In the later days of Beowulf’s reign, a fiery dragon takes up residence on an abandoned inheritance of his people’s wealth. For three hundred years he had slept peacefully, until into his lair “went some nameless man, creeping in nigh to the pagan treasure; his hand seized a goblet deep, bright with gems. This the dragon did not after in silence bear, albeit he had been cheated in his sleep by thief’s cunning” (Beowulf, 77-79). Provoked to wrath by the theft, the dragon begins to terrorize the countryside. This plot may remind you of Bilbo’s deeds, and indeed Tolkien translated those lines from Beowulf in 1926, eleven years before the publication of The Hobbit. In fact, one year prior to his first novel, Tolkien published Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a cornerstone study that changed the direction of scholarship on the poem forever. Clearly, when Tolkien wrote Bilbo’s story, his mind was filled with inspiration from the Old English epic.
The place of paganism in Christian speculative fiction
Tolkien shares with the Beowulf poet a peculiar status as a Christian writer who draws extensively from pagan sources. In some ways, Christianity is even more overt in Beowulf than in Tolkien: Grendel, the troll who terrorizes the Danes at the outset, begins his murderous rampage in fury over the bard’s song about God: “There was the sound of harp and the clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the first beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth” (Beowulf, 15). This galls him because, as we learn, Grendel, like many other monsters, descends from the kin of Cain mixed, by implication, with the fallen angels, associating such creatures with the Nephilim (Beowulf, 16). The fiery dragon, overtly evocative of Satan, is even referred to as a “fiend” by the poet. So the poet explains pagan evils as enemies of the Christian God – as Tolkien put it in his essay, “At this point new Scripture and old tradition touched and ignited” (“Monsters and the Critics,” 11). Beowulf can overcome the ultimately human monstrosity of Grendel and his mother, but he cannot overcome the supernatural – Beowulf’s own prideful sin and the power of the devilish dragon are above the paygrade of his heroics.
A theme introduced early in Beowulf is that God brings heroes to the land for people’s aid. Hrothgar’s ancestor Scyld Scefing has an heir who is described as one “whom God sent for the comfort of the people” (Beowulf, 13). Tolkien translates this man’s name as “Beow” but in the manuscript it reads “Beowulf” – a common choice among translators of the poem to avoid confusion with the eponymous hero. So when the Beowulf says in the poem, “Ich eom Beowulf” (I am Beowulf), Hrothgar would remember (and so might the reader) that that name had been identified explicitly as the working of God’s providence. The Beowulf poet could find evidence that providence worked in pre-Christian times among Gentiles in Acts 17: 26-27: “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.” Of course, this does not mean that there is no distinction between the Christian believer and the pagan who felt after (intuitively sought after) God, but that perhaps something might be learned from the Anglo-Saxon poet’s pagan ancestors and their stories.
Though sin-stained and incapable of achieving the truths of special revelation without the direct intercession of the Holy Spirit (unique to Scripture alone), the faculty of imagination remains in pagans a component of the image of God that can glimpse, though through a glass darkly, enough truth for Paul to say that the non-believer is without excuse (Romans 1:20). Indeed, if gleams of God’s truth could be seen even in pagan myths, that would only serve to underscore God’s sovereign design of the human imagination, in spite of how sin causes specific uses of it to go awry. A story set in the pagan past of one’s ancestors might help the Anglo-Saxon Christian feel Gospel truths all the more poignantly precisely because illustrated by subject matter not intentionally crafted to support Christian belief until it came into the poet’s hands. This is true because pagan storytelling participates in a fundamental aspect of the Imago Dei: as Tolkien put it in On Fairy Stories, since God is a Creator, and Man is made in his image, we are therefore “sub-creators.” The difference between the pagan and the Christian storyteller is the latter ought to deliberately dedicate his writing to the service of Christian truth – however, not simply to believe the dogma of Christian truth but to understand the emotional and enchanting aspect of that truth, that which makes it compelling to the imagination as well as to reason.
Because the Beowulf poet begins his largely pagan narrative with Hrothgar’s court bard telling the story of God’s creative act, we can be sure that the poet had some consideration in mind of what it meant for a Christian to craft a story out of non-Christian material. This makes him, we might say, an early example of a Christian writer of speculative fiction, asking, “What can the tales of my pagan ancestors have to do with Jerusalem?” in story form. Tolkien, as a keen reader and admirer of the poem, found in Beowulf a paradigm for his own views of myth-making as a Christian. Explaining that “it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing” The Hobbit, Tolkien says nonetheless that “Beowulf is among my most valued sources” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 31). The striking parallels of Beowulf’s dragon and Smaug’s provocation to rampage by an unimportant thief stealing a precious chalice are actually more interesting given that Tolkien says this was unintended, showing just how deeply the poem had worked its way into his imagination. And yet The Hobbit, as Tolkien’s mythopoeic creation, has even less explicit Christianity in it than appears in Beowulf. Biblical parallels, after all, become more explicit in The Silmarillion legendarium and The Lord of the Rings. It’s easy enough to see Christian parallels in Gandalf’s sacrifice that leads to glorification or the One Ring as the power of sin’s temptation (parallels, I say, not allegories, which Tolkien found unpleasant when too rigid). But what about The Hobbit?
