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Leo Carruthers, ‘Understanding Beowulf’

Leo Carruthers, an academic specializing in Anglo-Saxon literature, particularly Beowulf, presents his views on the medieval poem, setting it in a historical context and discussing its importance in Tolkien’s work.

Heroic romance in Anglo-Saxon England (8th-11th century)

Beowulf is an Old English poem, untitled in the manuscript but conventionally known – and rightly so, thought Tolkien – by the name of its central character. The story is divided into three almost equal sections involving different monsters that Beowulf fights and kills, one in each section. But the poem also falls naturally into two unequal parts, setting up a contrast between youth and age, as embodied in the hero’s life.

In the first part Beowulf is an invincible young warrior of great strength who offers his services to a neighbouring king; he wins glory and honour by killing two fearsome monsters, called Grendel and Grendel’s mother, in short succession, before going back to his home across the sea.

Leaping forward suddenly in time, the second part depicts Beowulf as an aged king who has now reigned for fifty years over his people; he fights and kills a fire-breathing dragon, but in the action he is badly wounded, dies and is buried with fitting ceremony. There is no ‘happy end’, the final scene being sad and filled with foreboding for the future of the now leaderless nation. It is this combination of courage and melancholy which led Tolkien to invent a new generic term to classify the poem, which he called a ‘heroic elegy’.

Discussion about the genre of Beowulf – whether it should be considered an ‘epic’ or a ‘romance’, a ‘legend’ or a ‘mirror for princes’, based on a combination of history and mythology – is only one of the many critical aspects of the poem which Tolkien’s opinions have helped to elucidate. While the hero himself is fictional, and the monsters belong to myth and fairy tale, references in the text to authentic kings who once lived make it possible to situate the action in the sixth century AD.

The poem is highly allusive, tantalisingly referring to many characters, both real and legendary, from song and story, often in ‘digressions’ which seem to be irrelevant to the main plot. Not all of these allusions would necessarily have been obvious to the first audience; it is enough for the poet’s purpose that they provide a sense of historical depth – a technique Tolkien would also adopt in The Lord of the Rings, where the ancient background is often sensed but not always explained.

The anonymous poet, who does not attempt to play the role of a chronicler, gives no dates and thus he avoids falling into the chronological trap as much as the generic one. His work is unique in more ways than one. Scholars continue therefore to argue about its origin, sources, date, context, and meaning, and perhaps a consensus of opinion will never be reached. So what, if anything, can be said with certainty about Beowulf?

The extant manuscript: an ‘English’ story?

Firstly, the poem has survived in a single manuscript, our sole witness, held in the British Library, London; this document was penned at an uncertain date, in two different hands, around the year 1000, though when exactly remains unsettled – perhaps in the first two decades of the eleventh century.

Secondly, Beowulf is written in ‘classical’ Old English of the period 950-1050, i.e. the late West Saxon dialect which was spoken by the English kings; but there are also some traces of Mercian (Midlands) dialectal forms which may have escaped the scribes’ attention, suggesting that they were either copying or rewriting an older text, now lost.

Had the extant manuscript been destroyed in turn, as happened to so many other medieval books, we would know nothing whatever about the poem’s existence, since nothing quite like it is to be found in other languages and literatures. While some episodes in later Old Norse (Icelandic) texts provide parallels and possibly partial analogues (tales suggesting a common origin), nowhere does one find any reference to Beowulf himself, the hero of the Old English poem.

Although Beowulf was composed in England and in the Old English language, it does not contain, curiously enough, any reference at all to England or English people. In fact the poem is a ‘historical romance’ in that the poet and his audience look back to an earlier time, one in which their forefathers lived not in Britain but on the continent – a time, moreover, in which those ancestors were pagan and unlettered, unlike the poet and his audience who, in Tolkien’s view, were educated English Christians.

The story takes place entirely in Scandinavia, the first part in Denmark (the two fights with Grendel and his mother), the second part in the land of the Geats, a region in the south of present-day Sweden, where the hero slays the dragon. Beowulf himself is a Geat, not a Swede; related to the more famous Goths, his tribe were enemies of the Swedes at that time.

The doomed hero, indeed, in a series of mental flashbacks, recalls the wars against the Swedes in which the Geats gained many victories – despite which, the tale’s ominous conclusion foretells the destruction of his people.

