Tag Archives: the hobbit

Tolkien’s mythology

As I mentioned here once recently, I am reading the letters of JRR Tolkien right. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man — mostly, so far, into the long labour that went into The Lord of the Rings, although some highly Roman Catholic epistles and ones of more literary and philological concern have made their way through the editors’ net.

I have to confess that I have never read The Silmarillion. I tried twice, maybe a third time. I will try again — it took three tries to get me into Paradise Lost, and then I gobbled it up! (My review of Milton’s epic here.) One reason why I think I will survive my next reading of The Silmarillion is the fact that I have now read Letter 131 of late 1951, which runs pp. 143-161, to Milton Waldman of Collins, whom Tolkien hoped would publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings since things seemed not to be progressing with Allen & Unwin at the time. This letter is a long description of Tolkien’s mythology as represented by The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I think it is important to think of this series of tales of Elves as mythology and not as the history of Middle Earth. First of all, Elves do not originate in Middle Earth but Valinor. Second, history to our mind is a different sort of thing from myth — even if the etymology and use of mythos by ancient Greeks was not clearly delineated from ‘historical truth’ as we think it. Tolkien wished to produce a mythology as grand, as big, as cosmic as the unified myths of the Greeks and the Norse.

Furthermore, myths are often told in a different mode from histories or modern novels. One of the things I found offputting in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is that the power of Sophocles’ mythos was stripped away by the cynical, post-War Frenchman. There is no good and evil, not law of heaven or nature vs law of man. There is just … raw humanity? Pain and ambiguity. We certainly live our lives in a world of pain and ambiguity — but romance and mythos are not genres intended to relate that world; that is the job of historia or political science/philosophy.

Tolkien knew full well, as his letters to Christopher attest, that in real wars there are orcs on both sides, and noble men on both sides as well. This is a man who fought in WWI; one of his sons suffered PTSD because of WWII. He is not unaware of the murkiness of real humans and real human motivations.

But the good and the beautiful — to kaló. These are still real, substantial realities — and these, alongside the depths of evil in Morgoth and Sauron, are what Tolkien relates in the mythology of The Silmarillion and the romance of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is worth remembering the creative force of the good; it is worth remembering that is a better way to live; it is worth remembering that some things are worth fighting for — things like trees and architecture and gardens and friendship and beership.

I have suddenly moved from what makes Tolkien’s work like other mythologies to what sets it apart. Greek mythology comes to us in a vast myriad of sources written over a millennium by a combination of both Greeks and Romans. It is not a thematically united body of work, and it frequently contradicts itself. This is no surprise; it was not made to convey scientific realities, after all.

Tolkien’s work, on the other hand, as this letter shows us, is tightly controlled by a single author, auctor, creator, a single mind, a single man. As a result, he has particular themes that he explores. He has precise ideas of what makes the Valar, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Men, the Orcs, the villains what they are; he grasps their substance, their essence, in a unified way that we do not get from natural-born mythologies that arise out of the chance of cultural circumstance and hundreds of authors.

These thematic unities are, I imagine, what make The Silmarillion readable? I’ve not succeeded yet, of course. But still. They are also what make Tolkien’s work Catholic — they draw out themes such as sub-creation, the tendency of humanity towards misuse of power, the allure of power, the need to protect the simple and beautiful, the unrelenting drive towards the good. Certainly not themes exclusive to Roman Catholics; but certainly typically Catholic themes!

And because Tolkien was crafting a mythology and not a world, his work takes on a different feel. His goal is twofold: To create histories and stories that correspond to his imaginary languages and to craft a united, substantial mythology. This is similar to yet different from Robert E Howard’s pseudo-historical essay, ‘The Hyborian Age.’ This essay exists to provide a grand backdrop for Howard’s adventure stories; this is a necessary thing for the good fantasy writer — it gives verisimilitude, and a clear idea of what Hyperborea is, who Picts are, and where Cimmerians live, as well as all of this in relation to Atlantis, helps the author maintain consistency in references.

Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote The Hobbit, an adventure story ‘for boys’ (and girls!!). And as he wrote, his pre-existing mythological world invaded the story quite outside of his own intention. He did not, that is, take The Silmarillion and decide to flesh out a story from it, or to write a story set in that mythological world. In fact, there is no room for hobbits in that work, anyway! But Tolkien’s mythology invaded, anyway.

When it came time to write a sequel — something that lasted from 1937 until 1951, with revisions until 1954 (I think?) — Tolkien could not help weaving the story more and more tightly into the mythology had had already crafted. The result is a world already old, not only with its own history but with its own songs, its own divine beings, its own demons, its own magic, its own cultures, its own topography. The ruins of The Silmarillion dot the landscape of The Lord of the Rings the way acqueducts and the Villa of the Quintilii dot the landscape on the bus ride to Ciampino airport in Rome.

These facts do not make Tolkien’s mythology and fantasy novels better, necessarily (although I still think The Lord of the Rings is the perfectly-crafted example of its genre), but they do set Tolkien’s storycraft apart, both from ‘real’ mythologies and from other fantasy stories.

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My Hobbit rant

I write this now in hopes that, having got it into the ether, I will be able to watch The Desolation of Smaug in December and enjoy myself…

Before I really get going with my The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rant, I would like to say that I am well aware that filmmakers are usually forced to change things when they adapt novels for the silver screen. There are various factors that contribute to this — filmability, a desire for more action, updating technology for a modern age, keeping the story to a desirable length. And so forth.

Nevertheless, sometimes filmmakers change things for no apparent good reason.

Peter Jackson is obsessed with unnecessarily long fight scenes, many of which are not in Tolkien’s books. I think he doesn’t know how to do adventure stories, quite frankly. But that’s not this rant. That I can sort of live with — although I shudder at scenes of dwarves in barrels battling elves and unnecessary Legolas derring-do in trailers for December’s film. This rant runs deeper, to the very fabric of Tolkien’s stories and how he reweaves it into something else.

At a few points in the first Hobbit film, events that were entirely random or by chance in the novel are given agency. For example, as they cross the Misty Mountains, they are manipulated by the goblins to take refuge in their cave. However, in the novel, they choose the goblin cave entirely by chance.

Later, after they escape from said goblins, they take refuge in a glade where, it turns out, some Wargs happen to be meeting that night. In the film, the Wargs, with accompanying goblins, chase them there (if memory serves aright) — and Azog is with them, hunting Thorin. The action of the film, rather than simply accidental as in the novel, is being propelled by some visible agent. And in the case of Azog, an agent who in the novel is elsewhere, making trouble for Dain in the Iron Hills. That would be a different rant.*

The first time I noticed Peter Jackson doing this sort of thing — taking Tolkien’s chance events and giving them an agent — was in The Fellowship of the Ring. There, everyone of the Fellowship and their companies arrive at Elrond’s for a council because Elrond has called them there. In the book, they all arrive at about the same time by chance, all for seemingly unrelated purposes that turn out to converge on the Ring.

Jackson has removed what appear to be chance events from the narrative.

But, you see, they aren’t chance events at all.

First, we could take the line that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and Catholic theology will tell you that God is in control and invisibly manipulating events to his own ends. In this direction, Tolkien’s Catholicism is silently shaping the stories, especially in the case of The Fellowship of the Ring where one senses that an unseen mover was at work (Illuvatar, anyone?). Thus, by making a visible character the agent who makes things transpire, Peter Jackson has changed the quiet theology that actually underpins Tolkien’s whole work — a theology that would make one think that Sauron was destined for defeat.

The other line is tied into Tolkien’s life as a mediaevalist and Germanic philologist (as I’ve observed in my series on Beowulf and The Hobbit). As an Oxford professor, J. R. R. Tolkien primarily researched and taught Old English and Old Norse; he even composed verse in Old English, besides modern English verse in Old English metres.

