Wisdom's Children

The Unity of Beowulf: Tolkien and the Critics

by Bill Ramey

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As Lewis E. Nicholson notes, J. R. R. Tolkien's article "Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics" is "widely recognized as a turning point in Beowulfian criticism" (x). Of course, this turning point does not mean that later critics agree with Tolkien's complete assessment of Beowulf, but it does mean that they accept a key point made by Tolkien: Beowulf is a fine poem and a unified one at that. The mark of Tolkien's impact is that critics before him regard Beowulf as a less than unified work, more important for its historical and philological content than its literary merit, and critics after him regard Beowulf as a unified work of art. For example, of the critics who discuss the poem as a whole in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, most agree pace Tolkien that Beowulf is a unified poem, even if they argue so on different grounds.

Burton Raffel's introduction to his own translation offers a particularly exuberant example of post-Tolkien Beowulf criticism:

[W]e are remarkably lucky to have [Beowulf]: not only is it unique, the sole survivor of what might have been a thriving epic tradition, but it is great poetry. Approached as an archaeological relic, it is fascinating. Taken as a linguistic document, it is a marvel ... But Beowulf's position as a great poem must remain primary; the other purposes it serves are important but peripheral to this central fact of sheer literary merit. (x)
This view of Beowulf has become so common that its unity is taken by many critics as a self-evident fact. As one might expect, however, the certainty of this view is not apodictic. The issue of unity is one naturally raised by the critics, because Beowulf presents certain difficulties for critical analysis. The manuscript support for the poem is limited to one damaged copy written in two hands and provides little help in determining its origin and authorship. The poem itself has two parts that differ in content. The first part contains many allusions to the Old Testament, implying the presence of a Christian author. The monsters of part one are evil, being linked by ancestry with Cain. Part two, however, makes no clear reference to the Old Testament, and its single monster is not so much evil as it is amoral. Moreover, digressions interrupt the main narrative throughout the poem without necessarily helping the narrative along. It is primarily for these reasons that critics prior to Tolkien argue against the unity of Beowulf.

Though this paper agrees more with Tolkien and Raffel, it does not assume the self-evident unity of Beowulf; rather it will briefly review and assess the main issues relevant to the question of the poem's unity, of which there are three: (1) Beowulf's structure, (2) the significance of its subject matter, and (3) its thematic unity. One possible caveat here is that modern ideas about artistic unity do not apply to Beowulf. H. L. Rogers makes this claim, for example. However, Aristotle presented sophisticated ideas about poetic unity long before Beowulf, and hence there is no reason to believe that Old English authors had "primitive" notions of artistic unity. Moreover, those who argue against the single authorship of Beowulf already apply "modern" standards of unity to support their case, as Rogers indeed does. Thus there should be no great objection to applying these standards in support of the opposing view.

The prima facie evidence for the structural unity of the poem is strong. The narrative centers around three fight scenes that parallel one another and link together part one and part two. In each part, a monster plagues a helpless people, and Beowulf comes to the rescue. Throughout this basic narrative, there are themes of kingly wisdom and tribal loyalty, descriptions of aristocratic wealth, and comments about moral virtue. No critic questions this rudimentary unity of Beowulf's structure. Indeed, those who attack the unity of Beowulf focus less on the structure of the poem and more on its subject matter and theme, issues to be discussed shortly. The key argument against Beowulf's structural unity maintains that its two parts present too many dissimilarities to be unified; critics on the extreme end of this argument even hold to the theory of multiple authorship. For example, it is said that Grendel and his mother do not compare equally with the dragon; the Christian allusions of part one do not mesh with the paganism of part two; and Beowulf himself is not the same character from beginning to end--the optimism of the young Beowulf gives way to the gloomy sadness of the old one--and so on.

Certainly the differences between the parts are real, but there are two things to consider before drawing the conclusion that Beowulf is not unified or has multiple authors. First, despite the differences, are there any marks of similarity, indicating a unified design--not general similarities such as the use of monsters, but specific ones? One interesting critical answer to this question comes from R. M. Lumiansky, who argues that the Beowulf poet creates suspense through the device of dramatic audience, that is, the fictional audience within the poem. Though the external audience of Beowulf knows the outcome of key events through foreshadowing, the dramatic audience does not. Hence the poet creates suspense for the external audience vicariously.

