Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics
Zach Biere Mrs. Hunnicutt AP English 19 January 2013 J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics “There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity;…” (113). Tolkien has successfully undermined the criticism of all of those opposed to how Beowulf was written. Tolkien also studies and analyzes how the structure of the poem fits into the meaning of the article.
The most important point of Tolkien’s speech I find is that Tolkien finds this poem not to be an epic. In the speech that Tolkien gives, he is able to show how the critics are wrong, how the structure impacts the storyline, and why this poem does not qualify as an epic. J. R. R. Tolkien takes it upon himself to show how all of the critics are wrong in their criticisms of Beowulf. The most prevalent and memorable way he does this in his speech is through the allegory of the tower.
Tolkien states that a man uses old stones to build a tower in a field, and generations later, there are people who come to examine it and knock it down without even climbing the steps to it. In the sense of the allegory, the people who come to examine the tower are the critics, and the tower itself is the poem of Beowulf. When the people knock the tower down, the see that it is in a muddle. The critics seem to look at the individual stones and think that there is nothing amazing about those stones and therefore believe that the individual parts of the tower are very weak and lacking of information.
If the critics had taken the time to climb the tower before knocking it over, they would have been able to see how the structure and history of the poem shaped Beowulf. The critics would have realized how the poem fit together and found that it is in fact a viable and wonderful story. “The general structure of the poem, so viewed, is not really difficult to perceive, if we look to the main points, the strategy, and neglect the many points of minor tactics. ” (108). Tolkien states that Beowulf is a narrative oem. It follows a sequential order in that Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother, and then proceeds fifty years ahead to show us the battle with the dragon. The balance that is given to us in this poem is that the stories about Grendel and his mother are lengthier than the battle with the dragon. The poem must be written this way to show us the importance in the character of whom Beowulf is. Without that, the reader understands no bond with the character, and this poem becomes yet another poem with no meaning.
Tolkien says, “It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between your and age, first achievement and final death. ” (108). This summarizes the structure of how the poem works, and how it so effectively captures the reader in the poem. The largest and most controversial part in the speech that Tolkien gives is where he says, “Beowulf is not an ‘epic,’ not even a magnified ‘lay’” (111).
Tolkien believes that Beowulf is a heroic-elegiac poem. While I believe that it is true that this poem is an elegy, I also believe that it is an epic. Tolkien believes that Beowulf does not exactly fall into a category. There are no Greek ties to it, nor from any other culture than the one it was written within. Tolkien also states that it is a dirge. This I do agree with, this story can be thought of as a lament to the dead. Beowulf lives his life as a hero, and then dies as a hero while fighting with the dragon.
Within the Geatish culture this story could easily be taken as both a heroic-elegiac poem and a dirge. Tolkien brings up many great points in this speech. He successfully discredits those who have disbelief in his views. He shows how Beowulf was meant to be analyzed, and I completely agree with it. If I were to have the knowledge and understanding of the Old English language and were to criticize this poem, I would definitely have had my view changed upon the poem by how Tolkien analyzed it. I also agree with Tolkien in how he proposes the structure to be laid out.
I believe that there is no other way to look at it than how Tolkien does by stating that lengths of the different sections must be how they are. And finally, I do not agree with the classification that Tolkien puts on the poem. I do believe it to be an epic because that is how we have studied this poem to be. Tolkien undermined the critics by showing how they wrongly criticized it, he showed how the structure of the poem is correct, and shows his beliefs of how the poem is to be classified. Tolkien is a man of great stature and knowledge and his take on this poem give Beowulf yet another dimension to be studied from.