Thursday, October 11, 2012

Meditations on 'The Monsters and the Critics' by J. R. R. Tolkien

I've just read Tolkien's famous lecture/essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics." In it he takes certain literary critics to task for their assertions that Beowulf's author eschewed the lofty in favor of the trivial by placing the monsters – Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon – at the center of the poem.

It is a beautiful, beautiful essay that, apart from scoring an absolute bull's eye (and applying the zinger: I have, of course read The Beowulf, as have most [but not all] of those who have criticized it), also weighs in on the power of myth and the importance of looking at art as art. It also demonstrates how we can gain perspective through a thoughtful examination of historical context.

Near and dear to my heart, and at the heart of his argument, Tolkien staunchly defends the northern mythological imagination. This is a balm to my soul! I show great restraint by not simply retyping the whole thing right here!

Though scarcely a child of the internet age, I wanted so much, as I read the essay, to send Dr. Tolkien an email, or tweet to him in sincere appreciation and in solidarity; but Tolkien, of course, was, as he himself said of Beowulf, a man, and that…is sufficient tragedy: man falls prey to death and then he is lost…! How fortunate that his words may live on, so that one may meditate upon them, as below.

A person alive and a person dead exist at the same time 

Like Tolkien, I believe strongly in the significance of myth.

Myth does not unfold in an "historical" time, but rather in an imagined time. However, as Tolkien says, it is at its best when it is presented…as incarnate in the world of history and geography…

I would add that, in myth, meanings bleed to the surface of the ordinary, so that this bloodiness, this contact with the juice that (normally) flows invisibly within, becomes ordinary.

In my novel The Bear Wife, bones - skeletal remains emptied of a person's soul - are inhabited, pregnant, in a sense, with significance. (He who in those days said and who heard…[the kenning] ban-hus 'bone-house'…thought of the soul shut in the body, as the frail body itself is trammelled in armour, or as a bird in a narrow cage, or steam pent in a cauldron. There it seethed and struggled in the wylmas, the boiling surges beloved of the old poets, until its passion was released and it fled away on ellor-si∂, a journey to other places 'which none can report with truth, not lords in their halls nor mighty men beneath the sky.')

In this mythological way of thinking, a thing is both what it is, and what it is not. Or maybe what it is, and what it once was, both at the same imagined time.

In this way of thinking, a person alive and a person dead exist at the same time, in balance, as Tolkien describes the two halves of the Anglo-Saxon line of verse, halves that balance and build upon each other, "more like masonry than music."

In this way of thinking there is the sense of a building, a structure, "a tough builder's work of true stone," rather than a sense of moving forward, or of narrative. But I don't think – and I don't think Tolkien thought either – that this 'structure' represented a state of repose. Far from it; the balance, in fact, was an uneasy one.

In The Well and the Tree Paul Bauschatz discusses the lack of a future tense in Germanic languages. There are only the past and the present, two conditions, and the future is called necessity.

Some say the future is now. Perhaps, essentially, necessity is the now, the only weapon we may wield against the monster, a stonemason's tool in the delicate balance between life and death.

Quotes are from "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Translating Beowulf", both from The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

I also refer to The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture by Paul C.
Bauschatz. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.


  1. "more like masonry than music" is an intense and fascinating metaphor. Zomg. It opened me up, but I don't think I really understand it. I'm drowning in it. Can you say some more about what this means?

  2. Hi Michael - Of course I seized upon this metaphor, as much as I love stone and stonework!
    I think what he means is this: In Anglo-Saxon verse, instead of having a string of metrical "feet" or musical measures that are regular (i.e., da DA / da DA/ da DA / da DA), each line is built of two halves that are equivalent in terms of their loudness/weight/significance, but may or may not be (and usually are not) equal, that is, of the same rhythmic pattern. The rules that govern the composition of the two halves describe a complicated, intricate relationship based upon stresses and alliteration.
    My allusion to the lack of a future tense in Germanic languages was idle speculation, based upon the observation that this very careful consideration of the relationship between the two half-lines (let's call them past and present) seems to supersede the forward motion (i.e. towards the future) that one feels in a more "sing-songy" type of verse, which is also often enhanced by a rhyme scheme that leaps forward.
    So rather than a preoccupation with musicality, there is a preoccupation with building blocks of text in a tight, sturdy relationship with one another.
    I hope that makes some sense!