Monday, June 22, 2020


When my oldest son was in his early teens, he used to help out when Tracy and I would take our turn in church nursery. He would tell stories off-the-cuff to the 3-4 year-olds, and I would notice over my shoulder how long he could hold them in rapt attention.  I mentioned once that he must have a real gift for extemporaneous storytelling and should start to hone the craft. He smiled and shook his head. "It's pretty simple really.  You just get a princess in there and a dragon, or maybe a sword, and a knight and a horse and you can go ten minutes without anything but some exciting action and some dramatic sayings and they just love it."

Something like this is at the heart of Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. A serious scholar and translator of the work himself, he was nonetheless frustrated with what other scholars focused on, examining the transition from paganism to Christianity, noticing the syntax and vocabulary, or speculating on the oral-formulaic structure of verses. He commented on all of those things himself in other places, but he took pains to stress what had made the poem popular to begin with, and what continued its popularity.  It has great monsters. With monsters, of course, go warriors and heroes. It's no good if the monsters aren't very terrible.  No one goes for a second listening if the heroes aren't amazingly heroic.

Relatedly, I remember being irritated and insulted when I learned that a maker of horror films was going to be directing Lord of the Rings. I felt something precious in literature was being tainted.  Note, this was long after I had read Tolkien's 1936 essay. I must not have absorbed the proper sentiment from it, not down to the bone, anyway. Monsters are the story in LOTR.  Very good monsters, too, of great variety and subtlety.

There is something very similar in CS Lewis's address to scholars of Shakespeare when he discusses the popularity of Hamlet, year upon year, even though critics keep finding things wrong with it. He begins with a humility which I think is more than half-sincere, as he was always careful to note where his areas of expertise were and weren't.  Yet I think he is also having some fun at their expense.  He was, after all, the sole author of the Oxford History of English Literature volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama). He might be expected to have a little thought or two about Shakespeare. Just an off chance. He notes the state of criticism in 1942 seems agreed that Hamlet is very important, but when pressed to describe why it is important, the critics are are in entire disagreement, and each of them is at pains to show that whatever it was that Shakespeare did, he didn't do it very well.  It is important for character development, but then they say Hamlet doesn't much develop. They declare Will is at the height of his poetic strength but find fault with scene after scene.  Lewis, I think very much echoing Tolkien, offers a simpler explanation:  It's a whopping good story. It begins with the ghost of a man's father appearing to him and laying a heavy charge on him. Murder is planned, there is eavesdropping on royalty, a beautiful woman dies tragically.  It starts off with a friggin' ghost!  Why are people getting lost in the weeds of nuance? Princess! Swords! Monsters!

In parallel, I was at school in the era when all literature of a previous era had to be interpreted psychosexually.  Womb imagery, Oedipal desires, and phallic symbols were found in the most unlikely places. Swords were, predictably, one of the highest rated phallic symbols.  My younger brother, also studying literature at the time (he stayed with it, I did not) noted with a smirk and a shake of the head. "Yes, it could be a phallic symbol.  But I think they mostly used it because it was a pretty good weapon."


Christopher B said...

Quoting The History Guy "Don't all good stories involve pirates?!"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Captain Blood and Princess Bride both depend on artfully assembling every pirate and adventure cliche into the work. "Flashman," too, come to think of it.

james said...

Coming up with good monsters isn't quite as easy as it used to be, what with all the tame dragons and angsty vampires.

Grim said...

Tolkien's magnificent insights in the essay include a deduction that there must have been a long literature about these kings that we have lost. The Beowulf only makes sense, as he points out, as a kind of late addition to an established tradition that is playing at the margins of a literature rather than telling the core stories.

PenGun said...

But have you watched Bad Taste or the absolutely hilarious Braindead? I consider his later work to be rather commercial, and like the earlier stuff better. ;)