The historical and literary context thus makes the English work of significance to the wider Germanic world; Beowulf is indeed the longest and greatest poem to be found in any of the early Germanic languages.

Pagan legends in a Christian culture

Coming originally from parts of Denmark and the north of Germany, the Angles and Saxons first began to settle in Britain in the mid-fifth century. Their descendants never forgot their continental origins nor their kinship with the other Germanic peoples; this made them different in language and culture from the Britons, the earlier inhabitants of the island whom they referred to as Welsh, literally ‘foreigners’.

This background explains why an English audience of the early eleventh century could still be interested in a vivid story about their Scandinavian forebears, all the more so since that audience included a more recent influx of Danes who had settled in England during the Viking period. Indeed, this element was strong enough to enable a Danish prince, Knut (Cnut), to make himself King of England in 1016 – at the very time, perhaps, when the Beowulf manuscript was being written out, which could explain why the preface foregrounds the ancient Danish royal genealogy.

Numerous questions arise from all of these topics, problems which specialists like Tolkien had to deal with because they affect the interpretation of the whole poem as well as that of many individual passages.

At the time the manuscript was penned, supposing this to be around 1000-1020, was the poem as we have it already old? In other words, did it, in part or in whole, have an earlier existence independent of our sole surviving physical witness? Did it exist in writing, or had it been transmitted in purely oral form, from one generation to the next, the typical way in a vernacular culture? In either case, how far back might it – or any part of it – have first been composed? Does it represent the survival of an older, pagan, heroic literature which all but disappeared after the English had become Christian?

If the authentic historical kings lived in the sixth century, this certainly means that traditions about them were handed down, but not that any poem of the length and quality of Beowulf existed so early, especially given the pagan condition of Germanic society. It seems much more likely that an Anglo-Saxon poet of the eighth century, who had heard earlier tales and legends about the Germanic homeland, was the first to compose this new work for recitation before a sophisticated English court.

Throughout his long academic career, Tolkien lectured frequently on Beowulf in his university courses. His influence on scholarship in the twentieth century was greatly felt as a result of his famous 1936 British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’, later published as an article.

By placing the monsters at the centre rather than the periphery, this lecture made a major contribution to our understanding of the poem as a work of art in its literary and historical context. During his lifetime he published one other piece on the poem, his ‘Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf’, in Wrenn’s 1940 edition of Clark Hall’s translation; later, in 1950, Wrenn was to say that Tolkien’s introduction ‘must remain as the most permanently valuable part of the book’.

Those ‘Remarks’ (later published in Tolkien’s collected essays) are essential reading in relation to his own translation of the poem, (published in 2014, and titled Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, in an edition by Christopher Tolkien) explaining as they do his taste for rhythmical prose based on natural speech patterns, but also for a somewhat archaic diction and grammar. Furthermore, Tolkien’s opinion on many points of interpretation is now available in the commentary, based on his lecture notes, which accompanies his translation.

Tolkien belonged to the school of thought which saw Beowulf as a historical romance composed in the early eighth century – consequently, before the Viking period – by a Christian Anglo-Saxon who looked back to ‘ancestor myths’ surrounding Danes and Geats of about 150 years before the time of composition. That the poet was a Christian is evident from his numerous references to God as Father and Creator, interspersed throughout the text in such a manner as to make them integral, like threads in a tapestry that could not be pulled out without spoiling the whole picture. There is, however, no mention of Christ or the Church, since that would interfere with the ancient atmosphere the poet wished to preserve.

The protagonists move in a world which is, one might say, not so much ‘pagan’ as ‘pre-conversion’, like Old Testament characters waiting for the Christian revelation; this is in keeping with the idea of God as Lord, Ruler and Judge – an image which is common to both the Old Testament and Beowulf. Notwithstanding the probability of some interpolations and revisions having been made, in the course of transmission, by later poets and scribes down to the early eleventh century, Tolkien saw the poem as a unified whole in which the voice of the original author was still clearly to be heard.

The poet presents the hero, Beowulf, as a great warrior of old who wisely used the gifts of God, including his amazing strength, for the good of his fellow men. Nearly three hundred years later, when the surviving manuscript was written, that voice was still relevant to the code of honour prevailing, not without a certain nostalgia for the heroic past, among the Anglo-Saxon and Danish nobility of England.