Approaches to Teaching Beowulf - Tolkien's View

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Tolkien’s view:

One theory is that the Beowulf poet was a Christian monk who, perhaps, wrote the poem down at a time when Christianity was making inroads into his previously pagan civilization.  That is why, throughout the poem, there are elements of Christianity (Beowulf as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for his people, and elements of paganism such as the dragon and fate as a determining factor.  Along this line of thinking we have Grendel descended from Cain, the twelve disciples who follow Beowulf into the second fight but, like Christ’s disciples, abandon him at the critical moment.  On the pagan side of the ledger, we have the concept of endoedoeg, (final day), the notion that fate is the overhanging cloud above us all.  We die because it is our day to die.

Quick thoughts:

  • The theme of Christianity is tinged with the despair of paganism: "that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die."
  • The Beowulf poet is concerned with the romantic past--heathen, noble and hopeless.
  • The "wages of heroism is death." Tolkien
  • In the final conflict Beowulf possesses what he does not possess fighting Grendel and grendel’s mother - -wisdom—
  • fame is fleeting --Beowulf is acutely aware of his mortality, and by extension his insignificance.
  • The poem, according to Tolkien, is not a narrative--it is a balance of youth and age—first achievement and final death.  The poem does not begin with young Beowulf and narrate his entire life.  The fifty years he is king is barely discussed at all.  The poem is a contrast between young Beowulf, physically strong and full of fortitude, and old Beowulf, physically weakened but relying more on sapientia.
  • Tolkien contends that the poem is not an epic - -it is a heroic elegiac poem. The purpose of its historical allusions, which other critics say is the real meat of the work, is to give a sense of perspective of antiquity, "with a greater and yet darker antiquity behind...Great heroes should show themselves capable of dealing also with the ordinary things of life.' This is why there is brief mention of Beowulf's accomplishment as king.
  • Tolkien disagrees with the disappointment other scholars have found in Beowulf. They seek history and find discrepancies: they expect narrative and find contrast, a lack of orderly time sequence. Tolkien thinks we should view the poem as a work of art - -not as history or epic.  It was designed to extol heroism.



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