Outline of 
"The Monsters & the Critics" 
(25 November1936)

"The language of Beowulf is in fact partly 're-paganized' by the author with a special purpose, rather than christianized (by him or later) without consistent purpose. . . . There is a gap, important and effective poetically whatever was its length in time between Caedmon and the poet of Beowulf.  We have thus in Old English not only the old heroic language often strained or misused in application to Christian legend . . ., but in Beowulf language of Christian tone occasionally (if actually seldom) put inadvertently in the mouth of a character conceived as heathen. All is not perfect to the last detail in Beowulf"--Appendix sec. b

I. The problem with much Beowulf scholarship of the period is that it is more focused on the poem as a cultural artifact than as an actual poem.

A. Tolkien provides an allegorical sketch of the history of this scholarship up to 1936. 

B. By treating it primarily as a product of history, critics praise and blame the poem for something other than what it was intended to do.

C. Tolkien provides a second allegory of a house, a tower, and the sea, which he uses to critique the historically-minded critics.

D. He examines typical criticism of this sort by Ker, Chambers, and Girvan, which tends to find Beowulf lacking something in plot, in believability, or in epic construction. 

II. Tolkien, in turn, defends the poem.

A. It is a  work highly polished and possessing a unity of style and tone with its themes.

B. Comparative folklore studies are especially apt to mistake antiquarian allusion for literary criticism.

III. Myth is "incarnated" by a poet "in the world of history and geography."

A. Beowulf is a poem that relies on mythic power, for example, the slaying of the dragon. [Note the aside, "More than one poem in recent years. . .", about Tolkien's I˙monna Gold Galdre Bewunden and C.S. Lewis's "Once the worm-laid egg broke in the wood"--both poems on dragons.]

B. Beowulf's dragon is almost a personification of life's malice, but it is not an allegory.

C. The dragon episode is set within the Anglo-Saxon heroic worldview and its tragedy.

D. The monsters in the poem are deeply tied to its central aesthetic, one of death and the symbolism of evil.

IV. Tolkien argues that the poem is a fusion of the old pagan Norse world and the new Christian one. 

A. Thus, for example, this transformation helps explain the material nature of Grendel and his mother, who are, nonetheless, called demons.

B. It also explains how the old Norse view can be retained to some extent by the Christian culture, regarding it as both dark and remote yet still having an imaginative hold.

C. It leads to a double suppression within the poem of aspects of both the old pagan gods and of Christian theology. The poem does not present the worst of the former nor can it embody all aspects of the later.

V. Likewise, the cultural shift is not complete--the poem does not present a complete Christian worldview--the internal, spiritual enemy within us defeated with an eternity of heaven waiting.

A. The tone of regret is still present, without its accompanying despair.

B. Beowulf is a model of piety in a world of "man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned."

VI. What distinguishes the poem from Southern myths and epics is Northern tragedy.

A. Tolkien rejects any influence by The Aeneid upon Beowulf, even while recognizing a kinship in tone.

B. The Northern monsters and the gods are more humane, existing within the world of Time and its eventual end.

C. The Northern solution is courage and honor in the face of eventual cosmic defeat.

VII. Tolkien conceives of the author of Beowulf as a Christian poet looking back on a pagan time with appreciation for the old heroism.

A. The poet conceptualizes its kings as noble chiefs before the Christian faith arrives.

B. So, likewise, its pagan past is significant in its idolatry and its nobility.

VIII. The poem's structure is one of achievement (1-2199) and of death (2200-3182).

A. This is a static structure, not a plot that advances so much as it balances life's opposites.

B. Tolkien recognizes that the long recapitulation and the journey to another land work against this structure, but notes that the poet was working with a story already in existence.

C. A second division in the poem happens after line 1887, with the foreboding of disaster.

D. The poem is finally better judged as "an heroic-elegiac poem" than an epic.

VIII.  Conclusion: Tolkien offers an imaginary contrast with the story of Saint Oswald and what would have to be done to it to rise to Beowulf's thematic power. The poem, he finally insists, is a late poem in its culture, dealing with its pagan past.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding