Michael Drout is William C.H. and Elsie D. Prentice Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Wheaton College, Norton, Mass., where he teaches Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, medieval literature, fantasy, science fiction and writing. He is also a Millicent C. McIntosh Fellow. His scholarship is focused on tenth-century English literature and culture, meme-based theories of culture, and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.
“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” : The Brilliant Essay that Broke Beowulf Studies
Michael D.C. Drout
It is possible that “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is the single most influential essay in the history of literary studies in the twentieth century. Very likely it has done more to shape the discipline of medieval studies than any short scholarly piece ever written, and it is certainly the fons et origo of modern Beowulf criticism. Had Tolkien never published The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, he would still have a towering reputation in Anglo-Saxon studies due to this one essay (he actually published relatively little else on Anglo-Saxon during his lifetime).
We don’t really know how Tolkien felt about the success of his essay. He saved some correspondence related to it, in particular some letters from the great scholar R.W. Chambers who liked “Monsters” very much and urged Tolkien to get it published right away and not to leave out the appendices. But there is no evidence of which I’m aware that Tolkien ever discussed the essay or its reception. He would, during lectures later in his life, self-criticize his and E.V. Gordon’s work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, suggesting that he had changed his mind about various troublesome passages, but on Beowulf, Tolkien published nothing after 1940 except the brief remarks about the poem contained in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son.
As far as we know, there was no major effort by Tolkien to follow up on the success of “Monsters,” either. The academic world was different, in some good ways, in the middle of the twentieth century. If someone published an essay like “Monsters” now, that scholar would immediately be rewarded for publishing minor variants on the essay, talking about the essay and its effect, revising minor points of the essay. He’d be ‘The Monsters Guy’ for the rest of his career and we’d have a large collection of related material from his One Big Idea. But Tolkien never did that. It’s not clear that he had any serious intention of publishing his Beowulf translations, for instance, which he left mostly unrevised and, in the case of the verse translation, incomplete, and all the many technical points that are in his lecture notes on Beowulf were never assembled for books or articles. Tolkien lectured on Beowulf regularly, so he put his ideas in order, but he seemingly did not feel the need to influence the field in ways other than through “Monsters” and the (substantial) effects of his teaching. I don’t know, however, if this means he was happy with how Beowulf-studies changed after “Monsters,” and I can make a pretty good guess that he would not agree with some of the directions the field has taken. This is in part because although Beowulf-studies accepted “Monsters” very rapidly, scholars really only accepted part of the argument, quietly ignoring much of the rest. I wonder sometimes whether Tolkien would still be proud of his essay or if he would be appalled by what many scholars have taken from “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” and what the essay has done to the field in the long run.
To understand the influence of Tolkien’s essay, we need to see where he was coming from when he wrote it and what the consensus views of the scholarship were at that time. Without giving a history of Beowulf criticism—which is beyond the scope of this essay and, more importantly, has been done better by Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder—I want to try to explain where Beowulf-studies was when Tolkien wrote first Beowulf and the Critics and then “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in the mid-1930s. Tolkien describes the critical landscape as being dominated by the “reigning triarchy” of Fr. Klaeber, R.W. Chambers and W. W. Lawrence (Tolkien noted that although the triarchy reigned “on the whole, de jure,” it did not reign “in any part of its realm undisputed”). Their interpretations of Beowulf are basically similar: Beowulf is a literary work that is firmly set within the history and culture of the North, stories or legends in the poem go back at least to the sixth century, the Christianity of the author is integral to the poem as we have it and is not mere coloring, and the poem itself was likely written in the eighth century, the “Age of Bede.”
It is worth taking some time to explain why this dating is so important (though Tolkien treats it in one sentence and—strategically, I think—never bothers to explain what evidence has convinced him). The Beowulf manuscript was copied at the end of the tenth century, around the year 1000, so possibly as early as 975 or as late as 1025. The poem itself refers to a disastrous raid into Frisia by Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, the king of the Geats, Beowulf's people. Many years ago the scholar N.F.S. Grundtvig noticed that there is a passage in a work by Gregory of Tours, the Historia Francorum (the History of the Franks), that describes how a king named Chlochilaichus led a disastrous raid on which he was killed. Grundtvig noted that "Hygelac" and "Chlochilaichus" are the same name in two different languages. He concluded that these two raids were the same event, that it must have been historical, and that therefore Beowulf cannot have been written before that raid took place, around the year 515. That gives us a range of merely 500 years in which Beowulf could have been composed, although that’s somewhat misleading, because in the early centuries of that range the language was different and, as far as we know, the Anglo-Saxons were not literate until their conversion of Christianity in the seventh century. Still, it is certainly plausible that some kind of oral tradition from 515 was preserved (after all, the memory of Hygelac’s raid seems to have been).