One of the powerful threads running through much Old English and Old Norse literature is the sense of fate, almost of what we might today think of as fatalism — but perhaps more properly destiny? Fatalism would be an anachronistic term to the northern Germanic peoples whose literature is under discussion.

The Old English elegies are a good example of this sense of fate. For a sample, here are the first lines of ‘The Wanderer’:

Often the Wanderer pleads for pity
and mercy from the Lord; but for a long time,
sad in mind, he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea;
he must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible. (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Fate is inflexible. This also governs the Icelandic sagas, where people do what they must do — give up a seat in the boat home, kill an ox, burn down an enemy’s house. Not because they wish to. Because they must. It is their destiny. Literature, narrative burdened and underpinned by destiny has a very different weight and feel to it from the submonotheistic literature of the everyday that looks at stars and sees only what they are made of, not what they are (to borrow from Tolkien’s colleague, C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) — the sort of narrative Peter Jackson crafts for us.

Jackson has removed destiny from Tolkien’s stories, he has removed an important part of the essence of the tales. Rather than being about people driven by circumstances beyond their control, someone, somewhere makes everything happen. And that diminishes them.

Other stuff I’ve said here about The Hobbit

Beowulf and The Hobbit — linking you to the final part of the series since it links you to the rest of them.

The Hobbit: Please Only Make Two Films

*Gist of other rant: By making characters who were originally offstage players in a worldwide arena onscreen players with the main action, the scope of Tolkien’s story is greatly diminished, as when Elves go to Helm’s Deep who should have been fighting evil elsewhere with Celeborn.

Beowulf and The Hobbit III: On Hero-Stories (with reference to Joseph Campbell)

Joseph Campbell

Yesterday I got a library discard of John Gardner’s Grendel for 50p. And then I realised that I wasn’t done this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit. If you haven’t been around for the whole ride, we began with Beowulf and the Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes, then the tripartite series ‘The Monsters and the Magic’: Grendel and Goblins, Dragons (with reference to Fafnir), and Magical Items. We come now to the long-awaited third and final segment of this series: ‘On Hero-Stories’.

This entire series was spurred on by a desire to retrace territory covered by an essay I wrote in OAC (‘Grade 13’) English. I now bring into the discussion something else I first encountered in high school English class — Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In said book, Campbell seeks to find the deep, psychological recesses of the collective unconscious, whence spring (he maintains) the mythology of the world. I’ve not actually read the entirety of this most famous of Campbell’s works, but I started once, and find this quotation compelling:

In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.

The most famous bit of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Campbell’s discussion of ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ It is a discussion many have found useful, including its application to stories as diverse as Star Wars and Byzantine hagiography. The Hero’s Journey, in one of its simpler forms, looks like this:

In case that image vanishes, the stages of the The Hero’s Journey are Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, Threshold Guardian(s), Threshold of the Unknown, Challenges and Temptations, REVELATION (Abyss: death and rebirth), Transformation, Atonement, Return to the Known (with possible gifts of the goddess). Shortly after crossing the Threshold come a Helper and a Mentor, and a Helper again just before REVELATION.

So.

Beowulf. Is Beowulf one of Campbell’s hero’s thousand faces? A little bit, but largely in relation to Grendel’s mother. One of the important points about the initial Grendel encounter is the raw humanness of it. Beowulf stays put, and then, in his nightclothes, he takes on in single combat with no weapons this monster and is victorious. This encounter does not fit.

Grendel’s Mom fits better — he sets off to the lakey bog thing and descends to attack her. This is not unlike the Abyss — indeed, Hrothgar and his men in the world above believe Beowulf to be dead. And he does almost die, but when his own sword fails, he is able to take up a new, magic blade and gain the victory. Is this not supernatural intervention? He comes back to the world above, back to the Known victorious, bringing the gifts to his people.

