Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 4007
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Drout , Michael.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Reading Tolkien Reading "Beowulf": Is A "Masculinist" Interpreation Necessary?
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 29, 3 (Spring 1996):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Literature- Verse Masculinity in Literature Tolkien, J. R. R., Philologist and Novelist (1892-1973)
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: That man, each man and all man, and all their works shall die is the theme of "Beowulf," wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in "The Monsters and the Critics." In both the world of "Beowulf" and the world of its poet, claimed Tolkien, "within Time the monsters would win." This type of thematic criticism is no longer fashionable; two recent essays that specifically engage Tolkien's arguments - Clare Lees's "Men and Beowulf" and John P. Hermann's "Why Anglo-Saxonists Can't Read: Or, Who Took the Mead out of Medieval Studies?" - tell us as much. But those who have taught "Beowulf" in translation to undergraduates can agree that "What does this poem mean?" is one of our students' most frequent questions. There is something about "Beowulf" - even when its specific linguistic and metrical structures, its "artistry," to use Tolkien's term, have been obscured by translation - that generates in readers a strong, and personal, response. Clare Lees takes Tolkien (and recent critic James W. Earl) to task for promoting readings of "Beowulf" that naturalize gender "and thereby promote" masculinism. She argues that these readings are generated by the poem's critics rather than by the poem itself. In my reading of Tolkien reading "Beowulf," I argue that it is the structures and content of the poem that promote this "masculinism" (which I do not find to be as pernicious as Lees apparently does). Though Tolkien was not possessed of the technical vocabulary or ideology of gender studies, he saw the poem as intimately concerned with behaviors specific to men (in the culture of the poem) and viewed these behaviors as essentially tragic. James Earl has argued that "Beowulf" is "an act of mourning, [which] fixes an image of what has been lost." What has been lost, among other things, are traditions, "and they, alas, are all too perishable." Tolkien mourns this loss even as he reconfigures "Beowulf" criticism; both the poem and his interpretation are predicated on the fear of dearth and teh exacerbation of that fear by the fragility of the human systems of tradition and inheritance that attempt to counteract "the ultimate fate of men." Tolkien wrote "The Monsters and the Critics" the same year he began work on "The Lord of the Rings" - on the eve of World War II's devastation. Parts of "The Lord of the Rings" were sent as a serial to his son Christopher (later to follow in his father's footsteps as an Oxford Don), who was stationed in Africa with the R.A.F. Beowulf had no sons; Tolkien feared for the life of his, and interpreted the poem through the filter of what he might have called the tragedy of masculinist culture. Although Lees would call this a cultural problem, and a contradiction rather than a tragedy, she would appreciate its contours: regardless of the culture they may produce, men, by themselves, can never reproduce. Thus any system that attempts to be wholly masculine will be constantly anxious about its reproduction and hence its eventual fate. The "Beowulf"-poet, and Tolkien after him, understood, and were frightened by, the contradictions of this masculinist system which, Tolkien suggests, could last only "until the dragon comes." Tolkien feared that with the war, that beast had arrived. Contemporary traditionalists, with academic and cultural wars to fear, experience much of the same anxiety [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation: Loyola University, Chicago
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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