This wide range of possible dates (and to be fair, no one thinks of Beowulf as we have it being written before 600 and only a very few scholars would accept a date of composition contemporaneous with the manuscript at the end of the tenth century) creates problems for Beowulf scholars who want to read the poem in the historical and cultural context in which it was created. It’s hard to read the poem in terms of politics if you don’t know what century you are talking about. There are some other problems as well. Although Beowulf is not entirely complimentary to the Danes, it also does not speak of them with hatred and horror as we would expect of an English text written after the Danish invasions began at the very end of the eighth century. The way scholars sometimes formulate the problem, with some pleasant anachronism, is that if you stood up in a pub in the year 850 and recited the opening lines of Beowulf—which say some pretty nice things about the Danes and how they conquered many peoples—you were likely to be beaten senseless and thrown into a ditch. The English were not too keen on their Danish invaders and so a poem written in English with a mostly positive spin on the Danes requires some complicated special pleading if that poem is written after the sack of Lindisfarne in 793.
The simplest solution to this problem is to push the composition of the poem earlier, before the Danish invasions. But not too early, as Beowulf in the form we have it must have been written after the conversion to Christianity, even though the characters in the poem are not themselves Christian. Tolkien spent a big portion of the end of Beowulf and the Critics tabulating names for God in Beowulf (this material ended up compressed in the appendices of “Monsters”) because he wanted to show that the poet never has the characters speak in Christian terms. From this research Tolkien concluded that the poet knew that “the times were heathen” when the story was set even if the poet himself was Christian. Thus, to Tolkien, the Beowulf poet is writing historical fiction, and very accurate historical fiction at that. Tolkien thought he must be writing from within a generation or two of the conversion. The last pagan kingdom, Sussex, was converted to Christianity by St Wilfrid in 681-686, so Tolkien put the composition of the poem sometime in the first half of the eighth century so that the poet could be looking back at his own ancestors (or their stories) and lamenting that they with all their virtues could not triumph in Time. Thus the Age of Bede, a pious and cultured era, solved neatly a variety of problems about the audience and cultural context of the poem while also allowing Tolkien to do what he wanted in terms of interpretation.
Tolkien’s antiquarian solution was a masterstroke because it allows a clever critic (and no one was more clever than Tolkien) to make nearly every single detail fit the poem. A seemingly Christian poem never mentions Christ, the Virgin Mary, the prophets and saints, and, of all the names in Scripture, only Cain and Abel appear (and Cain is spelled wrong both times)? No problem. The poet has set his poem in a pre-Christian era, so the characters wouldn’t know anything about later Christian developments, but they might know about Cain and Abel as part of a universal history. The poet at times seems to suggest that characters can go to heaven (Hrethel, when he died, “chose God’s light,”) but at other times never mentions the fate of the souls of good characters like Beowulf? No problem. “Chose God’s light” escaped from Christian poetry, but in general the poet knows that all the heathens of his poem, however noble, cannot achieve the kingdom of heaven and this is part of the sorrow of the poem.
The only problem with the deliberately antiquarian solution is that it is some ways too powerful. There is almost nothing in the poem that cannot be explain, a characteristic that only become noticeably problematic you realize that even if you changed the plot or characters, you could still explain it in antiquarian terms. In fact, the poet’s antiquarianism has been turned against Tolkien’s preferred dating for the poem. The strongest evidence for a date of composition significantly earlier than the manuscript date is the language and meter of Beowulf. Both are undeniably old. But critics now argue that this is deliberate archaism by a poet who was setting his poem in the past not only in terms of content, but stylistically. I think Tolkien would have taken this view as too clever by half, and the fact that many of the critics who make such claims don’t know enough of the linguistics or metrics to deserve to have an opinion would not have made him like the position any more. But the idea that parts of Beowulf that seem old are imitations of early poetry by a later poet, is, for better or for worse, enabled by Tolkien’s invention of the antiquarian, historical-fiction-writing Beowulf poet.
