1. Martin LaBar says:

    Thanks for this article!

  2. nulligravida FTW says:

    ?? The scribe of Beowulf was more than likely a compiler than an inventor. The Christian elements are later insertions. There’s more substance in the themes about humanity/inhumanity and how it relates to the hearth and hospitality customs.

    But it would be interesting to consider whether a thief or a bard would be a better complement to a band of tanks and a wizard. Arguably a thief would bring a better balance to party dynamics, with a wizard already present for magic-based stuff.

    • Anthony says:

      My PhD was in medieval Literature and I’ve studied these arguments extensively (I translated Beowulf as an undergrad, and did some OE work as a grad student). While it’s true that the Beowulf poet got his material from previous iterations of the story, I think the compiler argument is untenable given the poet’s obvious skill (which shines through even when the scribe changes hands). And in any case even the act of compilation is an artistic one, and so we can read the choice of compilation as an artistic act with the Christian elements as part of that act.

      • I should also note, by the by, that the argument that the Christianity of the text is only grafted on is one which Tolkien is explicitly disagreeing with in his essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” so even if the reading of the text is off base as far as it goes, it remains viable for interpreting Tolkien in that light, since we know he took its Christianity seriously.

        • nulligravida FTW says:

          I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Tolkien piece, but I have no memory of it.

          If nothing else, this will get me to pull out my Norton anthology, even if only to prove some dude on the internet is wrong.

          But the basis of the insertion theory is that the text can be removed without affecting the narrative, right? Grendel is inhuman more so because he violates the hearth-laws than because he’s descended from Cain or Jotun or whatevs.

      • nulligravida FTW says:

        Welp, it would be interesting to put you in a room with my prof with the same educational stats, but who is a pagan with tattoos. She did her own translation of Beowulf in grad school, too.

        • Anthony says:

          Oh yeah, disagreement exists among equally specialized readers of the poem – and not just on this issue. But given that we know what Tolkien thinks (which I quote above), at least it’s fair game to use that reading when thinking about its influence on his work, I’d say at a minimum. I think that stands even if one thinks of the Christian elements as superficially grafted on – which I don’t, but, hey, that’s alright!

          • nulligravida FTW says:

            Okay, I’ve gone back and read the introductory notes and then up until the part where Grendel got his arm ripped off (spoilers).
            I stand by my assessment the Christian elements were grafted onto a pagan story, despite the fact that the compiler/poet/dude was a Christian. He was not the originator of the story, anymore than Shakespeare originated most of (or any) of his plays. I mean, this is a story about avenging your fallen comrades to satisfy your warrior honor, which is very much not ‘turn the other cheek.’

            • Anthony says:

              Nobody debates whether the story originated in pagan myth. I don’t see how that’s an objection to what I’ve written, when the point is that Tolkien sees the Beowulf poet as asking how the narrative relates to Christian understanding of monsters and Providence. For one thing, we know that the Beowulf poet knows more about the story than is centered: he knows the story of Beowulf swimming in the sea for example. The art of the Beowulf poet is in arrangement and choice for matter: the story pre-existing (which I am aware of and never disputed) is not the point of the argument, but that the Beowulf poet told it with Christianity in mind (which is indisputable).

              Imagine if I made you a playlist of ten songs I didn’t write and wrote commentary about those songs. My commentary tells you how to interpret the sequence of songs, even though I didn’t write them, as far as my intended meaning. Yes, Tolkien knew that the Beowulf poet didn’t invent the fight with Grendel or the other two monsters. But he saw the Beowulf poet as telling the story the way he did to make clear a narrative pattern that is meaningful to his understanding of Christianity.

              No one thinks the character of Beowulf or his adventures are inventions of Christianity. That’s exactly the question: why does a Christian think that story is worth retelling and connecting to the biblical story of Cain, and repeating statements about God (which occur late – my quote from Beowulf above is a good 2 thousand lines into the poem).

              And as I’ll say again, the main question of the post is about how Tolkien’s reading of the poem influenced the Hobbit, even if one things his reading off. But it can’t just be about defending honor because Grendel, his mom, and the dragon are monsters. Monsters are creatures which reveal something about man’s struggle with more than social issues of honor, even though that is a major theme. I think it requires a flat reading of the poem to dismiss the philosophical implications of the narrative.

              • Anthony says:

                Also your point about Shakespeare actually serves to bolster my argument: that compilation and reconstitution of a previously existing narrative can have artistic meaning and merit. Just because Shakespeare sourced his story in Saxo Grammaticus doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about differences between Protestantism and Catholicism when he brings up ghosts, purgatory, and problems of interpretation. The Beowulf poet didn’t invent Grendel, but he invented the connection between Cain and Grendel, and between the Nephilim and Cain’s Mom (the Giant sword at the bottom of the lake). The dragon too is connected with imagery connected to Satan, even if the dragon is obviously not his invention. Erasing the Beowulf poet’s intention to lead the audience to consider Christianity and paganism in the space of the poem just because he sourced his narrative in paganism just doesn’t make much sense to me.

