Beowulf Literary Criticism & Critical Analysis

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The history of literary criticism and analysis of 'Beowulf' is heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, who convinced scholars to view it not just as a historical document but as a great work of literature.

The Monsters and the Critics

First composed most likely in the 7th century C.E., Beowulf is generally considered to be the oldest surviving work of English literature. It is an epic story that tells of the great warrior and king Beowulf and his battles with a succession of horrible monsters.

As one of the most famous and historically important works of literature ever written, Beowulf has been the subject of much literary criticism, which refers to the analysis and interpretation of works of literature. However, for much of its history, Beowulf was prized more for its historical value as a document of the culture of the early middle ages in England and Scandinavia than as a work of literature in its own right.

The literary reputation of Beowulf was forever changed by J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings author was also a professor of medieval literature, and his 1936 lecture ''Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics'' is generally cited as the most important piece of Beowulf criticism ever written, as Tolkien made a compelling case for taking the poem seriously as literature.

Since Tolkien, other critics have responded to him and analyzed Beowulf as a work of literature, examining Beowulf as a hero and how the poem shows the tension between Christianity and pre-Christian pagan religions.

Before Tolkien

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars who studied Beowulf primarily focused on its usefulness as a historical document. The story of Beowulf takes place during the 5th century, when tribes from northern Europe were invading the territory now known as England, and its characters are all members of these northern tribes. Many of the characters, such as King Hrothgar, appear to be based on real people.

This period from about the 5th to 10th centuries C.E., the time between when the events of the story supposedly happened and when the poem was written down, is known as the early medieval period in European history, and it is a period for which few records exist. For this reason, Beowulf was prized primarily for its historical information. Even though the main events of the story, such as Beowulf defeating a dragon, are clearly fictional, it still provides valuable information about the customs and religious beliefs of the period.

In addition, many scholars and critics frankly didn't think it was very good as a work of literature. Many pointed to the awkwardly organized story and Beowulf's lack of character development, while others simply thought a story about fighting dragons and monsters was not a subject worthy of ''serious literature.''

Tolkien's Response

J.R.R. Tolkien took issue with these dismissals of Beowulf in his 1936 lecture ''Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,'' which was later published as an essay and has been frequently reprinted ever since. After surveying the standard criticisms of the poem, Tolkien makes his argument that the poem is ultimately about the tragedy of man's brief, mortal life. He says that the poem is about ''man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.'' He points out that the poem is divided between a story of youth (Beowulf's battles with Grendel and his mother) and old age (Beowulf's final battle with the dragon).

And on the subject of monsters, which had bothered so many earlier critics, Tolkien argues that the monsters represent death, pointing out how the writer draws on both pre-Christian mythology and Christian tradition to create monsters like Grendel, who is presented both as a mythological giant and a descendant of Cain, the Christian tradition's first villain.

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