One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.

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Faramir’s commentary on Beowulf

Yesterday I posted on Tolkien’s admiration for the pagan “martial heroism as its own end” of Beowulf, yet which he immediately follows with his Christian caution towards the same: “But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, it is this same perspective that we found put in the mouth of Faramir, that most Christian and Tolkien-like of characters. Comparing and contrasting the Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim to his own people, the Gondorians, who are of a much higher and mightier lineage, Faramir says to Frodo:

‘Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother, Boromir: a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor. And very valiant indeed he was: no heir of Minas Tirith has for long years been so hardy in toil, so onward into battle, or blown a mightier note on the Great Horn.’ Faramir sighed and fell silent for a while.

Much of the significance of Faramir’s courtship of Eowyn, it might be said, lies in his “converting”–indeed, healing and saving–this courageous but fey “shieldmaiden” of Rohan from her noble but pagan (and so ultimately enervating and no less nihilistic) martial obsession.

‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.

     Then Faramir laughed merrily. ‘That is well,’ he said, ‘for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.’

     ‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ she said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Númenor to choose?”‘

     ‘I would,’ said Faramir.

Therein, I submit, lies much of Tolkien’s Christian response to Nietzsche: it is not ultimately the agonistic will-to-power, but the pastoral will-to-garden, that is the cure for modern nihilism.

Homer vs. Beowulf: Tolkien and Nietzsche on the necessity of Monsters

There is much in Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf that bears comparison with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, one instance of which is the role of foil that Homer’s epics play in their respective arguments. Tolkien quotes at length this passage from another scholar’s essay titled “Beowulf and the Heroic Age”:

In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things–the folk-tale element–in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops–the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is hateful to Zeus and hte other gods: yet the Cyclops is himself god-begotten and under divine protection, and the fact that Odysseus has maimed him is a wrong which Poseidon is slow to forgive. But the gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God. Grendel and the dragon are constantly referred to in language which is meant to recall the powers of darkness with which Christian men felt themselves to be encompaeed. They are hte ‘inmates of Hell’, ‘adversaries of God’, ‘offspring of Cain’, ‘enemies of mankind’. Consequently, the matter of hte main story of Beowulf, monstrous as it is, is not so removed from common mediaeval experience as it seems to us to be from our own…. Grendel hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man. And so Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age of the Germans, nevertheless is almost a Christian knight.

(Tolkien qualifies that last line, saying “I should prefer to say that [Beowulf] moves in a northern heroic age imagined by a Christian.”) Later in his essay Tolkien is found expressing much the same sentiment in his own words, when he contrasts Homer’s (“southern”) theology with the mythology (and more specifically, the bestiary) of Beowulf:

the southern gods are more godlike–more lofty, dread, and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death. Such a mythology may hold the promise of a profounder thought. In any case it was a virtue of the southern mythology that it could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy. For in a sense it had shirked the problem precisely by not having the monsters in the centre-as they are in Beowulf… But such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges… It is the strength of the norther mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage… So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work … without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

One similarity, then, is between Tolkien’s evaluation of Beowulf‘s continuing capacity to fire the spirit of indomitable will and courage down to “our own times,” and Nietzsche’s parallel argument in The Birth of Tragedy concerning the prophetic potency and promise of the spirit of music, formerly found in Attic tragedy, to revitalize contemporary German culture. Both authors, in other words, are deeply interested in the power of these premodern texts to help rescue the modern world from its intellectual malaise and so replace the prevailing will-to-nothingness with a healthy even if pagan will-to-life. And like Nietzsche before him, who saw the dark and chaotic Dionysian element of Attic tragedy as a necessary corrective to the already too Apollonian (Olympian) world of Homer–what with its clearly drawn deities and intelligible (because all too human) motives and action–Tolkien, too, treats the “southern gods” dialectically as already on their way towards one of two extremes, either the social instability of anarchy or the transcendent repose of philosophy. And similar to Nietzsche’s view of the significance of the Dionysian chorus within Attic tragedy, for Tolkien it is the way in which the Beowulf poet puts the monstrous at the center of things that is particularly deserving of commendation and wonder. Yet one obvious difference is that where Nietzsche the self-appointed “Anti-Christ” saw Attic tragedy’s synthesis of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses as achieving a truly constructive cultural balance, Tolkien, as Christian, does not allow his admiration for the “martial heroism” of Beowulf to blind him to its limitations, as he sides with the poet himself in testifying that “the wages of heroism is death.”