J.R.R. Tolkien and the morality of monstrosity

J.R.R. Tolkien and the morality of monstrosity

By Christina Fawcett

PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2014

tolkien beowulf middle earth


Abstract: This thesis asserts that J.R.R. Tolkien recreates Beowulf for the twentieth century. His 1936 lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ sets the tone not only for twentieth century criticism of the text, but also Tolkien’s own fictional project: creating an imagined world in which ‘new Scripture and old tradition touched and ignited’. At the core of his analysis of Beowulf, and at the core of his own Middle-earth, are the monsters. He creates creatures that are an ignition of past and present, forming characters that defy allegory and simple moral categorization. To demonstrate the necessity of reading Tolkien’s Middle-earth through the lens of his 1936 lecture, I begin by examining the broad literary source material that Tolkien draws into his creative process. I assert that an understanding of the formation of monstrosity, from classical, Augustinian, late medieval, Renaissance, Restoration and Gothic sources, is fundamental to seeing the complexity, and thus the didactic element, of Tolkien’s monsters.

As a medieval scholar and professor, Tolkien’s focus on the educational potential of a text appears in his critical work and is enacted in his fiction. Tolkien takes on a mode of writing categorized as Wisdom Literature: he writes a series of texts that demonstrate the imperative lesson that ‘swa sceal man don’ (so shall man do) found in Beowulf. Tolkien’s fiction takes up this challenge, demonstrating for the reader what a hero must do when faced with the moral and physical challenge of the monster. Monsters are a primarily didactic tool, demonstrating vice and providing challenges for the hero to overcome. Monsters are at the core of Tolkien’s critical reading; it must be at the core of ours.

Introduction: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is Beowulf for the twentieth century. Tolkien fashioned a literary world in which elements of past and present ‘touched and ignited’. Feeling a lack of English myth, Tolkien invented his own mythology of Middle-earth by reaching into deep history and creating a world full of narrative dark matter: the ancient material that gives his twentieth century tales of Middle-earth weight cannot be seen directly, but adds ‘mass’ to the text. One way to analyse the constituents of this hidden ‘mass’ is through his monsters, which are at the centre both of his critical work on Beowulf and of his fictional texts. This thesis, then, begins by asking: what is Tolkien doing with his monsters? Does Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf – which recuperated the role of the monsters in the poem after many decades of critical neglect – help us to understand his fiction? This thesis will demonstrate that Tolkien’s monsters are, in fact, one of the chief means by which Tolkien recreates the historical nexus between deep history and modern belief. His monsters both recall Beowulf’s foes and invoke modern traumas, and so comprise the same cross-cultural historical intersection as the Old English monsters.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Glasgow

See also: Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

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