Or is all of Denmark the Unknown for Beowulf? Thus, he leaves Geatland and his own people and sails off to come to the aid of Hrothgar. His first challenge is Grendel. Then Grendel’s Mother is the Abyss. With supernatural aid, he is victorious. He and his men then return to Geatland with the literal gifts of material goods bestowed upon him Hrothgar, which is a fulfilment of one of the social roles of kings in Anglo-Saxon culture (the characters may be Scandinavian, but the poet is Anglo-Saxon!).

Then again — is the encounter with Grendel’s Mother an Early Mediaeval, Christianised, Germanic katabasis?

Tolkien would probably shudder at the above. And he would shudder even more at what I’m about to do. Nevertheless, if Campbell’s paradigms work — even if clunkily — on many traditional stories, then there is no surprise that someone who had immersed himself in the world of traditional stories, especially Germanic and Finnish ones from Beowulf to the Volsunga Saga to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Kalevala, would have these basic archetypal stories imprinted on his mind and that they would leak through into his writing.

Bilbo Baggins lives in Warwickshire — I mean, the Shire. This is the Known. Gandalf and the Unexpected Party are the Call to Adventure. Gandalf’s rescue of them from the Trolls, although achieved through trickery rather than through magic, is Supernatural Intervention. They cross the Threshold into the Unknown (Wilderland, the Misty Mountains) at Elrond’s. Elrond is a friendly vision of the Guardian.

In the Unknown, Bilbo’s transformation (mentioned way back in my first post) really begins. Here, they have many challenges, from Goblins to Wargs to Mirkwood to Elves right up to the base of the Lonely Mountain, Erebor. They have Mentors and Helpers in Gandalf, the Eagles, and Beorn. Bilbo gains a magic ring (more Supernatural Aid — a gift from the goddess???) and is of enormous help to his companions.

All that business with Smaug — more challenges.

From the moment Bilbo steals the Arkenstone to his attempted brokering of peace between Elves, Men, and Dwarves, he goes through a rebirth. He becomes a new Hobbit. Then we have the Battle of the Five Armies. Then Bilbo returns home, leaves Wilderland (the Unknown) and brings back with him a ring and some gold into the Known.

But the greater gifts he brings with him are the gifts of adventure and challenging expectations. Bilbo is no longer a respectable hobbit because his gallivanting with wizards and dwarves. He shakes up the community of Hobbiton. And this is precisely what modern, middle-class, comfortable folk like you and me need — a bit of adventure, a bit of shaking up. This is Bilbo’s gift to the people of the Shire — would that it had prepared them for the coming of Saruman all those years thence!

And so we come to the end of this series of posts. We have seen how The Hobbit bears within it many of the traits of a traditional mediaeval romance-saga-epic, yet even in the midst of the drive to tell a story and the episodic nature thereof, we see the modern character of Bilbo who undergoes an inner transformation through his journey. We have seen the conceptual similarities between Grendel and the Goblins, between Smaug and the Beowulf dragon (although Fafnir is a better point of comparison), and noted the magical items. And now we have seen how both stories are similar by following Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ to some degree — although I think The Hobbit runs closer than Beowulf.

It is clear to me that Tolkien’s epic imagination was indelibly marked by all of the mediaeval literature he read, but especially by Beowulf. This comes out in the above ways, none of which, I reckon, was on purpose.

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 3 – Magical Items

This post will be brief.* Magical items are present in both Beowulf and The Hobbit. Most famously, The Hobbit includes a magic ring, discovered by Bilbo in the roots of the Misty Mountains just prior to his game of Riddles in the Dark with Gollum. This ring can turn its wearer invisible (save his shadow) — but, as readers/viewers of The Lord of the Rings know, it is much more than that.**

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel's Mother

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel’s Mother

Without rereading Beowulf a third time (I read it in June, after all), I can think of no magic rings. There are, of course, many objects of beauty and great craftsmanship. However, the only mangical item I can think of is the magical, used by Beowulf in his combat against Grendel’s mom after the mighty blade Hrunting fails to protect him. Later, he is given Naegling by Hrothgar in honour of his defeat of Grendel’s mom.

