Beowulf and The Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes

Sutton Hoo Helmet

My photo of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, pre-dating the composition of Beowulf but still awesome

When I was in Grade 13 (‘OAC’) English, I wrote a comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf. I do not wish to resurface that essay. However, I recently read The Hobbit for the fifth time, and over the summer was my second reading of Beowulf,* so I feel like revisiting the topic.

JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Germanic philology, specialising in mediaeval literatures such as those of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds; his literary interests rarely ranged to the modern or the ancient, equally rarely to the literature of the Romance languages. His was the world of ‘Northernism’, the world of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, the world of the Ruthwell Cross and Beowulf. I have talked here about how his work on Norse philology led to the production of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (here and here).

In the realm of Anglo-Saxon philology, Prof. Tolkien’s work included an essay on Beowulf called ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and a book on Finn and Hengest published postumously with co-author Alan Bliss, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, drawing on an episode referred to in Beowulf. It was inevitable that when Tolkien decided to write his adventure novel for boys (as I heard somewhere he thought of The Hobbit) his other life and the other worlds where he dwelt would make themselves felt.

In this first post, ‘The Epic and the Episodes’, I shall turn our attention to Beowulf and The Hobbit and the nature of mediaeval literature. Our other posts shall be ‘The Monsters and the Magic’, and ‘On Hero-Stories’. In each of these blog posts, I shall show us how Tolkien’s fiction was indelibly touched by Beowulf and the wider mediaeval world, yet at the same time, no matter how ‘anti-modernist’ the mead-drinking, Old Norse-speaking, Roman Catholic philologist was, he was in many ways inescapably of his own age.

The Epic and the Episodes

A feature of most pre-modern (and much early modern) narrative literature of any length is its tendency towards episodic storytelling. This is visible in Gilgamesh and Homer, Virgil and — especially — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Rather than telling a single, perfectly united story that builds in tension through a series of interrelated crises that are released at the climax and resolved by the denouement, episodic literature tells us a string of stories which often have no bearing upon one another or what comes next.

They are simply interesting tales in and of themselves that happen to be about the same people — even in The Aeneid, one cannot help but wonder what role the magnificent katabasis of Book 6 plays plotwise. Aeneas knows where he must go and what he must do without visiting Anchises, does he not?

If I remember Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy correctly, such episodes are a feature especially of oral literature (and we do not move into something new until we have thoroughly technologised the word). And Beowulf is, at some stratum, oral literature. Like Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey you should really read, as I argue here and here), the Beowulf poet stands at the end of a long string of oral poets who have been telling these same stories over and over again, each changing things for the audience, each leaving his own artistic stamp. By the time we have it, a pagan tale has been Christianised. This is sometimes called ‘primary epic’.

Beowulf is certainly episodic. Grendel. Beowulf vs. Grendel. Grendel’s Mom. The Dragon. Along the way, we have the tale of Beowulf’s full-armour swimming contest. Now, Grendel through to Grendel’s Mom is part of the same story arc, of the sorrows of Hrothgar and Heorot.  Undeniable. Yet each story is still, in its way, inescapably its own little story. You could (and sometimes do) tell Grendel without his Mom; and often people tell both without the Dragon. The swimming contest is merely incidental detail; it tells us of Beowulf, but does not contribute to the action necessarily.

And so The Hobbit. The unexpected party certainly leads into the road that goes on and on. But then the Trolls. Rivendell. The goblins which lead to the wargs. The eagles as a rescue. Beorn. Mirkwood. Spiders. Elves and escape. Laketown. From Laketown to the death of Smaug. From the death of Smaug to the Battle of the Five Armies. Back again.

These all appear, as we look at them, to be episodes. They are simply the things that happen to our merry band of fourteen-fifteen as they journey to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent. The connecting thread seems to be the desire to get to the Lonely Mountain.

But here we see Tolkien is a man of his age. Despite his insistence in the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, these mediaeval episodes are connected together by a very modern literary element — the development of the character of Bilbo Baggins, Esq. In said essay, Tolkien rightly proclaims that the main business of stories is telling them. Stories, that is. The main business of stories is not the exploration and development of characters. This, he says, is often forgotten in English literature because our best-known and possibly greatest author was a playwright and poet. But the psyche of Hamlet, an appropriate focus for a play, is not the appropriate focus for a story. A story should focus on the story. On the narrative.

But there we have Bilbo. He starts his journey a very comfortable Englishman — I mean, hobbit, who has no inclination for adventures and is set in his ways with little about him of ingenuity or scheming or burgling. But as the adventure continues, Bilbo emerges as a savvy burglar and even the leader of the party. He schemes and uses his wit to get them out of jam after jam, his prominence really beginning with the spiders but reaching its peak in his dealings with the elf king and the Arkenstone.

Bilbo becomes an extraordinary hobbit.

Beowulf, however, is not the focus of his story. Not as a character, at least. He stands before Hrothgar an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He dies beside Wiglaf an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He is ever concerned for the well-being of his people. He is always courageous.

Yet do not chastise Beowulf and his poem on this account. Welcome to the world of ancient and mediaeval literature! This is not the point of the story. I believe Tolkien hit Beowulf on the head in ‘The Monsters and the Critics.’ The stories show us the changes, although the changes are never the focus. Beowulf stands before Grendel naked but for his God-given strength. Easily victorious. With a magic sword, he confronts Grendel’s Mom and almost dies. With a war-band and full armour, he meets the dragon and is slain at the moment he saves his people.

The lesson is to trust in the things of God, not the things of the world. This is the timeless about Beowulf, and it is not portrayed through psychology but through the story and through the episodes.

Do not fault Beowulf. It performs its function and produces its own art masterfully.

And so we see how Beowulf and mediaeval literature have left their mark upon The Hobbit at the macro-level, the level of narrative (narratology??). Tolkien writes us an episodic narrative, not unlike Beowulf, but with a modern twist in the growth of Bilbo Baggins as a protagonist and as a hero of small stature.

Next in this series: ‘The Monsters and the Magic’.

*NB: Besides this, I’ve read Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel twice and I’ve seen the film starring Christopher Lambert as well as the film Beowulf and Grendel starring Gerard Butler and the animated cartoon narrated by Derek Jacobi; I’ve also seen the stilt play, and I’ve read the novel Grendel by John Gardner.

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