November 20, 2007


"Beowulf" vs. "The Lord of the Rings": One is a living universe, the other a 3-D voyage to schlockville. A great essay by Tolkien helps us understand why. (Gary Kamiya, 11/20/07, Salon)

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author who created the most powerful mythical universe of our time, was also a renowned "Beowulf" scholar. "The Lord of the Rings" was heavily influenced by the poem, and Tolkien wrote what is still one of the seminal essays about it. Tolkien's analysis of "Beowulf," and more generally of fantasy and myth, illuminate both why he was able to create a modern mythopoeic masterpiece, and why "Beowulf" falls flat.

"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," published in 1936, marked a turning point in critical studies of the poem. Before Tolkien's essay, most scholars regarded the unknown poet's use of supernatural elements -- the monster Grendel, his equally monstrous mother, and the dragon -- as primitive or childish. Arguing that these "trivial" themes failed to do justice to the poem's exquisite language, they saw "Beowulf" as being primarily of historical, not artistic, interest. As the scholar W.P. Ker wrote in 1904, "The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors." Tolkien overturned these assumptions. He argued that the poem should be read as a poem, and recognized as a great one. The fantastic elements in "Beowulf," far from being faintly embarrassing, were inseparable from its majestic artistry.

In a famous allegory, Tolkien compared the author of "Beowulf" to a man who, inheriting a field full of ancient stones, used them to build a tower. His friends, recognizing that the stones had belonged to a more ancient building, tore down the tower "in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions." What they did not realize, Tolkien ends, was that "from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea."

Tolkien's point is that the fantastic elements in "Beowulf" are ancient archetypes that have deep roots in human beliefs, fears and wishes -- myths, in other words. And in "Beowulf," he argues, these myths are an essential part of a tragic tale whose theme is "man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time." The greatness of Beowulf derives from the fact that it is a poem created in "a pregnant moment of poise": It is balanced between a Christian worldview, in which death and defeat are ultimately themselves defeated by Christ, and a Germanic, pagan one, in which fate rules all and man's courage alone confers nobility. It is, Tolkien writes, not a primitive poem, but a late one. The pagan world is already past, but the poet still celebrates its vanished power. The fact that a poem written more than a thousand years ago was itself looking back at a lost world gives the poem an uncanny double resonance to the modern reader: "If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo."

Tolkien's brilliant essay can be seen as a ringing defense not just of "Beowulf," but of the work he was soon to embark on, another great tower composed of ancient stones. And the themes of lateness, of heroic loss, being caught between one age and another (his world is not called "Middle-earth" for nothing), are the deepest and most sublime parts of his own epic: They are the haunted metaphysical atmosphere through which his characters -- men, elves and hobbits alike -- must make their way. The coming disappearance of the elves, the hard dawning of the age of men, represent a disenchantment of the world identical to the disenchantment Tolkien found so unbearably moving in "Beowulf." By introducing this dark note, Tolkien gave artistic expression to the doubts that he himself may have felt about the myth he had created -- and so transcended them.

Tolkien was able to use the ancient stones in "Beowulf" to build a modern masterpiece because he recognized that the enduring power of myths derives from their deeper truth. This does not mean he believed that orcs and goblins and elves really existed; rather it derives from his belief that the world was enchanted, illuminated by a sacred light, and that the human sub-creations we call myths -- "living shapes that move from mind to mind," he called them in a poem he wrote for C.S. Lewis -- were splinters of that primordial light. For Tolkien, the ultimate source of enchantment was the Christian God, but it is not necessary to share that faith to feel the power of his creation.

The creators of the movie "Beowulf," however, failed to even recognize that the epic is composed of ancient stones, or that those stones might have something to say to us today.

Which seems like a good excuse to recall Tolkien's great letter to Milton Waldman:
[After Allen & Unwin, under pressure from Tolkien to make up their minds, had reluctantly declined to publish The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion, Tolkien was confident that Milton Waldman of Collins would shortly issue both books under his firm's imprint. In the spring of 1950, Waldman told Tolkien that he hoped to begin typesetting the following autumn. But there were delays, largely caused by Waldman's frequent absences in Italy and his ill-health. By the latter part of 1951 no definite arrangements for publication had yet been made, and Collins were becoming anxious about the combined length of both books. It was apparently at Waldman's suggestion that Tolkien wrote the following letter - of which the full text is some ten thousand words long - with the intention of demonstrating that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were interdependent and indivisible. The letter, which interested Waldman so much that he had a typed copy made (see the end of no. 137), is not dated, but was probably written late in 1951.]