Rhetorically, Tolkien’s deliberately antiquarian author allows him to drive a wedge between the arguments of the great critic W.P. Ker and those of the trinity of Lawrence, Chambers and Klaeber. Many, though not all, of the specific arguments of this latter group were congenial to Tolkien. Even in his unpublished version of the lecture edited in Beowulf and the Critics, does not really criticize Lawrence, Chambers and Klaeber for their basic views and goes out of his way to praise Klaeber’s edition of Beowulf (though he disagrees strongly with the import of Klaeber’s criticism that the poem “lacks steady advance”—Tolkien thought it was meant not to). But Tolkien thought that Ker had made a very significant error: he compared Beowulf to the works of Homer and Virgil and found Beowulf wanting. Although Tolkien pays lip service to the comparison to classical masterworks in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” invoking Virgil and pre-emptively stating that Beowulf is inferior to the work of the Latin poet, this is merely a rhetorical gesture (and it is undercut in the essay by Tolkien’s pointing out the places where Beowulf is in fact just as good as the Æneid). But Tolkien is far more interested in making the case for Beowulf in its own terms, as part of a different aesthetic tradition than the Greek and Latin monuments. He therefore needs to encourage defections among those critics who followed Ker (he was Chambers’ teacher and widely influential), who might not go as far as Ker in running down Beowulf, but were still not willing to defend the poem in its own aesthetic terms and so accepted the idea that it was inferior to the epics of, as Tolkien put it, the South.
Lawrence, Chambers and Klaeber liked Beowulf a great deal, and they wanted to justify their study of the poem. So they imported into their criticism a form of what Tolkien called the “historic document fallacy,” the idea, found primarily in the work of the great German scholars of the nineteenth century (Heinrich Leo, Johann Lappenberg, Ludwig Ettmüller and others) that Beowulf is most valuable not as literature, but as documentation about the history and culture of the pre-literate Germanic world. This was a clever negotiating tactic, because scholars could nod towards the establishment view that Beowulf was ill-shaped and inferior while at the same time justifying the study of the poem: it wasn’t great literature, but it was pretty good, and it was useful for history, and so the combination was worth studying. Tolkien recognized this tactic as a loser, essentially a pre-emptive surrender to terms that would forever relegate Beowulf to second-class stature. So he zeroed in on the flaws in Ker’s argument, the contrast between the praise of the style and dignity and the subject matter, the monsters. The aesthetic standard that Ker uses, Tolkien argued, is flawed because it imports to Anglo-Saxon literature an aesthetic developed in Greece and Rome. That man caught in a net of fate, or caught between sworn word and inflexible duty was the only fit subject of an epic was, he argued, just an assertion by Ker based on classical models. There were other ways to conduct an epic, and man versus the hostile universe has its own charms and poignancy. Furthermore, if we allow that the structures and forms in Germanic poetry will be different from those in Latin and Greek, we can see Beowulf as being perfectly constructed according to these standards. Tolkien then makes an incredibly effective logical leap, arguing that the structure of the poem as a whole (which he asserts is a two-part construction, lines 1-2200 and lines 2201-3182) is paralleled in the structure of the Old English poetic line. This may or may not be true, and even if it is, that has nothing to do with whether or not such a structure is aesthetically pleasing, but it was the kind of sharp observation that critics love, and it gave the field an excuse to do what it had wanted to do for a long time: treat Beowulf as a good poem, one worth studying for its literary quality rather than just merely for its historical interest.
