Concerning “Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics” – Pt 3

We look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts . . . and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. (33)

This is the third part in a series on Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” You can find all of my posts about this essay under Concerning Tolkien’s Works here.

To this point, I have dealt with Tolkien’s efforts in the essay to “rehabilitate” Beowulf’s reputation from “historical artifact” to “profound poetic work.” In this final post, I aim to deal with Tolkien’s analysis of the poem’s meaning.

NOT An Epic Narrative

If I was asked for the genre of Beowulf, I (and probably most people whose exposure to Beowulf consists of a few surface readings) would probably respond “Epic Poem.” Tolkien argues, however, that this is not the case.

Instead, he contends that the poem is not really any sort of narrative at all. It doesn’t so much tell a story as it does serve as a portrait of pagan courage. For this reason, he names it a “an heroic-elegaic poem” that serves as a long prelude to a dirge (song of mourning) at the end of the poem. (31)

As Tolkien states, we, along with the poem’s composer, are looking down from “a visionary height” at Beowulf “in the valley of the world.” In the previous post, I had spoken of Tolkien’s contention that the poet wanted to look back on his pagan ancestors through the light of Christian hope, to attest to the notion that virtue is virtue, and that it is magnified the greater by the darkness about it.

Hopelessness, and yet…

Again, this essay was delivered prior to On Fairy-Stories. It contains no mention of concepts like Escape, Recovery, Consolation, or Eucatastrophe. Yet I can’t help but find that “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” was a starting point for the theories that Tolkien delivered there. He was far more explicit about how the Christian hope related to art in On Fairy-Stories, and I find him sensing thoughts unfinished here.

Tolkien seems to contend that while the poem ends on a hopeless note, with the great hero dead, there are yet faint glimmers of a hope to come. “Grendel is maddened by the sound of harps,” Tolkien chuckles, and he seems to imply that the heroic songs of yore point indirectly and mysteriously to that greater hope.

In this, one can begin clearly to see the intersection of Tolkien’s spiritual and creative dimensions. Song itself – the creation of beautiful things – may be in itself be one of the most powerful of all weapons. All beauty is in some sense a dirge, yet after the dirge, what follows?

We find Tolkien’s answer at the end of On Fairy-Stories of course: the Resurrection is the great Eucatastrophe of human history, death swallowed up in victory. For Tolkien, even the virtuous pagan, with no certain hope, perceived dimly this reality. In his eyes, therein lies the profound value of Beowulf.

I’d love to hear from you! Please feel free to leave any questions or thoughts you may have in the comments below!


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