January 3, 2010
Before Merry and Pippin, before Elvish, and before Orcs, J.R.R. TOLKIEN (1892-1973) saved Beowulf. In 1936, he published Beowulf: The Monster and Its Critics and forever changed the trajectory of the Anglo-Saxon epic’s critical reception. At best viewed as flawed, but more often as merely an interesting artifact for historical study, Beowulf was on the fast track to being forgotten when Tolkien reinvented it as the great work of inspired, unique, poetry, that it actually is. (“It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and the theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone. lif is læne eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.”) We never would have had Heaney’s lovely 2001 version or even Burton Raffels’ great, workmanlike 1963 edition, without Tolkien’s brilliant intervention. But what is most singular about BTMAIC is its impassioned defense of the vast, nebulous power of monsters and this unique moment when Grendel and the Dragon, and the Christianity looming to slay them both, were held in perfect, poetic, tension. The Old Gods had gone, the new had not yet arrived; in this moment, there was only man, monster, and their struggle.
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