J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf and the Critics. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout
Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Volume 248
Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002
xix + 461 pp. ISBN 0-86698-290-6
Review by Tom Sharp
On 25 November 1936, Tolkien delivered “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” to the British Academy, and it was published the next year in the Academy's proceedings. The essay was a redaction of lectures that Tolkien wrote between 1933 and 1936, “Beowulf and the Critics.” In 1996, Drout discovered a manuscript containing two drafts of the lectures “lurking” in a box at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Drout’s book is a comparison of the two versions, which reflect Tolkien’s development of thought and writing process that culminated in what is generally considered a groundbreaking essay in Beowulf studies.
Previous critics disregarded the monsters, Grendel and his mother and the dragon, because they teach little about history, pagan Teutonic culture, or Nordic religion. But Tolkien taught that the monsters were integral to Beowulf; indeed, he argued, if you discard them and read the poem as a historical epic or tragedy, the remainder appears cheap and disorganized. Further, Tolkien taught that reading Beowulf as a literary work was immensely rewarding: "Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that any historical value it may possess must always be of secondary importance" (84). The previous critics of Beowulf, Tolkien taught us, didn't treat the poem as a poem.
The two versions, labeled A and B, are described by Christopher Tolkien as an earlier and expanded version, respectively, of “Beowulf and the Critics.” Drout explains that the two versions together illustrate the development of Tolkien's ideas, and that comparing them allows readers “a glimpse into the workings of a great mind engaged in a struggle with a complex problem" (xi). The texts are accompanied by Drout’s extensive explanatory notes that present the background, source material and general thrust of Tolkien’s arguments, textual notes that reproduce Tolkien’s emendations and modifications which Drout clarifies with editorial commentary where needed, and an appendix that presents Tolkien’s “notes and jottings” where legible. Overall, Drout provides a rich context in which to read Tolkien's work.
Drout fully describes Tolkien's manuscripts for the benefit of scholars who will not have direct access to the originals. In "Description of the Manuscript," he tells how the manuscript came to the Bodleian Library and describes its present condition, organization, dating, and numbering. The manuscript is not written on acid-free paper and has already deteriorated significantly. It consists of 198 folios written in Tolkien's hand in pen and pencil. Folios 1-71 contain version A of the lectures. Folios 72-91 contain "assorted notes and jottings," not all decipherable but most incorporated into the text in some form. Folios 91-198 contain version B of the lectures. The text is mainly written on one side of the page, except for brief notes that served Tolkien as reminders of ideas that he would work into the text. The verso of folio 95 "is a page of paradigms and exercises in Gothic" (xvi).
"Introduction: Seeds, Soil, and Northern Sky" is a brief overview of Tolkien's contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies, the history of the text including the publication of the "Monsters" essay, Tolkien's sources, and summarizes the overall thesis of the “Critics” lectures. Drout shares an understanding of Tolkien's motivating devotion to his roots as an Englishman, pointing out that "an English racial identity is made through participation in two related traditions: physical occupation of England . . . and participation in the English speech community" (14). Drout explains the common tie between the works of Tolkien the philologist and Tolkien the novelist; as both, Tolkien remains connected with a tradition, a history, and a culture tied to England, to his country. Just as the Beowulf poet synthesized ancient material with Christian teaching, Tolkien forged "a synthetic mythical 'history' to explain certain perceived truths about the ancestry of his people" (19).
As Drout explains, “For the purposes of this study . . . the most telling changes Tolkien made to ‘Critics’ as he modified it into ‘Monsters’ can be found in the famous allegory of the tower. This is the most frequently cited passage of “Monsters” and is, as critics have recognized, essential for understanding Tolkien’s thoughts about Beowulf ” (8). In the first draft, the “man found a mass of old stone in an unused patch, and made of it a rock-garden” to “set off commonplace flowers.” Although his friends all said “this garden is most interesting,” they tore it apart looking for hidden inscriptions on the stones or coal deposits under the soil, criticized its “jumble and confusion,” and faulted the man for being “tiresome” and having “no sense of proportion.”
In the published version of the allegory, a man used “an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall,” to build a tower from which he could view the sea. The man had already used some of the stone “in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers.” Although his friends considered the tower “most interesting,” they pushed the tower over “to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material,” or they forgot about the stones looking for a deposit of coal under them. They criticized the “muddle” of stones, and even his descendents considered the man “odd” to have build a “nonsensical” tower rather than restoring the old house.
The function of allegory, of course, is to point elsewhere, and Drout cites Tom Shippey’s interpretation that begins with the man as the Beowulf-poet, the friends as Beowulf scholars, and the tower as Beowulf, and ends with Tolkien being the only one who understood the poem because of his English descent, “native to that tongue and land” (9). While Drout feels this may be an overstatement, he agrees that Tolkien’s ethnic identification, including language, is integral to Tolkien’s work. He sees the rock garden recalling the image of the Englishman as gardener and associated with the middle-class countryman like Tolkien himself. Drout suggests that the rock garden, read as stories of the monster in Beowulf, may represent “vestiges of folk-tale commonplaces . . . transformed by the poet in some particularly English fashion (11). Moving to the tower, he views the stones as building blocks composed of ancient and inherited materials used by Tolkien as sub-creator; the tower became the mythology of Middle-earth and, as Drout rightly observes earlier, “the single best way to understand and appreciate Tolkien’s fiction is to become literate in medieval literature.” He believes that nothing would please Tolkien more than for readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to be moved to read Beowulf to see what in the poem inspired Tolkien for so many years (xiii).
We can longer attend Tolkien's lectures and most of us cannot take the classes taught by Prof. Drout, but we should be grateful for this fine substitute. The volume preserves the deteriorating manuscript for future study, which would take any lover of Beowulf to his or her histories, glossaries, grammars, and the works of other scholars, and, even more important and rewarding, back to the poem itself.
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