              • Anthony says:

                *meant to say “his story of Hamlet” re Shakespeare above

              • Anthony says:

                I’ll say to the “if we took the Christianity out the plot would be the same” aspect: the problem is that, although there are pagan analogs, there is actually no other telling of Beowulf in existence. So neither side of the debate actually knows how a pagan would tell the story differently. Maybe it would be the same, but the chosen frame of Christianity would still matter because it tells us where the poet’s mind is artistically. If the story is conceived of as in a pagan past, then he can’t change the plot to include Jesus or something – he would logically have to tell the plot as if it were how it happened in the pagan past if the point of the story is to think about what Beowulf’s heroics mean for a Christian identity.

                It’s also important not to import our modern (and often not universal) Christian notions of what it looks like to be a Christian to a culture that clearly saw Christianity differently than American suburbia does. We know well enough that honor culture didn’t stop mattering to the Anglo-Saxons when they became Christian, just as the admiration for warriors didn’t just disappear. If that were the case Arthurian Literature would never have developed. But as someone working essentially as part of the governmental structure, Beowulf’s duty was not to turn the other cheek but to stop a monster from eating his fellow men. Paul says that the government wields a sword to punish the wicked – Beowulf is acting as the emissary of two Kings when he slays the first two monsters and as a king himself when he slays the dragon. Christ’s statement about turning the other cheek hardly applies in this context or it would lead to a logical contradiction with Paul.

                I actually addressed the distinction between Tolkien and the Beowulf poet on the subject of honor culture in the last paragraph of my original post, by the way.

              • Anthony says:

                And last point to make: we have to read the text as it’s actually written, and as it stands the text does make Christianity important to the plot. It’s not just that Grendel is said to be descended from kin of Cain, which is the poet’s explanation of monsters like him. It’s that he is motivated to attack Hrothgar’s people because he doesn’t like the bard singing about God creating the universe. His nature externally and his motivations internally are thus both linked to biblical explanations, and so, to speak in creative writing terms, his character arc is fully enveloped in Christian concepts. Speaking of turning the other cheek, by the way, a better example of that would actually be what the dragon fails to do: he ravages the country side because of one stolen cup when he still has a hoard. Hrothgar also warns Beowulf not to be prideful after defeating the trolls, which seems to undermine the idea that it’s purely an honor culture – or he would have told him to be super proud, not to modulate it with modesty before God.

              • Nulligravida FTW (aka Notleia) trolls Spec Faith comment sections as though it’s a semi-pro sport.

              • Anthony says:

                I actually don’t mind the discussion! Gives me a chance to think more carefully and helps me to piece together my thoughts more clearly.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Anthony my friend, you know that I asked you to take this slot for me and that though even you and I don’t always agree, I feel great respect for you and your scholarship.

                But one element of what you said deserves a bit of criticism from my point of view. The view that Christianity teaches humility does not come from modern suburbia. It came from Jesus himself and the First Century.

                Therefore, the fact the Christian poet retained honor culture in the story he told is a sign of a Christianity that is not fully Christian. And we have a historical and cultural reason to say that what actually happened in Europe was a hybridization of Christian ideas and Pagan antecedents. Certainly Europeans did not give up on warrior culture! Though they did change it.

                Of course my concern is the modern hybridization of Paganism and Christianity, but I quite agree that Tolkien made a very important difference in the story by making the protagonist a small, humble figure. A much more Christian perspective–and I would not have thought of the story that way without your input. So thank you.

              • Anthony says:

                I wasn’t saying that humility comes from modern suburbia. What I was saying was that Beowulf’s warrior culture was part of his function as a member of the governing structure. It’s the difference between the proto-feudal system of the Anglo-Saxons versus ours now that gave rise to that phrase. Your own statement of what you see as valuable in my original piece shows that it’s clearly not the case that I was saying humility isn’t part of Christ’s teaching…

              • Anthony says:

                But I am glad that, despite our disagreement, our discussions have been interesting to you too, Travis, and thanks for the opportunity to participate on here.

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    I love discussions about Beowulf! Thank you for this. Studying the Anglo-Saxon culture during its time of transition between their pagan past and their embrace of Christianity is so fascinating. The early missionaries, the Irish monks, were happy to use aspects of Germanic culture and mythology, as well as the Celtic ones, to exemplify the Gospel. The ultimate warrior-king-hero, so exalted at that time, became associated with Jesus, of course, and his heroic self-sacrifice was a profound example and counter to the more self-aggrandizing heroes who were admired previously. Beowulf is a great example of this time of transition between pagan gods and Christ.

  4. Really interesting read, further unpacking some ideas I discussed recently on Revelation TV. Fantasy is such a powerful vehicle for exploring Christian truth, and I’m fascinated to see the literary heritage of my own inspiration drawn from the Nephilim of Genesis 6.

What do you think?