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.”

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