Posts Tagged ‘Beowulf’

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

September 30, 2014

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

 This is my current draft of the second lecture of a series of four which I am preparing for my church’s adult Sunday School sessions in October.

Two early childhood creations mentioned by biographers are the language he and his brother invented together and the story he wrote about a dragon. It seems that his mother early instilled in him an appreciation for both the world of imagination and the intricacies of grammar and the way language functions. Much later, however, he reported that as a child he lost interest in “fairy stories” for a time, eventually becoming interested in fantasy again as an outgrowth of his studies in philology.

As an adult, he wrote stories for his own interest and for his children, while at the same time becoming a successful professor of philology. These two interests combined strikingly in his lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which he delivered in 1936 to the British Academy and published the next year. This essay is credited with revitalizing Beowulf studies. Tolkien began by lamenting the status of Beowulf criticism at that time, claiming that there really wasn’t any. Instead, he argued, there were a lot of historical dissections of “The Beowulf,” attempts to find the mundane historical foundation or to find some pre-English precursor, instead of any attempt to consider the story as it is presented to us now. For those of you rusty on your high-school English literature, here’s a brief synopsis lifted from Wikipedia:

In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.


All in all, it is a pretty simple story: boy meets monster, boy kills monster, boy kills monster’s mother, and then nothing more is said about the boy until fifty years later when the boy, now an old man, kills and is killed by a dragon. Tolkien summarizes the consensus of scholarship in his day as saying that the story puts the important things at the edges and the unimportant things in the center, and that whatever flaws it has, it is still Highly Significant. He agrees that it is highly significant, but disagrees that it is misguided. Instead, he argues, the critics are unhappy because it is not what they want it to be, whether that be an epic, an historical narrative or whatever. It is instead a poem, and should be read as one. It should be read as a finished product intended to say something particular about life, not simply rummaged through to find what historical facts about the ancient Norse might be gleaned. Above all, the center is right where it should be: on the monsters. Modern critics wish to do away with monsters and find the “real” basis for the story. “Reality” has to be some historical account of a human fighting an enemy, or maybe an allegorized story of a war between two clans, or something “normal.” Tolkien says no: the emphasis is on the monsters, and should be. The poem of Beowulf, he argues, was written by an early Christian monk, who looked back over the heritage of his pagan Anglo-Saxon history (just barely past) to comment on the pagan understanding of life. The hero strives against monsters because he is not just some guy fighting some other guy; he is every hero fighting death itself. In fighting Grendel, he fights evil itself, that which hates music and joy and all the mead hall was meant to celebrate. He defeats it, and thus becomes truly the hero. The hero is he who fights that which threatens to corrupt and destroy human nature and human fellowship. The hero is one who behaves heroically in the face of these dangers. And, the poet shows us, the hero (in pagan times) is one who is heroic without hope. Having proved his boasts true and defeated Grendel and his mother, the next time we meet Beowulf he is facing a more inhuman monster, a dragon, who is truly Death itself. The Teutonic hero faces death bravely, and slays the monster while himself being slain. The beginning of the hero and his end are thus presented in the poem, and that is all paganism offers: birth, striving, death, and then nothing. The ancient monk who wrote the poem both celebrates the heroic virtues of the past, and illustrates the limits of the pre-Christian view of life. No “realistic” story could have done this as well; the hero strives against cosmic forces, and these must be represented as the monstrous, superhuman forces that they are if the hero’s struggle against them is to reflect humanity’s struggle with the cosmos.

This then is Tolkien’s explanation of Beowulf: a Christian poem making Christian points using the language, imagery and even older tales from the pre-Christian past. The author does not mention the Norse gods, Tolkien says, because they are false gods and he doesn’t want to endorse them. Today Thor is one of The Avengers, but when “Beowulf” was written Thor was still The Thunderer who our grandfather prayed to but we no longer do, but who still lived in the back of our minds. We today can treat the Norse gods as fairy tale creatures who live far away in another realm; for the author of “Beowulf” it seemed better just to ignore them.