The Hobbit also has magic swords — Glamdring (‘Foehammer’, called by goblins ‘Beater’), Orcrist (‘Goblin-cleaver’, called by goblins ‘Biter’), and Sting. These items were forged in the elder days by elves and prove very useful in the combat against goblins and, in the case of Sting, the spiders of Mirkwood. Being of Elvish manufacture, they glow blue when goblins are in the vicinity.***

These are about all the properly magical items I can think of just now. Here the connexions between Beowulf and The Hobbit are more slender than with the monsters. But still we have magic swords that enable their bearers to wreak terrible deeds.

*Unlike the others in this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit: ‘The Epic and the Episodes‘, ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Grendel and the Goblins‘, and ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Dragons‘.

**Here come in the inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs, although Tolkien claims no relation to the former.

***More inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs? Perhaps also The Princess Bride for good measure, right?

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 2 — Dragons (with reference to Fafnir)

Tolkien’s image of Smaug

Thus far, our discussion of Beowulf and The Hobbit has taken us to the world of genre and then into the world of Grendel and the Goblins. Now we turn from such petty monsters as Grendel, trolls, goblins, what-have-you, to the big beasts. Dragons.

Beowulf has a dragon in the last, violent episode. Sadly, this wyrm is much less famous than Grendel, descendant of Cain. I think he deserves his day in the sun. So here it is.

The dragon of Beowulf comes upon a barrow left behind by the men of Geatland of old, now long-dead, long-forgotten — there is a touch of sorrow in the poet’s telling of this fact; the sorrow of the fated — doomed — Anglo-Saxon. Much feared by the Geats, the dragon takes possession of the hoard then lies silent and sleeping for three hundred years, almost if not entirely forgotten.

Then, one day, a wandering thief takes a vessel from the hoard, shows it to his master (Beowulf, King of the Geats?). The dragon knows. Is enraged. The fire worm flies into a rage, realising that men now know of the treasure. The dragon attacks the people of Geatland, attacks Beowulf’s kingdom.

Then the giver of gold disdained
to track the dragon with a troop
of warlike men; he did not shrink
from single combat, nor did he set much store
by the fearless dragon’s power, for had he not before
experienced danger, again and again
survived the storm of battle, beginning with that time
when, blessed with success, he cleansed
Hrothgar’s hall, and crushed in battle
the monster and his vile mother? (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Beowulf did take with him 12 men, 12 thegns, 12 apostles of battle. And he did battle with the dragon, though only one of his men, Wiglaf, would stand by his lord. And, although victorious, clad in armour, Beowulf died in battle with the fire dragon.

Thus the dragon of Beowulf.

Smaug is a very similar case — although he took his hoard from the living. Nonetheless, he, too, has a precious vessel stolen. He, too, flies out in a rage and ravages the countryside. He, too, is slain by a man of valour.

Look, here. Beowulf takes 12 men to defend his kingdom; Thorin takes 12 dwarves (and one hobbit) to reclaim his kingdom. In the events that transpire, Beowulf is slain; so also is Thorin. Not perfect parallels, but present nonetheless.

But what do dragons represent? This, for me, is an important question. If memory serves me right, according to The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s dragons symbolise the evil within human nature.

yawn

Facile.

Easy.

Dragons represent evil.

Outside of Pern or ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ where they are good and Harry Potter where they are mere beasts, this is obvious, taken straight from Revelation and other biblical references where a dragon may represent the devil, or even from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (although E V Rieu was very adamant in the introduction to his translation of it, The Voyage of Argo, that the beast guarding the Golden Fleece is a giant snake, for that is what drakon means).

But what sort of evil?

