Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Beowulf and Christianity (and by extension, JRRT and same)
Andrea Harris in this entry points out a number of flaws in some superficial 'Christian' readings of Tolkien. She also mentions that she wrote a paper on Christian themes in Beowulf, and one of her commenters mentions a hostile reception by Anglo-Saxonists of a Christian-focused Beowulf translation.

I thought it might be useful to mention what exactly we do know about the Christianity of Beowulf and what Tolkien thought about it, since I've read more than a few things on the web that are, well, confused.

Beowulf the poem, as we have it (i.e., in its manuscript form, not some postulated earlier version), is definitely written by a Christian. However, there is not a single reference to Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, or the New Testament, which is very strange for an Anglo-Saxon Christian poem. The only real proof of a Christian (as opposed to a general monotheistic) poet is the inclusion of Cain and Abel (and, strangely enough, "Cain" is spelled wrong both times the word appears in the manuscript. More on that in some other post).

As Tolkien points out, the references to God aren't to Christ or specifically the Christian God, but to The Ruler, The Lord, The Measurer, etc. Why would a Christian poet, who knew about Cain and Abel, do this?

Tolkien's explanation has never been bettered: the poet was a Christian, but he was setting his story back in the pre-Christian past. He knew that the people in his story weren't Christian, but he also believed that Christian truths explained the way the universe worked. So he can say that The Ruler determined the outcome of a battle even if he knows that Beowulf wasn't Christian himself.

Now part of the brilliance of this interpretation is that it can't really be disproved by any one example. Tolkien even notes a few places he thinks that the poet has failed in tone (when pagan Hrethel is said to have "chosen God's light", i.e., died, Tolkien says that the phrase has "escaped from Christian poetry). And Tolkien thought that lines 175-188, which sound, to the ear familiar with Anglo-Saxon poetry, much more like a Christian homiletic piece than do any other lines in Beowulf, had been added to the poem at a later date. So the idea of a poet who is deliberately writing a kind of 'historical fantasy' is still preserved.

Now I think it's not a great stretch to suggest that Tolkien was doing much of the same thing in his work. If you look at the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, which is in Morgoth's Ring in the History of Middle-earth, you see Tolkien suggesting that men, back in the First Age, had a kind of prophesy that one day the creator would enter his own creation for the purpose of healing it. That day hadn't happened yet, so Tolkien was setting his Middle-earth stories before the incarnation. Thus he doesn't mention Christ, etc. Just like the Beowulf poet.

Andrea mentions Christian themes in Beowulf, which is a slightly different kettle of fish. I think Tolkien, and many scholars, would argue that the poet put those Christian themes there, but you actually don't need that hypothesis if you're a Christian who truly believes: since in the Christian worldview, the world works in a certain way, you'd expect to see those workings be universal. Similarly, physics is universal, so someone who knows no physics could describe, say, the behavior of a spring and we'd recognize the phenonemon. Thus if someone described, say, mercy, 'sapientia and fortitudo,' forgiveness, etc., a believing Christian could say that these fit into the way the world works.

As for the Beowulf poet, I think that he was a Christian looking back on the pagan past. Actually, I think he was a tenth-century monk revising an old and received poem, but that's the kind of assertion that starts bar-fights (or at least beer-throwing) among Anglo-Saxonists. And as for Tolkien, I think that his Christianity could not help but influence the world he created, but that looking for a didactic Christian message that was somehow hidden in the Lord of the Rings is perhaps not the most critically useful approach.

Also: Tolkien discovered Finnish in college and he never became fluent in the language, though he used its phonology as a basis for Quenya.

Also: I'm going to be talking about Tolkien and WWI on National Public Radio's "The Talk of the Nation;" we're taping tomorrow, so I'm guessing it'll be broadcast on Friday. I was on WBUR today; link when I find one.

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