In many ways, Tolkien saw himself as doing what he felt the author of “Beowulf” had done. At the time he gave the lecture, 1936, he had just finished the manuscript for The Hobbit. This is a fairy-story, and I’ll say more about that later, but it really is a very different tale. The Lord of the Rings had not even been imagined, since it grew out of his publisher’s urgent request for “more hobbit stories.” But Tolkien had been working on The Simarillion for more than twenty years. It was a labor of love for him, beginning as an attempt to create a national myth of England equivalent to the Finnish saga he was studying in 1912. He tried repeatedly to get it published in his lifetime, but even with his other literary successes Allen and Ulwin were hesitant about taking on such a large and complex work; besides, it had no hobbits. Instead, it remained a private project, and since it remained unpublished he continued working on it his entire life, leaving it for his son Christopher to edit and publish posthumously. And this was a work that uses older themes and tales of a pre-Christian world to present Christian values. Many readers of Tolkien have remarked on the fact that there is no institutional religion and little explicit belief ever expressed in his more famous works; but this again is fitting, particularly given what he says about “Beowulf.” Tolkien is depicting a world where there is no “chosen people” because the Creator has not yet chosen any nation. God has not become revealed in history. And certainly, there has been no Incarnation. With the true god unknown in the world, any religion would be false, so it is better just not to deal with it. At the same time, Tolkien’s world is one that is much closer in time to the Creation, and Eru Illuvatar, his name for the Creator, is more present everywhere. The elves were the first people created, immortal and magical, destined eventually to fade from the world and return to their Creator. Wizards are the human forms of the Maiar, who are essentially messengers of the Valar, the heavenly host who surround and assist the Creator. You might say they are the angels’ angels. So in a very real sense, humans are surrounded by agents of the divine though they do not know it. In the Revelations of John we read that in the New Jerusalem there will be no temple, because God is everywhere. In Middle Earth, God is likewise everywhere and therefore not worshipped anywhere specifically. At the same time, though, in Middle Earth God is invisible, because He has not revealed Himself; God’s purest agents are the practitioners of magic, the wizards and elves, who appear to the mortals around them as merely unusual and powerful beings like themselves, superlatively powerful and wise but not “supernatural.” Tolkien’s mythology has its own versions of Satan and the Fall, and the name “Sauron” implies a serpent (notice the similarity between the name “Sauron” and the word “dino-saur,” Latin for “terrible lizard”). The tales of the Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings are thus cosmic tales of the struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction.

And of course, in cosmic tales you must have monsters. The elves are the original people, closest to Eru Illuvatar; the orcs are elves captured and mutated by Melkor, the Lucifer of Middle Earth, the Valar who rebelled against the Creator. They are thus literally evil made flesh, though individually of a low level. By contrast the Balrog and Smaug represent personifications of greed and malice equal to Fafnir, the giant turned dragon which Siegfried slew in German mythology. The struggle against monsters is a cosmic struggle, a moral struggle, and a physical struggle against a dangerous foe, all at once. It is a physical struggle because they are physical realities and pose physical dangers. They thus also require physical courage, and cleverness, and other virtues to overcome, just as “ordinary” dangers such as war and hardship would require. It is a moral struggle because the monsters represent moral evils made manifest, and evoke in others the vices they represent; or sometimes they result from the ordinary vices. For example, the dwarves of Moria were too curious and too greedy and too proud, and thus dug too deeply into darkness and secrets they should not; in that way they uncovered the Balrog which destroyed their kingdom. This monster was only defeated by one who fought bravely without hope of advantage for himself, but on behalf of others. Service to neighbors is an important virtue in Tolkien’s writings, whether it is Gandalf defending the bridge or Mr. Niggle who leaves off painting his picture so he can run an errand for his neighbor with the bad leg.[1] And monsters are also cosmic evils, representations of the powers that would plunge everything back into Chaos, incarnations of death and greed and oppression. When Beowulf fights the dragon, he knows he is going to meet Death, and determines to meet it bravely and dutifully. Tolkien’s monsters are likewise manifestations of the decay that threatens the world. And just as the author of Beowulf described his monsters as children of Cain to link them to the rebellion against God, Tolkien’s monsters are generally agents of Sauron, servant of Melkor the arch-rebel of The Simarillion. To fight monsters is thus to do the work of defending and repairing Creation itself, becoming God’s co-worker.

But enough about monsters: what about elves and fairies and the good? These are the subjects of Tolkien’s 1939 lecture at St. Andrews’ University, “On Fairy-Stories.” At this point Tolkien was already a successful author; The Hobbit was selling well and had gotten good reviews, and his publisher was pushing him to write a sequel. That sequel, barely started at this point, would ten years later be The Lord of the Rings. And of course, Tolkien’s labor of love, The Simarillion, was seventeen years in the making at this point and still growing. He might have been humble about his qualifications to write about fairy-stories, but the world was beginning to know him as an excellent writer of fairy-stories himself.   This essay also, of course, says much about what he saw as his own mission as a writer.

