiction indicates that at some level at least these "important questions" must be present. And a number of important value-laden trilogy themes have been discussed over the years; for this essay I wish to keep to a provocative artistic symbol related to in Tolkien's Beowulf lecture.
Kermode bemusedly notes that Tolkien "loved the monsters" in Beowulf. Whatever else we may say, monsters do have an emotional impact, adding to a work's ability to entertain, and entertainment is a quality the author did not neglect. With this undoubted emotional appeal in mind, it is hardly surprising that monsters are the elements from Tolkien's novel that have made their presence eminently felt in Jackson's adaptation. In "Horror and Humor", film theorist Noel Carroll reflects that "with horror [fiction films], ideally, the emotional responses of the audience to the monster are meant to mimic the emotional responses of the human characters in the fiction to the monsters therein. The makers of horror fictions, in the standard case, want the audience to shudder at the prospect of encountering the monster when the characters in the plot so shudder" (149). Monsters bring us close to the main characters and evoke strong responses within us. Yet Tolkien had considerably more in mind when he utilized them.
Kermode adds that Tolkien understood monsters as "evidence of what cannot be denied, the potential of evil in the world" (18). The monster, Tolkien insisted, confronted the hero with the dark truth, that "the wages of heroism is death"(Monsters 26). It might be argued that in his fictional treatment of heroism a lapse in twentieth century literature was challenged. According to the poet Czeslaw Milosz, "The psychological exploration in twentieth century novels led to the degeneration of the character into a string of [subjective] experiences, and likewise discarded the heroic will as so much ballast. This happened in contrast to reality, which in the wars throughout the century was full of examples of tremendous heroism." As a witness to, among others, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 during WWII, Milosz knew this first hand. "Reflecting on Tolkien", he continues, "forced me to postulate the question some time ago: 'Why is it that in twentieth century literature the only heroic character is not a person but a hobbit?'"
Regardless of whether we fully accept Milosz's observation or not, with its tendency toward hyperbole to drive home a point, and as much an accusation directed at a perceived failure of twentieth century fiction as praise of Tolkien, it is difficult to deny that Frodo lives. In respect to the Beowulf tale, The Lord of the Rings' hero is basically revisionist, reflecting the author's experience of the bravery of the common soldier in the trench warfare of WWI. Nonetheless, part of Tolkien's aesthetic refers back to insights gained from Beowulf. Describing the central figure of the tale, he observes: "Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy" (18). In Tolkien's depiction of Frodo we witness a similar paring down of the hero to the essentials to rid the story of most extraneous themes.
Tolkien spoke eloquently of the importance of the enchanted imagination that art should evoke. One of the victims of disenchantment might be witnessed in the difficulty current academic literary criticism has in speaking of evil. In 1945 Hannah Arendt responded spontaneously to the atrocities of the war, claiming that: "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe" (Quoted in Dews 1). Surprisingly she was wrong. The question of why this was not the case requires serious reflection, not to mention that it seems a significant reason for the inability of some critics to fathom Tolkien. Philosopher Peter Dews places the source of the crisis in the following intellectual context:
On the one hand, we often feel impelled to resort to the notion of evil in describing the events which occurred at Auschwitz - no other term seems adequate to our sense of the violation of the most basic conditions of a recognizably human existence. Yet on the other hand, in our disenchanted and predominantly secularized world, the religious assumptions - however implicit - which gave the notion of evil its place in our thinking about the world , as the disruption of a divinely sanctioned order, are no longer shared by the majority of people. (1)
Yet the problem of evil persists, and the tenacity of the monstrous is one of the major themes of Tolkien's work. His religious background gave him no qualms as to calling the problem by name and through the symbolic device of the monster it was given aesthetic form. Not that the monster solves the problem; nor is it intended to. As Ursula Le Guin perceptively notes, "Those people who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil - which he did not" (quoted from Curry, 101). The monster is largely a symbol of the intractability of evil.
At the onset of the final part of Beowulf an insignificant thane steals a trivial object from the dragon hoard which sets off the epic's concluding drama. Tolkien quotes this episode directly in The Hobbit, but, more significantly, it seems to have inspired him to find an apparently secondary object that would act as a counterpoint to the monster. In The Hobbit it is the precious Arkenstone which embodies the "dragon disease," or greed, and it appears at the point when the children's story takes on an added grimness. Obviously in The Lord of the Rings it is the Ring(s) of Power. At this juncture Tolkien joins the ongoing discourse so vital in Western thinking since at least Lord Acton and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century.
Tolkien naturally tends toward the former in his reflections on the essence of power. A metaphysical domain of power explored in The Lord of the Rings is its relationship to death. Power in effect creates a spiritual vacuum in those who would wield it for its own sake, and the wraiths are its monstrous expression. In an ironic twist the lust for power of the Ringwraiths denies them the Gift of Iluvatar (God): death. But banal as it may seem in comparison, Tolkien's take on Lord Acton's observation of the corrosive nature of power resonates throughout key moments of twentieth century history. In Poland the second edition of the trilogy was published just before Martial Law was declared by the communists on December 13, 1981. Little wonder Polish intellectuals of the Solidarity movement interned at this time discussed its theme of the dangers of using the weapons of the opponent in retaliation on the grounds that this would erase the difference between oneself and the enemy.
So where does this leave us with The Lord of the Rings? A provocative artistic response to the atrocities of an unusually cruel century, the novel remains a conundrum for critics. Both a children's story for adults and an adult's story for children, the work is a test case for the boundary between high and low culture.
One matter remains less controversial. Tolkien has proved his point that a genuine fairy story never ends. Beowulf lives - bah! The tale's presence is even more palpable in the film version of the novel - and seems destined to live as long as monsters continue to torment us. Unfortunately, that promises to be a long time indeed.
1. The Folio Society is one of those elite book clubs that offer prospective members weighty tomes such as Gibbon's The decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at ridiculously low prices to entice them to enroll.
2. For corroborating evidence that the Catholic church's trust in the spiritual maturity of children is warranted, I recommend leading child psychiatrist Robert Coles' non-denominational study The Spiritual Life of Children.
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----. The Lord of the Rings Part Two: The Two Towers. Ballantine, 1965 .