In demolishing Ker’s arguments, Tolkien had had to argue that the “historical document fallacy” was not necessary for the valuing as Beowulf, that critics could justifying their studying Beowulf on aesthetic grounds alone and that they did not need the additional buttressing of historical interest. But Tolkien himself never said or thought that the historical and quasi-historical events mentioned in Beowulf were unimportant. Nevertheless subsequent critics, seeing that they were free to discuss the poem as literature only, began to abandon the historical scholarship that had figured so significantly in Beowulf studies. Historical criticism was a casualty of Tolkien’s friendly fire, even though Tolkien himself was a very historical critic—he paid more attention to the monsters than had been done previously, but he did not neglect the historical elements in Beowulf in his analysis (anyone who thinks that Tolkien was a New Critic who only cared about the literary object in isolation needs to read Finn and Hengest). In “Monsters” Tolkien writes “Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.” I have italicized the last parts of this sentence because I think their importance has been overlooked by many. Tolkien is here—and elsewhere in the essay—making the case not only that Beowulf is a more significant hero for fighting the Grendel-kin and the dragon than he would have been if he only triumphed in the Swedish wars, but also that the entire story is more significant because it is not set in a generic fantasy land, but is instead placed in physical geography and historical time. Granted, this is a “heroic history,” which means here, I think, not only that it was associated with heroes, but also that it is in the “heroic age” to use H. M. Chadwick’s phrase to describe the migration period, between the fall of Rome and the North’s initial conversion to Christianity (which Tolkien refers to in “Monsters” via Chambers’ “Beowulf and the Heroic Age,” the introduction to Sir Archibald Strong’s translation of Beowulf). But the larger point is that Beowulf would be a far weaker poem if it were not so set and if we could not read the allusions and understand the cultural and political implications of characters’ statements and actions, as we can, to a degree, with the references to Hrothulf (and as we cannot, mostly, with references to queen Thryth or Modthryth—even the name is a crux).
This is the part of the argument of “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that was ignored by subsequent scholars, who were happy to discuss the poem as literature and very happy to talk about monsters, but far less interested in the historical material in the poem. There are various reasons for this. Purely literary criticism is in some ways easier than literary criticism that does not have to deal with historical material. Also, the historical criticism whose epitome is Chambers’ Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn (and my publisher worries that my proposed titles aren’t catchy!) is incredibly complex and confusing. Chambers and the other historical critics did not do themselves any favors in structuring their arguments in such a messy fashion, and Tolkien’s Finn and Hengest published posthumously, is even more impenetrable. When the majority of the readers of a text knew the material in great detail due to their training by, in large part, the apprentice method, people could write this way and have their books remain influential. In the vast expansion of the universities after World War II, particularly in America, the apprentice system began to break down and people had to learn more from texts. Also, although there was an uptick of German language learning during the war, for obvious reasons German culture and scholarship fell out of favor and the number of Anglophone medievalists who were comfortable working in German began a steep decline that has continued to the present time. Because many of the pioneering studies—and a great deal of the work on the historical material in Beowulf—had been written in German, the changing fortunes of this language and culture in British and American universities also contributed to making it easier for scholars to move away from historical-literary interpretation to purely literary approaches to Beowulf.
This is exactly what happened after World War II, particular in America, but really on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Beowulf studies has resisted the tide better than other fields, in the post-War era, purely literary studies dominated. Some of these are great contributions to understanding the poem, the best of which is probably Edward Irving’s A Reading of Beowulf. Others are less illuminating (there has always been good work, bad work, and boring work in Beowulf studies). But what nearly all of these studies have in common is a lack of engagement with the historical material in Beowulf. For example, at the very beginning of the poem, the manuscript reads “egsode eorl,” but this is ungrammatical. The traditional emendation is to “egsode eorlas” (terrified earls). But to accept this emendation, we have to assume (among other things) that the scribe made a massive blunder in the first six lines of his poem. Tolkien, following Chambers, thought instead that the word “eorl” came from the scribe not being familiar with the tribe of the Heruli, whose name might be spelled “eorle” in the scribe’s exemplar. The beginning of the poem, then, would be saying not that Scyld terrified generic earls, but that he specifically subjugated the tribe of the Heruli, something that the Danes do appear to have done. That is a pretty serious change in the feeling and significance of the opening lines of Beowulf, yet I did not encounter it in my undergraduate or M.A. studies and only discovered that people had hypothesized that “eorl” was really “Heruli” when I was reading for my Ph.D. exams. That kind of scholarship was no longer mainstream, even though it has never completely died out (and, we can at least hope, may be making a comeback if the Beowulf section of the 2007 Old English Newsletter bibliography is any indicator).
Even as excellent a book as John Hill’s The Cultural World in Beowulf, which engages quite directly with the human characters in the poem and does a superb job of interpreting the inter-dynastic and inter-personal struggles in Beowulf, does not treat the characters as being part of history. Instead, Hill argues that we should look at the cultural world in Beowulf as a kind of self-contained unit so that we can analyze the poem separated from any single date or historical context. This is rhetorically brilliant, but it would be unnecessary (and unnecessarily complicated) if the general field of Beowulf criticism in the 1980’s and 90’s was not actively hostile to historical interpretation. Partly this is a result of the fallout from the Toronto Dating of Beowulf conference in 1980 and the manufacture of an apparent consensus for a late date for the poem (a topic beyond the scope of the present essay). But the apparent need to claim not to be doing historical analysis while doing historical analysis shows how thoroughly the field has been taken over by literary rather than historical concerns.
