Friday, December 19th, 2003
Drout suggests that Tolkien and the Beowulf poet took similar positions in their works about how to deal with religion when telling tales about people who haven’t themselves a knowledge of Christ or Christianity. Drout writes:
Beowulf the poem, as we have it (i.e., in its manuscript form, not some postulated earlier version), is definitely written by a Christian. However, there is not a single reference to Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, or the New Testament, which is very strange for an Anglo-Saxon Christian poem. The only real proof of a Christian (as opposed to a general monotheistic) poet is the inclusion of Cain and Abel (and, strangely enough, “Cain” is spelled wrong both times the word appears in the manuscript. More on that in some other post).
As Tolkien points out, the references to God aren’t to Christ or specifically the Christian God, but to The Ruler, The Lord, The Measurer, etc. Why would a Christian poet, who knew about Cain and Abel, do this?
Tolkien’s explanation has never been bettered: the poet was a Christian, but he was setting his story back in the pre-Christian past. He knew that the people in his story weren’t Christian, but he also believed that Christian truths explained the way the universe worked. So he can say that The Ruler determined the outcome of a battle even if he knows that Beowulf wasn’t Christian himself.
Now part of the brilliance of this interpretation is that it can’t really be disproved by any one example. Tolkien even notes a few places he thinks that the poet has failed in tone (when pagan Hrethel is said to have “chosen God’s light”, i.e., died, Tolkien says that the phrase has “escaped from Christian poetry). And Tolkien thought that lines 175-188, which sound, to the ear familiar with Anglo-Saxon poetry, much more like a Christian homiletic piece than do any other lines in Beowulf, had been added to the poem at a later date. So the idea of a poet who is deliberately writing a kind of ‘historical fantasy’ is still preserved.
Now I think it’s not a great stretch to suggest that Tolkien was doing much of the same thing in his work. If you look at the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, which is in Morgoth’s Ring in the History of Middle-earth, you see Tolkien suggesting that men, back in the First Age, had a kind of prophesy that one day the creator would enter his own creation for the purpose of healing it. That day hadn’t happened yet, so Tolkien was setting his Middle-earth stories before the incarnation. Thus he doesn’t mention Christ, etc. Just like the Beowulf poet.
The question of the position of the Beowulf poet is still up for grabs among Anglo-Saxonists, as Drout reminds. But I’d suggest that while it may be an intriguing textual, historical question (an even clearer understanding of the audience) the works themselves don’t necessarily push the question.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Tolkien is his sense of the dramatic and here he and the beowulf Poet, indeed even Malory, find further similarity. Beowulf can be read as a story about the inevitability of change and the heartrending challenges of living up to a conception of the past. and to ideals. In the epic Beowulf is a great fighter and leader. But his natural time passes. It has to and we have to accept it. Malory pushes the drama further with Lancelot, who weeps over the losses of his own devising: a great period, a great love gone to cupiditas. LOTR is loaded with this kind of narrative force. Aragorn will take the throne at the end but the storyteller won’t let us forget that he’s mortal, limited, ultimately flesh, and that people are going to have to use their heads and fight to keep their hard-earned gains.
In LOTR we follow Frodo through his ordeal, but he’s never the same afterward. For him the world is flipped, never to be the same. Conflict is irrevocable. King Lear ends with heaviness and lightness, the weight of grief and the lightness of things to do to push on.
It’s the stuff of great story.