- Series: MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE TEXTS AND STUDIES
- Hardcover: 461 pages
- Publisher: Mrts; 1St Edition edition (December 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0866982906
- ISBN-13: 978-0866982900
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
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- #169 in Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > Movements & Periods > Medieval
- #191 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Ancient, Classical & Medieval > Ancient & Classical
- #194 in Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > Regional & Cultural > European > British & Irish
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Beowulf and the Critics (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 248) 1St Edition Edition
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In his preface Drout mentions the likelihood that there are two natual audiences for this book: Those who read it because the name "Tolkien" is on the cover; and those who read it because "Beowulf" on the cover. (And Drout writes that "the most valued audience of all [is] those who read the book because it says both 'Tolkien' and 'Beowulf' on the cover" -- I'm pleased to count myself in that group.) To be candid, those Tolkien enthusiasts who pick up the volume expecting to find discussions of elves and hobbits will be disappointed. There are few direct references to Tolkien's better-know fictional works (although there is an interesting extended footnote discussing the relationship of Shakespeare's "King Lear" to certain aspects of "The Lord of the Rings.") However, if they press on to fathom Tolkien's concept of what Beowulf's poet was truly saying, then they will be rewarded, I believe, with a deepening of their own appreciation of the world later created by Tolkien. And, of course, they may come to appreciate "Beowulf" in itself.
Students of "Beowulf" will undoubtedly be more directly rewarded by this book that presents insights into the poem (and earlier criticism of that work) not so accessibly set forth in the later, more famous essay. If nothing else, this work presents an opportunity to once again consider the artistic intent of the Beowulf poet, speaking to us over a gulf of over a thousand years, yet illuminating a tradition of thought and conduct that still influences our modern world.
The 1936 lecture is the title piece in the 1984 collection of some of Tolkien's essays, with which this book should NOT be confused, and is found in several anthologies of "Beowulf" criticism. It is beautifully expressed, and vigorously argued, but, with its compressed references to old disputes, at times a little hard to follow in detail. I found that careful readings of R.W. Chambers' magisterial "Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem" (1921; third edition, 1953) and use of Fr. Klaeber's great edition (1922, 1928, 1936), both referred to by Tolkien, were very helpful, and worth the time (if not essential!) for any student of the poem anyway. But the critical (or uncritical) consensus Tolkien was attacking long ago faded from the scholarly mind. (It persists in third-hand opinions, often repeated by people who should know better.)
This presentation of the work-in-progress which produced "The Monsters and Critics" unfolds the reasoning process and critical disputes behind its crisp rhetoric, and reveals beyond any doubt that Tolkien's disclaimer of detailed knowledge of the secondary literature was the typical medieval-style "modesty trope" some of us suspected anyway. (More than suspected, really, since the 1983 publication of other Tolkien material on "Beowulf," edited by Alan Bliss as "Finn and Hengest.")
Among other issues, the resemblance of Tolkien's reading strategies for "Beowulf" to the then-emerging "New Criticism" is explored, and shown to be coincidental -- beyond sharing in the "spirit of the age," if one cares to take that approach. (I have actually seen a "history of criticism" which dismissed "Monsters and the Critics" as merely applying New Criticism to medieval literature, and offering nothing original -- which suggested, just as a matter of chronology, a lack of qualifications to write such a history.)
There is information, too, on the probable dates and present conditions of the manuscripts, on the emendations and original readings in the sometimes difficult-to-read handwritten pages, and similar matters. And this is tucked away where those who need the information can find it, and those who aren't interested can ignore it. (It might even serve as a student's introduction to physical descriptions of manuscripts, given that Tolkien's text is, mainly, in modern English, and the issues more immediately clear, than in, say, the case of the "Beowulf" manuscript itself, or of the two texts of Malory -- or the A, B, and C versions of "Piers Plowman.")
Annotations on the two versions supply identifications, translate quotations in a large number of languages, and generally clarify Tolkien's statements for non-professionals on the one hand, and for scholars seventy or eighty years removed from the intended readership on the other.
There are interesting sidelights. Some appear as Drout traces the origin of Tolkien's metaphors and allegories in the published lecture. The published version has a now-famous image of the poem as a Tower, made of more ancient stones which have attracted attention away from the view of the Sea at the top. The resemblance to passages in "Lord of the Rings" seemed to suggest he was borrowing an evocative image from his own developing mythology. Michael Drout shows that the passage started as a fable about a rock garden, and provides references to show that it was then the latest fashion in England. Who would have guessed it? Tolkien as landscape gardener, not Tolkien as secondary world-creator! And this doesn't stand alone, although it is the easiest example to describe.
Drout's editing, in my opinion, manages to meet the needs and expectations of two sets of readers -- scholars and students, and curious Tolkien fans -- quite well. A second reading has left me as convinced as the first time through. And I feel qualified to say this, although I am not the ideal reviewer for this book.
That ideal reviewer would be a professional scholar of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language and literature, who is also fully at home in the history of "Beowulf" criticism, and at the same time a well-informed fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. In other words, someone very much like the actual editor. There are such people; I am hoping to hear from some of them in the academic journals, whether Medievalist, Germanist, or Tolkienian (!).
I am at best a rough approximation of this ideal reviewer. I had courses in Old English, including a "Beowulf" seminar, during which I translated a lot of the major poems (and have the notebooks to prove it), and read through much of the major (and some minor) English-language Beowulf studies through the 1970s. As a Tolkien fan, active mainly in the 1970s, I can point to a set of listings in the 1981 Revised Edition of Richard West's "Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist." In a fanzine I then edited, I sometimes managed to wear both hats simultaneously, as with a review of "Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition," by Howell D. Chickering, Jr. Although I haven't kept really current, I have worked my way through Michael Alexander's text edition, with facing-page glosses, for Penguin Classics (1995), and the bi-lingual version (2000) of Seamus Heaney's celebrated translation.
So, for me, getting to see Tolkien's thoughts on the poem in the process of formation was very exciting. And learning precisely which critic or critics he was responding to, was a well-guided tour through unexpected corners of old familiar places. The editor's observations on how Tolkien's thoughts on the work of the Beowulf-poet sometimes reflect his own experiences writing stories and poems that would not appear before the public for years appealed to the fan side. At least the sort of fan who enjoyed the successive volumes of "The History of Middle Earth," even while despairing of mastering the mass of new material.
I believe that not just Tolkien scholars but any student/scholar of Old English/Anglo Saxon should have this book.