Gríma as Mask, “Bogey”

In his commentary on Beowulf Tolkien gives the following meaning of the word gríma:

The gríma was a mask or vizor (partly) covering the face. That the helmets of this company [of Beowulf] had such gríman is assured, since Wulfgar at the door of Heorot says so: grímhelmas *334, heregríman *396; ‘your masked helms’ 271, 320. That these were or might be of fierce or horrifying shape, designed (like more primitive war-paint) to frighten off assailants (and so act as life-guards) is shown by the frequent use of gríma for a bogey, or terrifying apparition…. But the gríma or mask probably more or less represented a face, human or animal… (Beowulf 203-4)

Rohirrim and the Danes

I’ve been reading through Tolkien’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Here’s the first of some random notes and observations, for what they’re worth.

In “The King of the Golden Hall,” Theoden’s door-warden, Háma, says to Gandalf: “The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a proper for age… Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.” The scene, as someone has doubtlessly recognized before, was lifted by Tolkien from Beowulf. When the eponymous hero arrives on the Danish shores and tells the coast guard that he has come to “give counsel to Hrothgar how he, wise and good, will overcome his enemy,” the guard replies: “A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds: my ears assure me that here is a company of friendly mind toward the Lord of the Scyldings. Go ye forward bearing your weapons and your armour!” (ll. 225-36, Tolkien’s trans.). (Beowulf and company will later lay aside their weapons and armor before entering Hrothgar’s actual hall, and of whose door warden Tolkien says that “It was his duty to assess the merit of strangers at the door and to advise whether they should be admitted.”) In his commentary on this passage, Tolkien observes how “The exchange of what we should call ‘platitudes’, received opinions about the way things go in the world, was more honoured in heroic circles than in (say) modern academic ones,” and interprets this particular platitude by the coast guard to mean: “a man of discernment will naturally be able to recognize a liar when he meets him” (“Commentary,” p. 200-1). It is much the same sentiment that Tolkien had placed earlier in Eomer’s mouth in his encounter with the “three hunters.” As he had told Aragorn, “All that you say is strange… Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived…”

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.

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.”

A pagan conflict in a Christian key

Tolkien on the effect that Christianity had on the heroic-pagan outlook of the North (and as apt a description as any of the theology within Tolkien’s own fiction):

The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men and within Time the monsters would win. In the heroic siege and last defeat men and gods alike had been imagined in teh same host. Now the heroic figures, the men of old, hæleð under heofenum, remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world. The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and become inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten, the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes. For it begins to dissolve, even as the contest on the fields of Time thus takes on its largest aspect. The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important. It is no defeat, for the end of the world is part of the design of Metod, the Arbiter who is above the mortal world. Beyond there appears a possibility of eternal victory (or eternal defeat), and the real battle is between the soul and its adversaries. So the old monsters became images of the evil spirit or spirits, or rather the evil spirits entered into the monsters and took visible shape in the hideous bodies of the þyrsas and sigelhearwan of heathen imagination. (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”)

Grendel and the “un-theologizing” of Ungoliant

I commented a couple of months ago on the “theologization” of Ungoliant that seems to take place between her first appearance in The Book of Lost Tales as “Wirilóme” the “Gloomweaver” and the final formation of her character in the published Silmarillion. Having just re-read Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf for a class, however, I want to retract or at least revise my earlier conclusion.

To briefly review: In her early form, Ungoliant’s origins are much more mysterious, mythical, and pagan, it being allowed that “[m]ayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been” (Lost Tales 152). In The Silmarillion, by contrast, while the Elves are said to have not know from “whence she came,” nevertheless some of them “have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.” From this difference in presentation between the early and late Ungoliant, I concluded in my earlier post that “from her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.”

In a footnote to his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” however, Tolkien makes a statement that may have some bearing on this issue. Commenting on the complex question of the Christianity of the poem, Tolkien writes:

It must be observed that there is a difference between the comments of the author and the things said in reported speech by his characters. The two chief of these, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are again differentiated. Thus, the only definitely Scriptural references, to Abel ([lines] 108) and to Cain (108, 1261), occur where the poet is speaking as commentator. The theory of Grendel’s origin is not known to the actors: Hrothgar denies all knowledge of the ancestry of Grendel (1355).

With this discussion of Grendel in mind, it seems that, if we are to be precise, the question of Ungoliant may be less an issue of Tolkien’s changing portrayal of Ungoliant and her origins (is or isn’t she a primordial force co-equal with the good, à la Hesiod and other pagan cosmogonies?), as it is an (admittedly much more recognizably Tolkienian) preoccupation with what the Elves may or may not have understood to be Ungoliant’s origins. Put differently, instead of saying that Tolkien brought Ungoliant as a character into increasing conformity with his own Augustinian creation-metaphysics as a Catholic author, we should perhaps rather understand that this ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s nature and origin has always been and continues to be there for the majority of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s fictional world, and that what has changed between versions of the story, therefore, is that Tolkien has merely become more explicit in allowing some of his characters (in this case, the wise among the Elves) a greater share or participation in his Augustinian insight into Ungoliant’s true provenance. So the mythical, pagan ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s origins in the early version may really need to remain as part of her identity or character, even if in the later version the “third-person omniscience” of the narrator is, first, made more explicit than it had been and, second, more of the characters themselves are allowed the benefit of sharing in this “omniscience.”