James Earl argued that Beowulf should be read in context of historical and external knowledge. He calls this method intertextuality, whose benefits are unlimited. Intertextuality gives the reader a heightened sense of genre, theme, and even “arbitrary details” (Earl 290). While Earl argues that outside contextual knowledge is necessary, some argue that the text itself is sufficient for such a task. J. R. R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Lord of Rings series, takes the second position. Both Tolkien and Earl exhibit distinctive strengths and weaknesses in their arguments regarding this topic. And thus, neither should be taken as the definitive answer to the question of interpreting this ancient text. Rather, the reader’s method of understanding Beowulf should be defined by his purpose in reading it. Ultimately, understanding the different strengths and weaknesses of these two methods of interpretation allows the reader to determine which method is best for his purpose. One weakness with Earl’s method of interpretation is related to the reality that knowledge is finite. The capacity of human knowledge must eventually come to an end for the individual; with the death of our bodies comes the end of that knowledge. This is not to say that knowledge cannot be passed down to new generations; however, individuals only have access to a limited amount of information in their lifetimes. This reality often means that understanding the entire historical context of an ancient piece of literature, such as Beowulf, would require a significant amount of research. For Tolkien, research is not necessary to understand this story. He says, “Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry… that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered” (Tolkien 105). While this is a weakness for Tolkien, some consider it a strength.
Earl considers such research a strength when reading Beowulf. To him, research adds depth and meaning to the themes of this ancient text. This paper cannot discuss all the research Earl conducted, but it will focus on one significant theme that he develops in his essay. This theme is concerning the forbidden appeal and moral implications of incest. Without studying the analogues that Earl does, this theme is not apparent. However, with a further look, the reader will find that Beowulf “is a poem struggling to subdue its Germanic nature, to bring it to rough harmony with Christianity” (Earl 291). This harmony with Christianity is hinted at throughout the poem. The author constantly uses phrases referencing God’s sovereignty. For instance, after defeating Grendel’s mother, Beowulf says, “If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (“Beowulf” 76). However, this harmony with Christianity is only strengthened by the discovery that a case of incest in this story is easy to overlook. To Earl, “Beowulf is what it is largely because it has repressed the idea of incest” (Earl 304). To some, this interpretation of Beowulf is surprising and maybe even offensive. However, it undeniably adds depth to the story. For a researcher, this is valuable information.
Thus, a weakness with Tolkien’s method of interpretation is that it limits the reader’s understanding of this story. Without research, the reader would not be able to interpret this story in the way Earl does. According to Earl, intertextuality creates “a finer sense of the poem’s genre, style, and raison d’ être and a heightened awareness of the spider-webbing connotations of what might at first appear to be innocuous, ornamental, or arbitrary details” (Earl 290). Even though human knowledge is finite, its value is precious. If we limit our ability to explore such knowledge, we may miss out on a brilliant theme. However, the value of literature does not have to be defined by the information available. To those who are unable to or do not desire to do in-depth research, Tolkien’s method allows them to find value in Beowulf. There are many devices to find meaning in literature without knowing its historical background. Such devices include simile, metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, and structure. The latter of these devices is one that Tolkien mentions in his essay. He says, “In its simplest terms it [Beowulf] is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting… between youth and age, first achievement and final death” (Tolkien 124-125). To Tolkien, this universal realization can be found by simply reading the story and analyzing its structure. There is no need for further research. Simply reading the comments on Beowulf’s funeral at the end of the story suggest this theme of youth and age. The narrator says, “For a man should praise a prince whom he hold dear and cherish his memory when that moment comes when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home” (Beowulf 106). This funeral is a picture that celebrates life and death, a universal reality no one can deny. Tolkien’s method of interpretation allows those who do not research history to enjoy this important poem.
Both Earl and Tolkien are dedicated to their love of literature. They both make valid arguments for their methods of interpretations. However, one method cannot be deemed better than the other in such a subjective field. To some, Earl’s method is important because it reveals the suppression of a scandalous theme in Beowulf. But to others, Tolkien’s method is valuable because it allows them to relate to the story on a deep and personal level. These methods simply achieve different purposes, and these purposes cannot overshadow each other.