Tolkien begins by attempting to define the concept “fairy-story” more clearly. Many so-called “fairy tales” really aren’t, in his view. Some are simply moralistic allegories aimed at children and sugar coated by saying the heroes are fairies. Some are simply talking beast fables, similar to fairy tales but lacking the magical or fantastic element. So saying anything using a fairy as a character is a “fairy-story” is too narrow, Tolkien thinks; and saying anything with a marvelous nature (like Aesop’s fables) is a fairy-story is too broad. And speaking as a philologist, he points out that before the Tudor period “fairy” was not used to refer to a magical being like an elf, but rather to a magical place or dimension, the Perilous Realm, the land of enchantment. The fairy-story is the story of another reality than the one we generally inhabit, one more mysterious and beautiful and dangerous. It is the realm of Magic, provided “magic” is understood as perfectly serious and real, and not confused with “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” As an example, he points to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story that is full of magic but has no “fairies” at all. This is a story he lectured on often and had previously discussed in a scholarly essay.

After a discussion of the sorts of tales he would include under the genre “fairy-stories” and the various sorts of faux fairy stories he would reject, he turns to consider the question of the origin of fairy-stories. This question could be considered in two ways, and Tolkien discusses both. The first is the question of the origin of a particular story. This is the sort of thing that scholars debate constantly. If, for example, you find a similar tale in two widely different locations, what is the explanation? Do some tales just travel around the world until every culture has some version? Do some tales originate in multiple locations simultaneously? Tolkien moots most of these questions that so fascinate scholars. First, he says they aren’t using the tale as it was meant to be used. Just as he complained so-called critics had for years dissected Beowulf rather than just read it as a poem, so he says they often do with all fairy-stories. It’s a fine procedure in its own way, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual story. We often find stories about witches eating (or trying to eat) children, but that doesn’t mean Hansel and Getel, Baba Yaga and “Hocus Pocus” are “the same story.” And deciding that the first two arose independently and the last imitated the first but not the second tells us little about why this theme should have been used in this story in this way. Ultimately, Tolkien points out, any explanation of the fairy-story goes back to some Story-teller, who had a particular reason for telling this tale in this way. He writes that “The human mind, the tongue and the tale are all coeval.” That is, fairy-stories are as ancient as language and the mind itself. This may be more provable than Tolkien knew, if those cave paintings of horned men suggest (as some scholars believe) that Paleolithic humans imagined a magical man-beast. Tolkien says in his essay that the human mind is able to abstract the qualities from the world and combine them in new ways, imagining the green of grass on an old witch’s skin or the yellow straw being spun into yellow gold. This is the essential creative activity of the human mind: taking the things God has made and seeing them in new ways, in new relationships, and with new possibilities. This is the beginning of Faerie.

The origin of the fairy-story is the story teller. The origin of Faerie is the ability of the human mind to abstract concepts from the observed world and combine them in new ways. But why should anyone seek to do this? Why make up stories about other worlds, and the Perilous Realm? Why did the ancient storytellers choose tales of Faerie, and why do so many modern storytellers continue to do so? Why does there continue to be such a hunger for fairy-stories, even among modern people?    Tolkien says that the chief value of fairy-stories, if they are well done, lies in their literary merit just as it does for any other work of art. He utterly rejects the idea that they are “children’s stories” or as we call them today, “Young Adult literature.” Their chief value is not that they are good for children; if they are good, they are good for everyone. But fairy-stories in particular serve four distinct functions: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, all of which Tolkien says adults generally need more than children do.

Fantasy: Of the four, Tolkien regards Fantasy as the most important: he devotes as much space discussing Fantasy as he does the other three combined. Tolkien says it is because human beings are inherently, essentially creative. It is human nature to want to create something new. As he puts it, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

As a theologian, I find this statement extremely interesting and even exciting. Tolkien is making a claim about the doctrine of the Imageo Dei, the image of God in which Adam was created. We have an irrepressible urge to create because we are ourselves created in the image of the Creator. There are, of course, many sorts of creation. Building, making and using tools, running a business, writing a science textbook or a dramatic novel or painting a still-life, even having and raising children are all creative activities. Tolkien is not saying that only Faerie is connected with the Imageo Dei or that only fantasy writers are truly following the example of the Creator. But he is saying that fantasy is one expression of the Image of God. It can be abused, creating nightmares and idolatries and pagan cults of human sacrifice, whether those be the old Norse religion or the mythologies underlying 20th Century totalitarianisms; but the abuse of the gift does not change the fact of its divine origin.

