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. Continue reading