Allow me to fangirl Tolkien for a moment

Hello again blogosphere, sorry for my long absence :). Final essays swallowing me up. I have one due on Beowulf on Thursday- which I’ve barely started, whoopee, this’ll be fun.

Have I told you before how I have an ingrained dislike of Beowulf? I freely admit that a good slice of this dislike is because it’s hard, and I don’t like things I’m not naturally good at. And a good slice of the dislike is because the mindset of the poem just doesn’t grab me. I don’t understand it, it slips out of view. I understand Roland, so it’s not a dislike of heroic epic. I like Cuchulainn even though I don’t really understand it, so it’s not a dislike of mythological epic either. I just… people have to sit down and spell out all the breathtaking and wonderful things about Beowulf before I can see them, and even then they don’t grab me.

Tolkien, on the other hand, does grab me. And Tolkien loves Beowulf. Tonight I read “The Monsters and the Critics” for the first time: I’ve never had to read it before, and my only prior exposure to Tolkien’s academic writing was “On English and Welsh”, which is awfully dull. I realise a lot of Monsters and Critics is out-dated now, and so on, and so forth. But right now, with Tolkien in front of me, I feel I could love this poem, and that’s quite a novel feeling.

So allow me to fangirl some of the best quotes (not necessarily the ones best descriptive of the poem, or most useful for my essay… just the best quotes):

A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who have yet been caught by the fascination of the worm.

On heroism:

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy

and later:

So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded forever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive the spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did with the go*th*lauss</EM viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

On the fusion of pagan and Christian mythology in Beowulf (still a hotly debated topic, I know, and one of the areas in which Tolkien is now a out of date):

The monsters had been the foes of the gods, captains of men, and within Time the monsters would win. In the heroic siege and last defeat men and gods alike had been imagined in the same host. Now the heroic figures, the men of old, haele*th* under heofenum, remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.

Er, yes. I realise this is not the SRS academic content one expects. But, regardless of your opinion on Tolkien’s scholarship, consider the lovely prose. Why can’t more academic papers be this well written? I tore through the 45 pages of “Monsters and Critics” in about an hour, complete with fangirly outbursts and making K listen to me reading bits aloud. Gillian R. Overing’s “The Women of Beowulf”, which is about the same length, took me *two days* to wade through, with its incomprehensible prose.


5 Responses to “Allow me to fangirl Tolkien for a moment”

  1. kishnevi Says:

    It’s probably because JRRT and his generation were taught to write well, and many of his peers could write just as well. However, since they didn’t write the Greatest Epic Ever in Modern English, they tend to get lost as the currents of academe pass them by.
    Another good one is Maitland, although he specialized in legal history of the high medieval ages–but he touches on preNorman England. His classic book is Domesday and Beyond.
    And Sayers is another academic who wrote just as stylishly.

    Just to calm you about the essay being due on Thursday:
    I once put off doing an essay until the night before. So I sat down at eleven o’clock, and typed out the one and only draft on the fly, ending at about three in the morning. There just wasn’t time enough to write out a rough draft and then type it. (Remember, I went to school in antiquity, thirty years ago. There were no computers. Fortunate students had IBM Selectrics or a paid typist. Scholarship students like me had a Royal manual typewriter and plenty of correction fluid.)
    Got a pretty good grade on it, too.

  2. meli Says:

    yes it is a lovely essay isn’t it!

  3. Pinon Coffee Says:

    I too love that essay of Tolkien’s. I first read it on a snowy afternoon in my RD’s room, in her inter-library loan book, and snarfed it all in one sitting. I believe that motivated me to go love Beowulf.* 🙂

    Maitland who? When did he write?

    *In translation, alas. I meant to learn OE this fall and got a full-time job instead. Sigh.

  4. Bo Says:

    ‘English and Welsh’ is my favourite!! 🙂

  5. almostinstinct Says:

    Hah! Oh, dear, I just sent you a letter about Beowulf. But it was mostly about manuscripts, so I suppose that’s all right.

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