Tolkien’s word for this human activity is “sub-creation.” We live every day in the “Primary World,” the world God has made. Made in God’s image, we have a desire to create our own “Secondary Worlds.” That is what Fantasy represents. The story-maker tries to create an internally consistent and compelling Secondary World, and invites the reader or hearer to enter it for a time. When the story-maker does a good job of it, we enter into that world. That is often called “suspension of disbelief,” but Tolkien finds that a poor term since it suggests a deliberate choice to push aside disbelief; if the Secondary World is compelling and the story well-told, disbelief does not appear in the first place. It is more like dreaming, as we enter into the Secondary World and give it Secondary Belief: not equal to the belief we give the Primary World, but just as real for the time we are under its spell.

Recovery: Life can be exhausting. The sameness of the passing days can drain the spirit. There are only three primary colors, only straight or curved lines; the elements of reality are always the same. The sameness can dull our ability to see them at all. To see reality clearly we must learn to see it anew, from a different angle. We must see the elements of reality in their distinctiveness. We need the gift of Recovery. Fantasy allows us to take the elements of reality and recombine them in new ways. This in turn allows us to see them afresh and to appreciate them as they are in nature. We see the familiar and are startled to see it from a different angle. Above all, we see things, in Tolkien’s words, “as we were meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.” Over-familiarity leads to a sense of possessiveness; Recovery means regaining a clear view, to see things in their independent reality. Tolkien says that Fairy-Stories are not essential to this sort of view of reality; humility would be enough. But fairy-stories are one way we can regain this view of things as things instead of seeing them simply as revolving around ourselves. And furthermore, Fantasy can allow us to set all our ideas free from their previous confines and relationships and experience them in new ways.

Escape: The gift of Recovery grants the ability to Escape. In Tolkien’s day as in our own, there is much scorn directed towards “escapist literature.” At the very least, it is often considered like candy: it’s alright if you’ve already eaten your vegetables. It’s unhealthy or at best empty, but not too bad in small doses. Some critics would go further and see all such “escapism” as unhealthy and perhaps a bit immoral. You should put your feet in the “real world” and stick to your work; anything else is shirking your responsibilities. I’m afraid Christianity has contributed to this attitude, particularly Paul’s injunction that Christians should forswear frivolity and confine themselves to singing hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:15-20, for example). Tolkien takes these critics head-on and says the “escape” offered by Fantasy should not be compared to the laborer shirking his responsibilities but rather to the prisoner slipping his chains. Humans have probably always longed to escape the limits of their existence, to fly or swim as easily as a bird or fish, to converse with other animals and so on. More specifically, fairy stories allow us to escape the limits of our own lives. In this mechanized, industrial, polluted, crowded, impersonal, confining and completely un-heroic world we live in today, Tolkien thinks, it is only natural to long for at least a temporary escape. When we have learned to see the trite and familiar in new and fresh ways, and to see the ideas that made up our Primary World in new relationships and full of new power, we can break free of the psychological confinement and limits which we have accepted too easily. And perhaps, he says, they can put us in touch with true reality. He cites the attitude of some of his contemporaries that electric street lights and railroads and traffic jams are “real life” and “inevitable progress.” Really, they are unreal; what could be real about making night as bright as day, isolating human life from the land and air that sustains it, making long distances seem short? Fantasy may create monsters that live in the sea or fly in the skies, but at least it does not try to utterly do away with the oceans or the heavens. Only modern industrial man would think to do that. Escape from that sort of world is escaping from the artificial to seek the natural.