To support his argument, Lumiansky focuses on the three fight sequences, each of which uses the device of dramatic audience. In the fight with Grendel, the poet briefly shifts the point of view to the Danes. In lines 725-52, we see the fight through their eyes. At first they are afraid; then they marvel that Heorot Hall is still standing; and finally Grendel's cry terrifies them. Lumiansky's contention is that the "poet has skilfully arranged these three reactions climactically," in order to create suspense. In the fight with Grendel's mother, even though we know that Beowulf is victorious, the poet shows us the reactions of those who wait on the shore. The Danes assume that Beowulf has been killed when they see the blood in the water, and they accordingly leave. The Geats remain, saddened at the loss of their leader--who, of course, as we know, turns upon the scene; but the external audience still has the satisfaction of suspense, experienced through the dramatic audience. Finally, there is yet a third use of dramatic audience in the final fight with the dragon. The poet clearly foreshadows Beowulf's demise, but again there is a shift in perspective, this time to that of the companions. By shifting the focus of the external audience to the desertion scene and the heroism of Wiglaf, the poet builds suspense and introduces an unknown into the narrative of Beowulf's death, despite the inevitability of that death.

The significance of Lumiansky's position is that it provides a specific example of a literary technique found in all three of the fight scenes and in both parts of Beowulf. If the poet used this technique, then there is evidence of his hand throughout the poem; it is unlikely that a redactor or second author would use this device as effectively as the primary author, especially if the dissimilarities between part one and part two are as great as critics of Beowulf's unity believe--working in such a device as dramatic audience would be very difficult.

The second thing to consider is the function of the differences. Mere repetition--and the elimination of dissimilarities--does not make a work of literature unified, anymore than the repetition of notes makes a symphony. Variation is as aesthetically important as repetition. It follows that if the differences between the halves of Beowulf function as variations on a theme, this is evidence of its unity and careful authorship. For example, it clear that the Beowulf of part one is not the Beowulf of part two--he is old, moody, and near death in the latter part. Critics such as Rogers might argue that this is an indication that the poet could not sustain his Christian vision to the very end (a view to be addressed later), but they should first ask if there is any reason for presenting Beowulf in such different ways. Margaret Goldsmith suggests the following:

The second part of the poem is the realization of what Hrothgar's warning has foreshadowed, the old Beowulf's mortal struggle with the dragon ... Thus, the poet uses the heroic combats of story to typify man's unending struggle with the powers of darkness ... (378-79)
The idea that part two complements or fulfills part one is stated more strongly by Tolkien:
[Beowulf] is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description between two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death. (81)
The textual support for this view is strong. The poem begins with the funeral of Scyld; it ends with the funeral of Beowulf. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, the scop chants the lay of Sigemund, in which Beowulf's future is foreshadowed, specifically, his fight with the dragon and his downfall. Sigemund is like the young Beowulf: "Great glory Sigemund gained that lingered long after death" (l. 829). But Heremod is like the old Beowulf; recounting the downfall of Heremod, the scop says that "the stain of sin sunk deep into Heremod's heart" (l. 849), foreshadowing the plight of the later Beowulf:
The heart of the hero was heavy with anguish,
The greatest of sorrows; in his wisdom he weened
He had grievously angered the Lord Everlasting,
Blamefully broken the ancient law. (ll. 2195-98)
Likewise, as Goldsmith points out, Hrothgar foreshadows the fall of Beowulf in his advice about kings:
Since God has granted him glory and wealth
He forgets the future, unmindful of Fate.
But it comes to pass in the day appointed
His feeble body withers and fails ... (ll. 1639-42)
Thus part two fulfills the predictions of part one, and the difference between the two Beowulfs serves a purpose: to illustrate the biblical maxim "pride goeth before a fall." The poet has placed too many clues about Beowulf's future for part two to be substantially disparate.

Despite these indications of unified design, there is another argument against Beowulf's structural unity, one that also questions the significance of Beowulf's subject matter. According to this argument, the digressions in Beowulf detract from its unity and put the important episodes where they do not belong--on the outside of the poem. W. P. Ker expresses this view bluntly:

The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story....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 historical allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy ... Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevancies in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is unmistakably heroic and weighty. (252-53)
Ker is the prime example of a pre-Tolkien critic, one who values Beowulf for its philological content and does not quite know how to evaluate its literary merits. That a poem can be considered weighty when "there is nothing much in the story" and heroic when the main story is the "merest commonplace of heroic legend" indicates that something is not quite right with this evaluation of the poem. The first problem has to with the digressions. As with the variations between Beowulf's two parts, one should ask if the digressions serve an artistic purpose, a question that Ker et. al. simply do not raise. Fortunately, post-Tolkien critics have raised it and their findings add more support for the unity of Beowulf.

Kemp Malone, for instance, argues that the poet understood the importance of the digressions but had other things in mind with his poem, namely, presenting a Christian moral:

Most of the episodic matter of the poem ... is concerned, not with the hero himself but with his setting. The author ... was not only a Christian moralist. He was also an Englishman; that is, a man of Germanic stock and traditions. (146-47)

Thus at the very least, the digressions serve to create the setting of the poem and the hero's life. Adrian Bonjour corroborates this view in his monograph on the subject of Beowulf's digressions: "the very number and variety of the episodes renders the background of the poem extraordinarily alive" (71).