Providence and the Image of God in Speculative Fiction
Tolkien spoke of Christianity as the true, historical fairy-story, where the refreshing experience of the fairy-tale’s happy ending becomes fact in the Primary World. It was not lost on Tolkien that Gospel meant “good news” or “God story”: “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story” (Letters, 100-101). Having contemplated how “Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow” best moves the soul in story form, Tolkien’s stream of consciousness then moves to The Hobbit: “I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the eucatastrophic emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!’” (Hobbit, 101) Eucatastrophe, defined by Tolkien as the sudden and unexpected move towards the Good, was for him epitomized in sacred history by the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ: God’s historical fairy-tale where the joy of salvation, when deeply apprehended by the believing imagination, moves the Christian to tears.
Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s literary retort to the maligned “deus ex machina,” seen by Aristotle and many of his followers as the ultimate black eye on narrative. But it is only so if one denies the metaphysical possibility of God moving providentially in His Creation – in this way, literary taste depends at least to some degree on worldview. The Eagles are Tolkien’s way of signaling that Eru Ilúvatar is showing his hand in Middle Earth – emissaries of Manwe the lord of the angelic Valar and Maiar from The Silmarillion, who is himself linked by Tolkien to Michael the Archangel and so a servant of God. Tolkien writes of the Valar, “These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres” (Letters, 146). An example of Providence closer to Bilbo’s story, underscoring that teaching of Paul in Acts 17 that God is not far from us, is Gandalf himself, whom we know to be a Maia, one might say the Guardian Angel of Bilbo and the Dwarves. Speaking of such angels, Hebrews 1:14 reads, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Hebrews 1:7 associates angels with fire and wind, and Gandalf often uses fire as his primary weapon (as against the Goblins in the mountain passage) and his alliance with the Eagles makes him a being of wind too. Hebrews invokes angels to contrast their nature with that of Christ – indeed, to underscore his divinity. Since Gandalf is an angel, therefore, his pervasive presence inherently refers to the presence of another Being of higher glory.
But much of Bilbo’s success occurs when Gandalf is absent. Although an agent of Providence, Gandalf is not the whole of it. When Bilbo successfully brings the Dwarves out of captivity in the Wood-elven kingdom to Lake-town, the townsfolk “began to sing snatches of old songs concerning the return of the King under the Mountain” (Hobbit 182). This prophetic folklore involves the king overthrowing a dragon, so that The streams shall run in gladness The lakes shall shine and burn, All sorrow fail and sadness At the Mountain-king’s return! (182) The resonance with Revelation need not be explicated. Yet curiously “no songs had alluded to [Bilbo] even in the obscurest way” (183). Like the Gospel, the fulfillment of prophecy turns out to unfold in a surprising way in The Hobbit, not least of all where the Hobbit is concerned. “Will he do, do you think?” asks Gloin, remarking, “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!” (18) The question echoes Nathanael’s: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) As Scripture oft repeats, in The Hobbit providence works through the lowly to embarrass the lofty. Gandalf reminds Bilbo of this, when he says, “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” (The Hobbit 276)
The Beowulf poet too emphasizes God’s sovereignty in the wake of the final battle of his story, echoing Paul’s Mars Hill sermon: “God’s Doom was ever the master then of every man in deeds fulfilled, even as yet now it is” (Beowulf, 96). But Beowulf’s death in his confrontation with the dragon is a marked difference from Bilbo’s proverbial realization that he ought never laugh at live dragons: “He [Wiglaf] could not, dearly though he wished it, keep upon the earth his captain’s [Beowulf’s] life, nor any whit avert the Almighty’s will” (96). Where Beowulf is a negative exemplum of overweening pride in the face of spiritual warfare, Bilbo’s response to Gandalf bespeaks the humility a Christian should have when reminded that “you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all”: “Thank goodness!” (The Hobbit, 276)
One might say that the speculative question driving the fantasies of the Beowulf poet and Tolkien is: “What Christian truth can be seen by means of stories containing pagan subject matter?” How can stories be told without explicit Christianity in a way that helps us to better understand God and His relationship to Creation, and also Man’s image of God and its spiritual value found in sub-creation? But an adjacent question should be asked, one which some might argue Tolkien did not ask sufficiently: “How can meditation on pagan myth highlight the distinction between pagan falsehood and Christian truth?”
Tolkien’s Dwarves are famously named after the Dwarves of Norse mythology (their names directly taken from the Eddas), but although they prompt Bilbo to the journey, he also finds himself growing apart from them as he discovers humility. The Beowulf poet was right to see God’s providence even in his pagan past, and yet in doing so risked enshrining Beowulf’s unchristian pride and honor culture, a culture shared by the Dwarves (especially Thorin, who we are often told regarded himself as an “important Dwarf”). By making Bilbo (the thief) his hero rather than Bard (a far more Beowulfine figure), Tolkien reminds us of a fundamental Christian truth different from the more pagan model: we are not the hero of our story.
(Note that Anthony G. Cirilla is representing Bear Publications at the Realm Makers virtual conference, while Travis Perry is away for US Army Training…)