I believe that dragons are greed, avarice. Tolkien even makes reference to Smaug’s rage at the treasure burgled by Bilbo as being the extreme sort of anger only displayed by the very rich who have lost something they didn’t even know they’d owned until it was gone, but now it is very precious to them. Smaug is avaricious and sly — and so is avarice. It slips in when you aren’t looking, burns up everything, consumes you, and makes you want more, more, more.

The Beowulf dragon is about the same, really, given the parallels between him and Smaug.

Sigurd kills Fafnir; Norwegian stave church door

And if we want to press home this vision of dragons as symbols of greed, I shall quickly bring in the Volsunga Saga (trans. by Jesse L Byock as The Saga of the Volsungs). In this Icelandic saga, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir (an event known to one and all through Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen — read my thoughts on Siegfried here) Tolkien himself tells it in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on which I blogged here and here).

Fafnir, brother of Otr (Otter) and Regin, has demonstrated himself very avaricious from the start, when he and Regin encounter the Aesir with the skin of Otr who was slain by Loki (naturally). He demands, as ransom (wergeld), the skin of Otr filled with gold. And then he wants the entire skin covered with gold. At last — and I believe it is Regin and Fafnir’s father who does this — a cursed ring is added to the treasure, covering the last portion of Otr’s hair. Otter’s Ransom (gold).

Fafnir takes the treasure and the ring and eventually transforms into a greedy dragon.

Dragons are avarice, and this allegorical/analogical/symbolic interpretation of them is perfectly in keeping with mediaeval literary tastes, since mediaeval people loved a good allegory (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl). Now, Beowulf may be an early mediaeval, pre-Viking, Germanic/Anglo-Saxon tale, but it was recorded by a Christian in an England acquainted with Continental tastes — and Tolkien was no stranger to symbol, although he hated allegory.

Could we not say that, although not an allegory for greed, Smaug is a symbol of greed and its destructive power in the human heart? Yes, I think so.

Beowulf and The Hobbit II: The Monsters and the Magic — Grendel and Goblins

This is the first of my examinations of ‘The Monsters and the Magic’ as I consider the similarities between Anglo-Saxon philologist JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. My first post on the topic is here.

Grendel and Goblins

Grendel from Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel of Beowulf

The first monsters we encounter in The Hobbit are the trolls.* I have little to say about them in relation to Beowulf, except that some people interpret Grendel as a troll — these trolls bear their character more to Norse myths than to Anglo-Saxon epic. Instead of trollBeowulf cites Grendel as a descendant of Cain; evil borne out of something originally good. Something twisted from something straight. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation** also calls Grendel ‘the brutish demon who lived in darkness’ (p. 76; no line nos given).

Not to say Grendel is a literal demon, but the metaphor of him as a demon hearkens us back to the rebellion in Heaven and the former status of demons as angels. Again, something twisted out of something straight.

I think, therefore, that Grendel and the Goblins go well together. This is not because of anything in novel The Hobbit itself, however. No, indeed, Professor Tolkien does not elaborate on the origins of goblins (aka ‘orcs’) in this, his first novel. However, in his other work, such as the never-finished-but-always-being-tweaked The Silmarillion, we learn that goblins/orcs started off as elves but were twisted from their straightness by the villainous devil-figure Melkor. Something twisted out of something straight.

The character of Grendel is that of a destroyer. He, like the goblins, stalks by night. He, like the goblins, invades the realm of men. He, like the goblins, slaughters and slays. He, like the goblins, has a taste for man-flesh. Evil is seen in both of them as the destructive force it is; evil is not a presence but a lack. It is the deprivation of good.

The good of humanity in Cain was twisted in him and his descendants, becoming the man-eater Grendel. The good of elvishness in their ancestors was so twisted in them that the goblins, too, became man-eaters. Goblins and Grendel together are ravagers and violent destroyers.

Philosophically, the world of early mediaeval men has penetrated Tolkien and left a deep mark on the works of this Catholic scholar, even if there is not explicit God in the novels.

*Not the trololololos.

**In the Oxford World’s Classics volume The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology.

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.