Beowulf and Tolkien

Cover for J.R.R. Tolkien book 'The Monsters and the Critics'

Cover for J.R.R. Tolkien book ‘The Monsters and the Critics’

Last year someone on the Endor Mailing List suggested we discuss the poem “Beowulf”. Feeling at a loss for more interesting topics (I have actually enjoyed the poem since I was in the 4th grade), I agreed it might spur some lengthy debates and discussion.

After many months of being too ill, too busy, too distracted, too whatever to start the project, I finally launched it late last Summer. I think by then people on the list had come to understand that when I say I’ll do something, I take the Elven point of view. I have a few years to accomplish the most expeditious tasks.

We’re up to Section XX of the poem, now. Beowulf has just jumped into the mere to find the lair of Grendel’s mother and take revenge on her for taking revenge on Hrothgar’s men for killing Grendel.

It’s all so very sectarian, in a way. You have the humans on one side and the monsters on the other side, and they are just in a gleeful killing spree, each side knowing that its cause is just. Sound familiar? Yes, I immediately identified it with Homer’s “Iliad”, too.

I cannot imagine hearing the entire poem recited in one session. It is just way too long for even my Stoic patience. And I’ve been known to sit through four-hour movies without making that much needed run for relief, if you know what I mean.

“Beowulf”, it seems to me, would have been one of those classic community events. A scald comes to the village and declares, “I shall recite the tale of Beowulf for the lord and his lady. All are welcome to attend.”

Great feasting and celebration should have ensued. The ancient Germanic peoples loved their feasts (actually, I understand they still have an affinity for food — I know I do and I am part German through my mother’s father). Maybe the poem would have been recited only at special times of the year. Perhaps when a new lord took up the rule of his people. Perhaps after a great victory in battle. Perhaps when special holidays were celebrated.

So our Germanic lord and lady would open their hall to their village folk, and everyone would come settle in around a great fire — or maybe they set up a bonfire near the hall, and the villagers would gather outside and share food and gossip until the lord raised a toast to his honored guest, the Scald (also known as a Scop).

If people knew the story already, they would be packed with anticipation. I’m sure the boys would be running around, pretending to be Beowulf, fighting monsters, and generating all sorts of mayhem. The older boys and younger men would be predicting the great deeds they, too, hoped to do when fortune favored them with an opportunity. Maybe there would be talk of taking up arms against an ancestral enemy. Maybe there would be contests of skill and strength during the day.

But when the time comes for the Scald to speak, would not the mothers shush their children, the men grasp their horns of ale and beer, and the lord and lady clasp hands gently, and the crowd fall silent as the honored bard began to speak?

Entertainment has evolved through the centuries, but special peformances are always a time of great fuss and commotion. When I was a child, we set aside special evenings when all the kids would watch the rebroadcast of “The Wizard of Oz”. CBS played that movie for something like 25 years in a row, and I never got tired of watching it. I’d cancel dates to spend quality time with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Billie Burke, and Toto, too. A friend of mine told me he once dated a girl who even up to the age of 21 or 22 would gather with about 20 of her friends to watch the show. She deferred dates, and Dave had to pick her up after the movie. All the girls came out of the house to see them off, very much like the people of Emerald City saying good-bye to the Wizard as he drifts off in his balloon.

When my brother and I were off from school during Summer vacation, we made the trek with some friends to downtown Miami Beach every Wednesday morning for a daylong movie-fest (Cf. “Popcorn, Movies, and the Keystone Cops”). They showed cheesy old black-and-white films, episodes from the “Our Gang” movie series, gave away prizes, and finally showed a western, comedy, or science fiction movie. I remember seeing “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (with Don Knotts), some movie about pre-Columbian Native American tribes, “Namu”, “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” (or something like that), and maybe a few others at those moviefests.

I still occasionally dress up to go see “The Nutcracker Suite”. It’s a big todo. Men in their fancy suits, women in their classy dresses, kids running around the crowd in excitement, teenagers shyly flirting with each other in their Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes.

I just have the feeling that a performance of “Beowulf” would have been conducted in much the same fashion. Maybe it would have lasted over a period of several days. Robert Yeager wrote in 1999 that “The singers may have performed it when warriors gathered in meadhalls to celebrate their prowess at gatherings like those described in Beowulf. In fact, it is from this poem that we derive many of the details for our reconstructions of Anglo-Saxon social life.”

Well, we can reconstruct ancient life in many different ways. Hardcore viewers of Xena: Warrior Princess know that ancient Greece apparently was the source for Napoleonic art. But I digress.

Would “Beowulf” have been heard only by warriors, or would it have been a communal form of entertainment? How old should a young man be before he could be initiated into the Rite of Beowulf? I think the poem, and others like it, would have been of such social significance that any special performance would have been opened to the whole community. It would have been more significant that way. Bringing friends and families together to enjoy a special performance of a beloved work strengthens the fabric of a society.

In several stories, Mark Twain demonstrated how a common Revival service or County Fair could become the focal point of a small-town’s social structure for a very brief time. Anything that broke up the monotony of every day life, which provided a glimpse of the outside world, was an excuse for everyone to get together, eat cake, drink wine and beer, tell favorite old jokes, reshare old adventures, and rebuild the tribal spirit.

When studying “Beowulf”, could J.R.R. Tolkien have failed to see the opportunity for communal celebration in its performance? Look at how story-telling is formalized in Tolkien’s own worlds. When Frodo awakens at Rivendell, he is made the guest of honor at a feast which is followed by a night of singing and tale-telling. Bilbo recites his poem about Earendil in Elrond’s Hall of Fire.

Story-telling in all its forms is the most popular form of human entertainment. We enjoy it more than we enjoy sports, trivia challenges, and even social activities such as dancing, playing games, and dining together. Many of these activities are often combined with the enjoyment of story-telling. We spend most of our lives hearing and relating stories about other people.

When the art of story-telling is elevated to a professional performance, we stop what we are doing and pay special attention to the story. It doesn’t have to be a particularly good story. In fact, we sometimes love to complain about a particularly bad story. It’s the air of anticipation that builds up to a crescendo just prior to the event itself which makes the event so special. We enjoy making a big fuss over some old guy blabbering on about a hero who does impossible things.

Does it matter if the hero is a hobbit, a Geat, or a young man from New York dressed up like a spider?

No. Not as long as we can make a big night out of the event, and take away from it a neat memory. That’s the magic of “Beowulf”, and it goes all the way back to “Gilgamesh”, and it will never depart from the human experience.

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