In Defence of Beowulf: Tolkien's "The Monsters and The Critics"
J.R.R. Tolkien’s article, The Monsters and the Critics, represents a sort of call to order, a call for a condensed conviction about the Old English poem Beowulf, or, as Tolkien sometimes refers to it, The Beowulf. He is in many ways a defender, both of Beowulf and of the choices of its author. In “ventur[ing] to criticize the critics” (Tolkien 246), he condemns the use of Beowulf as a purely historical document, and instead urges its study for its literary value, stating that its “poetry [is] so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content” (247).
Tolkien also addresses the concern that the tragic condition of humanity is not at the centre of the poem, but instead hovers at the edges with references and allusions (Ingeld’s mention is an example), while base and tasteless monsters take the central role of the story. Yet the poet, Tolkien argues, is “still dealing with the great temporal tragedy,” (265) the tragedy that is defined by the fact that, as the poet could clearly see when looking back, “all glory (or as we might say culture or civilization) ends in night” (265) and that “all men, and all their works shall die” (265). Tolkien rightly points out that “it is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low [but rather i]t is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone” (260). At the same time we are assured that “[w]e do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon” (259) and that, in fact, it would be impossible to do so, as “the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness… it is just because the main foes… are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant” (261, 277).
Tolkien defends, and rightly so, Beowulf’s value as a literary work, as well as that of its more fantastical nature. It is not an epic, he claims, nor is it meant to be ouvertly symbolic, allegorical, or chronological. Instead, Tolkien explains that it is a heroic-elegaic poem, one that “has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity” with monsters and a “heroic figure of enlarged proportions” (275), “a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy” - at its core (260).
J.R.R. Tolkein, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-295.