My dear Milton,

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. I shall inflict some of this on you; but I will append a mere resume of its contents: which is (may be) all that you want or will have use or time for.

In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me - though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft. Behind my stories is now a nexus of languages (mostly only structurally sketched). But to those creatures which in English I call misleadingly Elves* are assigned two related languages more nearly completed, whose history is written, and whose forms (representing two different sides of my own linguistic taste) are deduced scientifically from a common origin. Out of these languages are made nearly all the names that appear in my legends. This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity) to the nomenclature, or so I believe, that is markedly lacking in other

*Intending the word to be understood in its ancient meanings, which continued as late as Spenser - a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.

comparable things. Not all will feel this as important as I do, since I am cursed by acute sensibility in such matters. But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite. I was an undergraduate before thought and experience revealed to me that these were not divergent interests - opposite poles of science and romance - but integrally related. I am not 'learned'* in the matters of myth and fairy-story, however, for in such things (as far as known to me) I have always been seeking material, things of a certain tone and air, and not simple know- ledge. Also - and here I hope I shall not sound absurd - I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.)

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story - the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths - which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our 'air' (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be 'high', purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now

*Though I have thought about them a good deal.

steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Of course, such an overweening purpose did not develop all at once. The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as 'given' things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorb- ing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already 'there', somewhere: not of 'inventing'.

Of course, I made up and even wrote lots of other things (especially for my children). Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme, being ultimately and radically unrelated: Leafhy Niggle and Farmer Giles, for instance, the only two that have been printed. The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite indepen- dently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view-and the last tale blends them.

I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more 'life' a

story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.) Anyway all this stuff* is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary bio- logical life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall'. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own', the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator - especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use

*It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality.

of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The 'Elves' are 'immortal', at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others* - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.

The cycles begin with a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making). They are 'divine', that is, were originally ‘outside’ and existed 'before' the making of the world. Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a 'reality'. On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the 'gods' of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted - well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.

It moves then swiftly to the History of the Elves, or the Silmarillion proper; to the world as we perceive it, but of course transfigured in a still half-mythical mode: that is it deals with rational incarnate creatures of

*Not in the Beginner of Evil: his was a sub-creative Fall, and hence the Elves (the representatives of sub-creation par excellence) were peculiarly his enemies, and the special object of his desire and hate - and open to his deceits. Their Fall is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into perversion of their art to power.

more or less comparable stature with our own. The Knowledge of the Creation Drama was incomplete: incomplete in each individual ‘god’, and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled. For (partly to redress the evil of the rebel Melkor, partly for the completion of all in an ultimate finesse of detail) the Creator had not revealed all. The making, and nature, of the Children of God, were the two chief secrets. All that the gods knew was that they would come, at appointed times. The Children of God are thus primevally related and akin, and primevally different. Since also they are something wholly ‘other’ to the gods, in the making of which the gods played no part, they are the object of the special desire and love of the gods. These are the First-born, the Elves; and the Followers Men. The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning - and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. ‘Me Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.

As I say, the legendary Silmarillion is peculiar, and differs from all similar things that I know in not being anthropocentric. Its centre of view and interest is not Men but 'Elves'. Men came in inevitably: after all the author is a man, and if he has an audience they will be Men and Men must come in to our tales, as such, and not merely transfigured or partially represented as Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, etc. But they remain peripheral - late comers, and however growingly important, not principals.

In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall - all stories are ultimately about the fall - at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2007 7:33 AM

Where are the picketing librarians? Every time Hollywood takes a classic and completely misrepresents it, these ladies with their reading glasses on a chain should be chaining themselves to the movie theater doors. What kind of hubris do you have to have to take the Iliad and make something like "Troy"?

Posted by: Brian at November 20, 2007 12:34 PM

Isn't Kamiya the guy who admitted to wanting the US to get our keesters handed to us by the Iraqi war machine?

Not a bad article even if it is...

Posted by: Benny at November 20, 2007 1:33 PM

Speaking of mythic moviemaking: If you're looking for a good film to watch in between football games this weekend, go rent Rescue Dawn. This joins the canon of great prison/escape films. It's as good as or better than any I've seen: Bridge over the River Kwai, Papillion, The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke--all of these transcend the genre, as does Rescue Dawn.

And it doesn't push three hours; not a wasted scene, really, which is against the trend and welcome in these kinds of movies.

Posted by: ted welter at November 20, 2007 5:13 PM