By Michael D. C. Drout
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol.22 No. 1 (1996)
Introduction: J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is universally regarded as the most important critical discussion of Beowulf in the twentieth century. An informal survey of medieval literature classes I have taught or taken suggests that about one third of the students who enroll in such classes do so because they were attracted to medieval literature by Tolkien’s fantasy writings. Thus Tolkien, unlike other influential critics or popular fantasy writers, shapes perception of the Middle Ages from both the top down and the bottom up.
Tolkien’s ideological positions in his works include reverence for what T. A. Shippey calls “the true tradition” of medieval literature and a disdain for authors (like Wagner) who Tolkien thought had corrupted that tradition (220). Traditions for Tolkien were inheritances repeated unchanged across many generations, passed from father to son. Thus traditions are a form of what I call “masculine reproduction,” the replication of identities from one man to another without the visible influence of women. Women are almost entirely absent from The Lord of theRings,and “The Monsters and the Critics” fails to even mention Grendel’s mother.
This attitude towards women in Tolkien’s work is generated, I believe, from anxieties intrinsic to masculine reproduction. Such reproduction does, after all, rely upon the real reproduction of bodies performed by men andwomen. But masculine reproduction valorizes exchanges of culture and identity between men alone. The more such exchanges are valorized, the smaller the place for women, and when women are excluded from masculine institutions, these institutions lose a measure of control over their own reproduction.