Monday, May 31, 2021

Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics

I think of myself as rereading this every five years or so, but have mentioned it only in passing here, so I may be thinking of an earlier version of myself. I am rereading now and keep thinking I will put up this excellent quote or that one, but there are simply too many.  I recommend reading it entirely. It is fifteen pages, long for an essay, plus an appendix half that length, because this is Tolkien. You may decide after seven or eight pages that you have gotten the idea and are not fascinated by the inside baseball of Anglo-Saxon. The central point is that the monsters are not an embarrassing mistake in dramatic art revealing how shallow its author and its culture must be, but are central to the story, and the critics have simply misunderstood what is up. 

Oh, all right.  Since you insist.

 I hope I shall show that that allegory is just—even when we consider the more recent and more perceptive critics (whose concern is in intention with literature). To reach these we must pass in rapid flight over the heads of many decades of critics. As we do so a conflicting babel mounts up to us, which I can report as something after this fashion.5 'Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; it is the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons (this is a Gallic voice); it is a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian; it is a work of genius, rare and surprising in the period, though the genius seems to have been shown principally in doing something much better left undone (this is a very recent voice); it is a wild folk-tale (general chorus); it is a poem of an aristocratic and courtly tradition (same voices); it is a hotchpotch; it is a sociological, anthropological, archaeological document; it is a mythical allegory (very old voices these and generally shouted down, but not so far out as some of the newer cries); it is rude and rough; it is a masterpiece of metrical art; it has no shape at all; it is singularly weak in construction; it is a clever allegory of contemporary politics (old John Earle with some slight support from Mr. Girvan, only they look to different periods); its architecture is solid; it is thin and cheap (a solemn voice); it is undeniably weighty (the same voice); it is a national epic; it is a translation from the Danish; it was imported by Frisian traders; it is a burden to English syllabuses; and (final universal chorus of all voices) it is worth studying.'


Grim said...

What always impresses me about that piece is his easy deduction— so obvious, after he pointed it out— that the Beowulf was a late feature of a deeply established but lost literature. That’s enough to make a scholar’s reputation, even if he had never done more.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

But then he ruined it by writing popular literature. As he was always on the edge because of being Roman Catholic, that was eventually unforgivable. That was in the future, though, as The Hobbit had not penetrated anyone's consciousness and they gradually tolerated it, figuring he had gotten that nonsense out of his system. By the time LOTR came out it was already too late, and they couldn't rescind his professorship.

To those who think that they could not deny him his place because his other scholarship was simply too devastatingly good, Lewis and Tolkien would both smile indulgently and say "You don't really understand how this works, do you?"

james said...

He left me in the dust with his citations. I can sometimes sort-of worry out the meaning, but not appreciate why the original language's wording had so much more power.