I have, of course, read The Beowulf,as have most (but not all) of those who have criticized it. But I fear that ... I have not been a man so diligent in my special walk as duly to read all that has been printed on, or touching on, this poem. But I have read enough, I think, to venture the opinion that Beowulfiana, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one. It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem.This has been taken, rather, for granted I suppose; taken effectively on trust -- that Tolkien must know what he is talking about. But I'm not sure it's true, or more to the point I'm not sure it even was true in 1936. In my lap right now is the 1914 A J Wyatt edition of the poem (Cambridge Univ. Press 1914): which starts with a prefaratory note saying that whilst 'the editors of Beowulf have with rare exceptions concentrated their attempts upon the problem of fixing and interpreting the text and have avoided discussing the literary history of the poem', there are however many critics ('in monographs such as those of ten Brink, Mullenhoff and Boer) who do precisely that, and Wyatt himself promises a volume entitled 'Introduction to the Study of Beowulf' which will take the poem as poetry. Perhaps for my purposes what is more interesting is that Tolkien expressly considers Beowulf to be a 'riddle': an 'enigmatic poem', constituted by the bringing together of two apparently incompatible things. He quotes Ker:
The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story. The hero is occupied in killing monsters, like Hercules or Theseus. But there are other things in the lives of Hercules and Theseus besides the killing of the Hydra or of Procrustes. Beowulf has nothing else to do, when he has killed Grendel and Grendel's mother in Denmark: he goes home to his own Gautland, until at last the rolling years bring the Fire-drake and his last adventure. It is too simple. Yet the three chief episodes are well wrought and well diversified; they are not repetitions, exactly; there is a change of temper between the wrestling with Grendel in the night at Heorot and the descent under water to encounter Grendel's mother; while the sentiment of the Dragon is different again. But the great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.And then goes on:
This passage was written more than thirty years ago, but has hardly been surpassed. It remains,in this country at any rate, a potent influence. Yet its primary effect is to state a paradox which one feels has always strained the belief, even of those who accepted it, and has given to Beowulf the character of an 'enigmatic poem'. The chief virtue of the passage (not the one for which it is usually esteemed) is that it does accord some attention to the monsters, despite correct and sober taste. But the contrast made between the radical defect of theme and structure, and at the same time thedignity, loftiness in converse, and well-wrought finish, has become a commonplace even of the bestcriticism, a paradox the strangeness of which has almost been forgotten in the process of swallowing it upon authority.After surveying some other critics, Tolkien insists: 'The riddle is still unsolved.' His solution (the thesis of his lecture: that the monsters are at the heart of it, not in the margins) is a good one, but -- as with OE riddles more generally -- perhaps not the only one.
This, though, seems to me profound:
The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done.A hundred times yes. Then there's this:
One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage which is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not a military judgement. I am not asserting that, if the Trojans could have employed a Northern king and his companions, they would have driven Agamemnon and Achilles into the sea, more decisively than the Greek hexameter routs the alliterative line — though it is not improbable. I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North. With due reserve we may turn to the tradition of pagan imagination as it survived in Icelandic. Of English pre-Christian mythology we know practically nothing. But the fundamentally similar heroic temper of ancient England and Scandinavia cannot have been founded on (or perhaps rather, cannot have generated) mythologies divergent on this essential point. 'The Northern Gods', Ker said, 'have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason' — mythologically, the monsters — 'but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.' And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this 'absolute resistance, perfect because without hope'. At least in this vision of the final defeat of the human (and of the divine made in its image), and in the essential hostility of the gods and heroes on the one hand and the monsters on the other, we may suppose that pagan English and Norse imagination agreed'Perfect because without hope' is in many ways an even more resonant phrase than 'the creed of unyielding will.'