At morn King Hrothgar on his throne
for his lieges slain there mourned alone
but Grendel gnawed the flesh and bone
of the thirty thanes of Denmark.
A ship there sailed like a wingéd swan,
and the foam was white on the waters wan,
and one there stood with bright helm on
that fate had brought to Denmark.
— “Beowulf and the Monsters,” J.R.R. Tolkien
Heathen or no, Beowulf does the Lord’s work, and knows full well that there is a higher power to Whom all must answer. So believed the anonymous eighth-century Christian poet who saw fit to set down Beowulf’s adventures; so too believed the late scholar and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, whose long-awaited translation of the greatest of Old English epics has finally been released.
If Professor Tolkien and the ancient Anglo-Saxon storyteller are right, then Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) should interest not only philologists and Tolkien fans but the inquisitive Catholic layman, too. Perhaps northern European folklore is more relevant to the Faith than we might think? Perhaps modern Christians can derive wisdom and inspiration from what Tolkien called “point[s] of contact between Scripture and Germanic legend”?
In Tolkien’s view, the first noteworthy “point of contact” is manifested through the Beowulf monsters—particularly the ogre Grendel. By terrorizing the realm of the good King Hrothgar and devouring Hrothgar’s subjects at night, Grendel stands as a representative of Cain, that first killer from whom, in the Beowulf mythos, “all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God.”
What attracts Grendel’s hostility is the music coming from Heorot, as the sound of Hrothgar’s minstrel singing joyfully of Creation rings hatefully in the creature’s ears. This loathing for Christian civilization is extremely important for understanding the poem, for as Tolkien observes in his commentary on the Old English text Grendel is the ultimate féond(enemy), in a permanent state of enmity—fæhÞ—with mankind:
What is implied here is that there was never any hope of […] settlement. Grendel was an “alien”, not recognizing the authority of Hrothgar or of any human law. Nor was it possible to hold any conference with him, and arrange terms: and indeed he would not have been willing to offer any. Nay, he piled fæhÞ upon fæhÞ, killing fresh Danes whenever he could.
Seeking truce with Grendel is absurd, for his hatred of Heorot’s music and what it evokes is not only relentless but insatiable. He has, in the words of the poet, “a feud with God.”
Enter the Geatish hero Beowulf, whose father had once been a fugitive sheltered under Hrothgar’s authority. The son now returns the favor, offering to guard Hrothgar’s royal hall, and when Grendel noiselessly slips into Heorot once again that night he is delighted to discover more sleeping victims to slake his insatiable appetite. Delight turns to dismay, however, when the nocturnal fiend discovers he has met his match:
Onward and nearer [Grendel] stepped, seized then with hand the valiant-hearted man upon his bed. Against him the demon stretched his claw; and swiftly he laid hold on it, and with hate in heart he propped him on his arm. Straightway that master of evil deeds perceived that never had he met within this world in earth’s four corners on any other man a mightier gripe of hand.
A fantastical wrestling match ensues, one so catastrophic that it nearly destroys Heorot. Beowulf triumphs, and—after seeking out and defeating Grendel’s monstrous dam, accepting Hrothgar’s gratitude, and celebrating the victories—returns home. In time Beowulf inherits the Geatish throne, and rules benevolently for 50 winters.
He is destined to go out with his boots on, however. As an old man, he gets word that a dragon—an “alien creature fierce and evil”—has been disturbed from its slumber, and is venting its hot wrath upon his subjects:
Now did the invader begin to spew forth glowing fires and set ablaze the shining halls—the light of the burning leapt forth to the woe of men. No creature there did that fell winger of the air purpose to leave alive. Wide might it be seen how the serpent went to war, the malice of that fell oppressor, from near and far be seen how that destroyer in battle pursued and humbled the people of the Geats.
Tolkien was especially fascinated by the dragon’s backstory, which relies upon the image of the dragon making its nest in an ancient ruin where “forgotten lords [had] placed their gold in the hoard, and then died one by one.” The treasure in this tomb has drawn the dragon even though, as the Beowulf poet reflects, ne byð him wihte ðy sél (“no whit doth it profit him”). Per Tolkien, this remark regarding the creature’s pointless gold-greed may be taken as “the last word on dragonhood.”
Standing at a pole opposite the one occupied by the hoarding dragon, an aged Beowulf shows that self-sacrifice is the last word on kingship. Abandoned by his terrified soldiers, he meets the beast aided only by a single retainer, the spirited youth Wiglaf. Together the two heroes slay the serpent, but at a high price: Beowulf suffers a mortal wound during the battle. Thus the epic concludes with Wiglaf and the Geats lamenting the passing of their just and gracious lord, the “shepherd of the people.”
Surveying the tale from beginning to end, Tolkien raises a powerful theological question: “What are we to think of the nobility and heroism of the heathen past? Was it all just evil, damned?” This question defined a serious controversy in the newly-Christian England of antiquity, and the consensus of Old English scholarship is that the Beowulf poem is, in part, a response to them. As Tolkien observes, the poem implicitly takes a side: “[T]he mere fact that the poet wrote a poem about the pagan past shows in general that he did not belong to the party that consigned the heroes (northern or classical) to perdition.” Like Dante—who acknowledged Virgil as his guide and portrayed the pre-Christian Emperor Trajan in Paradise—the Beowulf poet recognizes that heathen expressions of truth, goodness, and beauty do have their place in the life of the Church.
For his part, Tolkien believed northern paganism to be in certain respects more compatible with Christianity than is the Mediterranean variety, insofar as northern myths allude to a grand conflict whereby gods and men fight together against inhuman monsters. This conflict between light and darkness is a far cry from Homer’s Iliad, wherein aloof and often whimsical Olympians treat mortals as chess-pieces; for that matter, it is a far cry even from Greco-Roman philosophical traditions, which sometimes tend to equate godliness with detachment. Of course I do not mean here to belittle the classical inheritance, recent neglect of which has had a dire impact on Western civilization. The point, rather, is that the Anglo-Saxon inheritance to which Tolkien was so devoted likewise has something to commend it.
At the least, we can say that there is more reality to Old English folklore than in the perverse fantasies by which Americans now live. When a society promotes disloyalty and monstrosity so far as to celebrate dragons and vampires and witches, when respectability-craving “conservatives” can always find reasons to compromise with the next phase of an ongoing anti-Christian revolution, when piles of gadgets and toys and luxury goods are offered in compensation for the loss of faith, family, and roots—why, in such times we could do worse than to recall Beowulf’s trusty kinsman Wiglaf, who lives by the dictum that “[k]inship may nothing set aside in virtuous mind.”
Indeed there are many reasons to see the 21st-century West as twisted and bleak. Yet, from another point of view, it cannot be that bad—not if J.R.R. Tolkien is still putting out books decades after having passed on. Thanks to his latest publication, it is clear that reclaiming the forgotten pagan legacy must be a priority for those who aim to preserve something of Christendom.
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien; edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!