Consolation: Escape opens the way to Consolation. What, exactly, is Consolation, and how does the Fairy-Story offer it? I would answer that by returning to a piece of literature which is not a “Fairy Story” but which does contain many elements of Faerie: the poem Beowulf. True, dragons and ogres are clearly denizens of the Perilous Realm; but monsters notwithstanding, the remarkable thing about Beowulf, the first thing I noticed when I first read it as a teenager, was the relative lack of fantastic elements. No gods or elves or spirits aid the hero or even advise him; the human is on his own against the monsters. That, Tolkien says, is the ultimate conclusion of paganism. One fights against the forces of evil and suffering and decay until one loses, and that is the end of it. Beowulf, in the poem, fights and dies bravely, without consolation. Old age, more than the dragon, finally claims him, as it claims us all. What the poem lacks is what Tolkien called the “Eucatastrophe.” This is another word of his own invention. It literally means “the good catastrophe.” What we usually call a “catastrophe” is the sudden reversal of order and joy, the sudden collapse and destruction. The Eucatastrophe is the sudden reversal, the sudden and unexpected turn of good that come out and redeems the catastrophe. The abused stepchild finds she has a fairy godmother who sends her off to the ball, there ultimately to win her way out of poverty and serfdom. The fatherless son, starving and penniless and the victim of con men, finds his way to a magical realm where he overcomes a giant and wins wealth and fame. What is the traditional end of a fairy-tale? Say it with me: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The fairy-story is an expression of the hope that one might somehow, despite all reason and the way things usually go in the Primary World, somehow Escape from disaster. And of all the disasters that threaten, what is the ultimate? We may dream of escaping from gravity or poverty, but the ultimate escape is the escape from Death. And ultimately, that is what the Fairy-Story hints at: Somehow, by some magic, we might escape the Dragon that claimed Beowulf.

This is why Tolkien claims the Fairy-Story as “a kind of evangelium.” The fairy-story is the story of wondrous Escape and the promise that life might be a bit better than appearances seem to allow. This, Tolkien claims, is a universal hope of all humankind. There is no one who could not wish this were true, except someone who has really fallen to wrath and despair. As a Catholic, Tolkien was familiar with St. Augustine’s prayer: Our hearts, O LORD, are restless until they find their rest in Thee. The fairy-story reflects that restlessness and answers to it. It is a kind of gospel, a precursor to the Gospel. But as humans, the story-tellers through the ages could only create their Secondary Worlds and place their consolations therein. God has placed the ultimate Consolation in the Primary World. The Gospel is the ultimate Eucatastrophe. When history seemed dark and hopeless, Light was born. When Death had won, suddenly the stone was rolled away. As Tolkien writes, “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Tolkien scorns the notion that two stories with similar themes are “the same story.” It is essential, he says, to focus on the Story-Teller, and the intentions of the story-teller in telling the story in just this way. So he is definitely not saying that all fairy-stories are the same. What he is saying is that they all speak to a common longing: the need for a Eucatastrophe, the escape from Death, Consolation. And in saying that the Gospel is a Fairy-Story, he certainly does not mean that it is “only” a fairy-story. This was the center of his argument with Lewis, and how he finally turned him from rationalism back to belief. Something can be “mythology” and still also be true in this Primary World. That is, we can understand the historical events of the Gospel as the fulfillment of the intentions and desires of earlier mythology, while still believing that they actually did happen in the “real world.” As the Scripture puts it, Christ came “in the fullness of time,” when all Creation groaned for liberation. The fairy-story reflects that universal longing.

Looking at these non-fiction essays, we can see what Tolkien was up to in his writing. First, as he says, it is essential that the work has its own literary merit. His first goal was to write a good story; if it isn’t good reading, no noble purpose can make it good. Like the author of Beowulf, Tolkien sought to express Christian truths implicitly, telling stories of a pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic time. Also like Beowulf, he celebrated the virtues of the heroic age, such as courage and loyalty, putting them in the service of his Christian message. More explicitly than Beowulf and more like the fairy-story, Tolkien sought to create a Secondary World through his exercise in Fantasy, to give his readers the opportunity to join him through their own Secondary Belief. In doing so, the reader has a chance to see another world, a world without motor cars or tenements, a world closer to nature than many of them experience in their lives, and to appreciate again the joys such a world can offer. He presents the dangers and challenges of life as monsters and demons to be fought and defeated, whether by courage, or cunning, or humble persistence. He presents supernatural aid in the form of magic, primarily exercised by elves and wizards. He gives his readers a chance to see things afresh, whether they are things that have become invisible through overfamiliarity or things that are no longer familiar. And he offers stories of Consolation, and Eucatastrophe, where faith is satisfied and virtue rewarded after it seemed impossible. They are stories of redemption; and one reason they have endured and become so popular is that readers, and now viewers, often come away a feeling a little bit redeemed. And while Tolkien rejects the direct allegorizing of C. S. Lewis and seeks to give his reader the imaginative freedom to apply the story to his or her own life, he does expect that by tasting a little redemption in his Secondary World, the reader’s appetite for the true Redemption will be awakened.

[1] “Leaf by Niggle” is an interesting story, but more complicated than I feel I can really explain here; I recommend you read it yourself.