The Alter of Beowulf

People sometimes ask me which field of literature I’d like to study in graduate school. Recently, I’ve started saying, “secondary literature.” This gets a laugh (oh, those academics, and their silly quarrels over minutia!), but I’m serious. I really love reading criticism. Literature is (among other things) my sports or politics—that is, my irrational, aesthetic love. Combing through JSTOR, sadly, is about as close as I can come these days to dissecting a game or primary with friends.

So as I read Beowulf (started this morning—two monsters down, one to go), I’ve already glanced at JRR Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which is worth the glancing. Tolkien, of course, is best known for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and second-best known as a linguist, but he was also, apparently, a fairly influential scholar of Beowulf. In particular, he seems to have started the modern literary criticism of the poem.

Earlier critics had read the poem for its historical value: who was So and So in real life? what does this poem tell us about early Anglo-Saxon Christianity? how can we use the poem to reconstruct more of English’s linguistic history? They consistently belittled the aesthetic value of the poem, and in particular, they thought its subject (Beowulf’s battles with assorted monsters) unimportant and inferior—especially when compared to the human dramas of Greek and Roman epic. The Beowulf poet, at best, was a skilled craftsman working with inferior, primitive materials. The important thing was to mine those materials for information.

Against this historicism, Tolkien argued that, whatever the merits of the original source material, the poet was a skilled literary artist who had created a work of great literary brilliance, which had to be judged by its own standards and genre, and not subjected to invidious comparisons with other epics (with which it did not share a purpose). And if this sounds suspiciously like a whole wave of literary critics of the Bible (most prominently, Robert Alter) who argued the Biblical Criticism had reductively emphasized origins, condescended to a text of great depth and brilliance, and mistakenly emphasized historical over literary value—well, I had the same thought.

The following allegory, pretty striking in its own right (you can see why Tolkien is best known as an imaginative writer, and not a critic), is especially neat because it could equally apply to the Bible (at least under Alter’s reading, which is not my favorite):

I would express the whole industry [of Beowulf criticism] in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

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One thought on “The Alter of Beowulf

  1. Pingback: I guess you could sum it up as, “keep an open mind” « Inadvertent Obfuscation

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