As seen with the lay of Sigemund, the digressions can serve an even more specific literary purpose, for instance, foreshadowing. Even the lay of Finnsburg, reckoned as the most difficult digression, has a purpose. It recalls the beginning of the poem--the death of Scyld--and hints at the ending--the death of Beowulf: "Then a funeral pyre was prepared, and gold was drawn from the hoard / The best of the Scylding leaders was lain on the bier" (ll. 1014-15). It also echoes the victory of Beowulf over Grendel and his return home: "The Scylding warriors bore to their ships all treasure and wealth" (l. 1047). In general, the lay of Finnsburg is a celebration of the aristocratic warrior values upheld by the Danes and the Geats, an extension of their joy over Beowulf's victory: "So the song was sung, the lay recited / The sound of revelry rose in the hall" (l. 1052).

Another problem with Ker's position has to with his contention that "there is nothing much" in Beowulf, that the digressions contain the important parts. However, if the digressions serve the larger poem--if the parts serve the whole--then there is no reason to suggest that the poem itself lacks significance in contrast to its digressions. There are whole worlds of tragedy in the digressions, but there is also a world of tragedy in the main poem, complemented by the digressions.

As for the more general significance of the poem, that would require longer treatment. It suffices to say that many critics do not take Ker's view on this matter. R. E. Kaske sees the major theme of Beowulf as sapientia et fortitudo, the high virtues of kingly wisdom and courage. Malone sees Christian moralizing and English patriotism in Beowulf. But the suggestion that Beowulf has a Christian moral put there by a Christian poet brings up the third issue regarding the unity of Beowulf, namely, its thematic unity.

Rogers, for example, believes that the poet had progressive difficulty fitting his material to a Christian message, and that is why part one has specific references to the Old Testament and part two does not. According to Rogers, the fight scenes became less and less amenable to the poet's Christian sensibilities:

The poet does in fact express his moral idea fully only in the earlier part of the poem; particularly, in the account of the Grendel fight. In that of the second fight, his idea and the subject matter are on somewhat strained terms; in that of the third fight, they are fundamentally at variance. (237)

Thus Rogers states: "I do not believe that Beowulf can be regarded as an artistic unity in the modern sense, or that the poem has a higher theme than the life and death of its hero" (236). It is certainly true that the poet alludes directly to the Old Testament early in the poem, but the lack of explicit Christian allusion in the later poem does not make it thoroughly pagan, as Rogers suggests. One might point to the obviously pagan burial of Beowulf, but one can find a pagan burial at the beginning of the poem as well. Rogers argues that the poet would not want to "repaganize" the latter part of the poem, but then why would he "paganize" the earlier part at all? Even before the poet's era, the precedent for mixing Christian and pagan themes had been set, for instance, by Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy. In fact, there are no explicit Christian references at all in the Consolation, but most scholars today believe that Boethius was an orthodox Christian.

Even more to the point, though there are no explicit Christian allusions in part two, there is an Old Testament motif--the chosen king with a tragic flaw. As cited earlier, Beowulf "grievously angered" God, leading to his downfall. Though he defeats the dragon and wins the treasure, he dies. The similarity to Moses, Saul, and David would not be lost on a Christian audience. Moses gets to see the promised land, but cannot enter it; Saul begins his reign by divine appointment, but disobeys God and falls out of favor; likewise David, who commits adultery. When a scop early in the poem recounts the first chapter of Genesis, it is no accident that the themes of kinghood and tribal politics follow it; the same themes are in the Old Testament.

In conclusion, then, the unity of Beowulf, though not self-evident, is readily demonstrable. Structurally, it is composed of two complementary, coherent parts, and the themes of one are fulfilled in the other. The digressions do not detract from the unity, but comment upon the main narrative and foreshadow the end of the poem. Moreover, the Christian moralizing, though it changes shape, does not end in the first part, nor is it replaced by a thorough-going paganism. There is evidence of a single design throughout Beowulf--evidence, as Tolkien notes, of "a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings."

Works Cited

Beowulf. Trans. Charles W. Kennedy. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Medieval English Literature. Ed. J. B. Trapp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 29-98.

Goldsmith, Margaret E. "The Christian Perspective in Beowulf." Nicholson: 373-86.

Kaske, R. E. "Sapientia et Fortitudo as the Controlling Theme of Beowulf." Nicholson: 269-310.

Ker, W. P. The Dark Ages. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1955.

Lumiansky, R. M. "The Dramatic Audience in Beowulf." The Beowulf Poet. Ed. Donald Frye. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 76-82.

Malone, Kemp. "Beowulf." Nicholson: 137-54.

Nicholson, Lewis E., ed. Preface. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

Raffel, Burton, trans. Introduction. Beowulf. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Rogers, H. L. "Beowulf's Three Great Fights." Nicholson: 233-56.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Nicholson: 51-103.

(Page last updated on 3-30-98)