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Tom Shippey, ‘The Monsters and the Critics and other essays’

Tom Shippey explores this collection of Tolkien’s most important scholarly essays and lectures, and shows how they can shed light on his literary work.

The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien in 1983, brings together seven of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most important scholarly articles or papers: the lecture entitledBeowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ was read on 25 November 1936 and published in the Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 (1936); the introductory noteOn Translating Beowulf’, an introduction to a new edition (1940) of a translation of Beowulf by Clark Hall;Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (a lecture given in Glasgow on 15 April 1953), the essayOn Fairy-stories’, delivered as a lecture at the University of St Andrews on 8 March 1939 then published in 1947 in the Essays Presented to Charles Williams; the lecturesEnglish and Welsh’ (at Oxford on 21 October 1955 then published in 1963) andA Secret Vice’ (at Pembroke College, Oxford on 29 November 1931) and finally hisValedictory Address to the University of Oxford’, given on 5 June 1959.

Though all but one had been previously published, most of them had appeared in collections or journals of limited circulation; Christopher Tolkien edited the seven essays, corrected some errors and found an alternative version to the ‘Valedictory Address’. Together they give the clearest view now recoverable of the author’s highly individual and original opinions on literature, especially medieval literature, and on the nature of language, as well as providing insight into his personal development as a writer and defender of fantasy.

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’

The piece which provides the volume’s title is J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture to the British Academy on ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’. This lecture entirely changed the course of Beowulf studies, and is one of the most frequently cited academic papers of all time in the humanities. Briefly: before Tolkien, general scholarly opinion held, first, that the poem as we have it is a hotch-potch of different items, unskilfully put together by a later reviser; and then, once this view became untenable, that while the poem might after all be unified, it was nevertheless unfortunate that the poet had chosen to tell stories about a hero, ogres, and a dragon, instead of detailing the wars in the North to which he often provocatively alludes.

Tolkien’s lecture strongly and sometimes ironically defends the poet’s decision and the poem itself. The poet had every right to choose fantasy rather than history as his subject; in doing so he universalized his theme; his many allusions to events not recounted gave his work depth; most of all, the poem offered a kind of negotiation between the poet’s own firmly Christian world and the world of his pagan ancestors, on whom he looked back with admiration and pity.

It could be argued that in several ways what Tolkien said of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was true of himself and of his fictional works, especially of The Lord of the Rings, which he began the year after he gave this lecture.

‘On Translating Beowulf’

He returned to Beowulf a few years later with the piece ‘On Translating Beowulf’. In this essay we see Tolkien recommending translation not as a schoolbook exercise, but as a way of feeling one’s way back into a vanished world-view by studying the precise words used in the original.

Modern editions of the poem habitually give answers which make translating easier for the modern student, but tend to gloss over stylistic and lexical differences; in Tolkien’s view it was the differences which were important, for they allowed a glimpse of the world as his ancestors saw it, Middle-earth beneath ‘the vault of heaven’, surrounded ‘by the Shoreless Seas and the outer darkness’, with bitter fate continually resisted by heroic courage.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

After Beowulf, the ancient work most important to Tolkien was probably the medieval romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien both edited and translated in modern English. In his essay printed in The Monsters and the Critics, he gives a view of the poem which is characteristically personal, and which furthermore stresses not heroic difference but Catholic continuity.

A critical moment in the poem, Tolkien argues, is the one where Sir Gawain, having improperly agreed to conceal his acceptance of the Lady’s girdle from her husband (Gawain had indeed promised, as a game, to exchange with the husband anything that he would receive while staying in his castle), goes to confession and receives absolution. But should he not have confessed his sin? If he did, surely he should have made amends by returning the girdle?

Or did the poet not notice any contradiction? Tolkien argues that the last option is impossible, as it would reduce the poet to a mere bungler. Rather, he says, Gawain’s failure is a breach not of the Christian moral code, but of an aristocratic game-code, which the poet was concerned to show as definitely subordinate to the Christian one. While the poem contains interesting reminiscences and survivals from pagan antiquity, these too should not be allowed to dominate interpretation.

‘English and Welsh’ – ‘A Secret Vice’ – ‘Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford’

All three of the essays mentioned above have clear application to J.R.R. Tolkien’s own creative work, and the application becomes even clearer in three semi-autobiographical pieces. InEnglish and Welsh’ Tolkien writes of his own fascination from childhood with the Welsh language, and goes on, idiosyncratically once again, to put forward a theory about what makes a language intrinsically beautiful, above all in its sounds.

InA Secret Vice’, the vice to which he confesses is the urge to create languages – an urge which, he argues, is much more widespread than is commonly believed, and which is an important part of the human make-up. The study of language, in short, is not just utilitarian, it also is, or should be, aesthetic; and the creation of language is an important part of the human, and entirely legitimate, drive towards fantasy. But why is this not generally known and accepted?

In the last text of the volume, hisValedictory Address to the University of Oxford’, delivered in 1959 when he retired, Tolkien expresses his faith in literature, and gives a few clues about his method: ‘I would always rather try to wring the juice out of a single sentence, or explore the implications of one word than try to sum up a period in a lecture, or pot a poet in a paragraph’. He comments sternly, and with a touch of bitterness, on the activities of academic ‘misologists’ (as he calls them), who in the urge to study literature have ruled out the study of language, and who have promoted realism to be ‘mainstream’, relegating fantasy in all its forms to the margins. On the contrary, Tolkien argues that ‘Philology is the foundation of humane letters’ and that ‘Literature’ and ‘Language’ are closely related; and one understands that he comments upon his own work when he declares that ‘Philology rescued the surviving documents from oblivion and ignorance, and presented to lovers of poetry and history fragments of a noble past that without it would have remained for ever dead and dark’. In a way, his whole work as a writer appears as a kind of ‘fictional philology’.

‘On Fairy-stories’ 

Most of the themes indicated above come together in Tolkien’s extensive essay ‘On Fairy-stories’. Fairy stories are a good example of a marginalized fantasy genre, having been relegated for centuries to children and their low-class female nurses, and seen as beneath the notice of educated male scholars – till they were rescued by the brothers Grimm, who may be viewed as Tolkien’s scholarly predecessors.

The marginalization has led to a string of unfortunate ideas about fairies and about Faërie, which Tolkien rebuts in detail. More positively, he shows the importance of ‘eucatastrophe’ in fairy tales and in related genres such as the traditional ballad; and argues that the element of ‘sub-creation’ within all genres of fantasy is a human birthright. The myths which humans create, or invent, are echoes of the myth by which they were created. Fairy stories, like stories about ogres and dragons and shape-shifting green giants (see above the text on Sir Gawain), are completely compatible with Christian faith.

One final example of disguised self-reference may be noticed in this lecture, when Tolkien remarked that just as humans tell fairy stories, so presumably the fairies tell human stories. But since fairy stories often involve the Escape from Death, what could the human stories deal with? The answer, of course, is that such stories already existed, in Tolkien’s own then-unpublished (when he gave his lecture) ‘Silmarillion’, especially in the ‘great tales’ of Beren, of Túrin, of Tuor and Eärendil, in all of which humans change the course of elvish history, to be remembered only by the elves. And near the end of the Tale of Beren, Lúthien the elf-maid chooses the Escape from Immortality.

In such ways the seven essays collected in this volume offer continual insights, not only into their declared subjects, but also into the inner intellectual and creative life of their author, and his legendarium.