Obviously Tolkien should not take the blame for all of these changes. I have been rather severe on Clare Lees for her claim that Tolkien was a New Critic when what she should really have said was that Tolkien opened the door for New Critical approaches (studying the poem only as it is on the page rather than in the poem’s historical context), so I should not myself push all developments in Beowulf studies back to “Monsters.” Undoubtedly the cultural and intellectual developments I discussed above would have changed Beowulf criticism, possibly along a path similar to what it followed. But there seems to me to be little doubt that “Monsters” was the saltation, the large leap that opened up new intellectual morphospace for Beowulf studies and Tolkien must get the credit—or blame—for starting these changes.
If Tolkien could see what his essay did to Beowulf-studies in the long run, would he be pleased or appalled? I think a little of both. He would be pleased that he had won—completely and totally—his argument with W.P. Ker. Beowulf is seen as having its own aesthetic standard (even if we can’t agree on what they are) and does not need to be compared to classical epics. And Beowulf is primarily literature to be understood in literary terms, not merely ransacked for evidence for research on other topics.
But I think if Tolkien were alive today, he would also not be pleased that interpretations of Beowulf have slipped the surly bonds of history and culture (and sadly, in many cases, even of philology) and had entered into more and more rarified levels of abstraction, of binary oppositions, gender dynamics, post-colonial paradigms and other theoretical constructs. He would have been more interested, I think, in archeological evidence coming out of Denmark that multiple halls had stood in Leijre during the time when the literature says they did. And if he were now professing he might well have made some efforts to shift the ground of Beowulf criticism towards addressing the significance of the poet’s setting of his heroes and monsters within heroic history in the named lands of the north. But unfortunately he is no longer with us, and so we, lesser sons of great sires, can only do our best to follow the path he tried to show us.
 Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tolkien 4, fol. 58. The letter from Chambers is dated 2 February 1937.
 See Michael D.C. Drout, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Medieval Scholarship and its Significance,” Tolkien Studies 4 (2007): 113-76.
 When this is done well by a scholar the field ends up with a well-developed body of work. When it is done poorly, we get the phenomenon of the scholar who writes the same book or article over and over again.
 Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.
 Beowulf and the Critics, 104-5.
 William Witherle Lawrence, Beowulf and Epic Tradition, Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928; Fr. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh 3 ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1950; R.W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.
 N.F.S. Grundtvig, Bjowulfs Drape. Et Gothisk Helte-Digt fra forrige Aar-Tusinde af Angel-Saxisk paa Danske Riim. Copenhagen: Trykt hos a. Seidelin, 1820.
 W.P. Ker, The Dark Ages, London: Blackwood and Sons, 1904.
 Ker’s type of error was still being made nearly a century later when Larry Benson attempted to show that Anglo-Saxon poetry from undeniably literary sources was just as “oral formulaic” as poetry that was putatively Germanic and traditional. Unfortunately, Benson was looking for Homeric rather than Anglo-Saxon formulas, making his statistics essentially meaningless. That has not stopped his article from being influential.
 R.W. Chambers, “Beowulf and the Heroic Age,” in Beowulf Translated into Modern English Rhyming Verse, ed. and trans. Archibald Strong, London: Constable, 1925, vii-xxxii.
 I don’t mean this entirely as an attack on literary critics and am here only pointing out that the historical allusions and their evaluation are just additional balls that critics have to juggle unless they decide to treat all characters as simply inventions rather than some as inventions and some as having historical backgrounds.
 Edward B. Irving, A Reading of Beowulf, rev. ed. Provo, UT: The Chaucer Studio, 1999.
 Hill, John M. The Cultural World in Beowulf, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
 Beowulf and the Critics, 20-21; Clare A. Lees, “Men and Beowulf” in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 129-48.
 See John D. Niles, Beowulf and Lejre. Tempe: Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2007 and in particular Tom Shippey’s afterword in this volume.
N.B.Please post any comments on this paper in the following thread:
Edited by: halfir
Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 19/Dec/2012 at 01:24 AM.
He that would foil me must use such weapons as I do, for I have not fed my readers with straw, neither will I be confuted with stubble.