Beowulf and High Fantasy

Photo by Kevin Shirley
Photo by Kevin Shirley

The High Fantasy track welcomed Constance G.J. Wagner and Alicia Fox-Lenz to the Marriott for the second of two considerations of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem that had such a profound impact upon JRR Tolkien, and by extension contemporary fantasy. Wagner began the hour by trying to place the poem into a larger mythic context. Using the episode “Darmok” from Star Trek: The Next Generation as a reference, Wagner argued that Beowulf belongs in that category of metaphoric text that reflects the ways in which the human brain processes and understands reality. This metaphor (or mythic language) is essentially, universal. It’s only the details that differ from culture to culture. Beowulf’s story is the hero’s tale. Much like Achilles, the young Beowulf seeks just wealth but fame and glory worthy of song. Within the context of the hour, however, the focus was clearly on the ways in which Beowulf influenced and shaped the work of Tolkien.

Tolkien trained as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. In fact, his career as a scholar was defined by his discipline-shaping essay Beowulf, the Monsters, and the Critics. The lecture, though delivered some 80 years ago, still stands as fundamental reading in the field. More broadly, though, Tolkien was a student of Northern European, particularly Scandinavian, epic texts (Kalevala, Eddas, etc.). These texts directly fed into the creation of his mythology and languages. Parallels between Beowulf and specific characters in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit are there but basically, Tolkien’s conception of the people of Rohan embody the world of Anglo-Saxon England, the Old English culture that produced Beowulf, and its values. At moments in the text, Tolkien explicitly and directly drew from Beowulf as well as The Wanderer to put words in the mouths of the horse lords of Rohan.

Alicia Fox-Lenz focused her attention on a feminist analysis and discussion of the roles of women in Beowulf. She argues that the specific roles designated for women in Beowulf (eg, cup bearers) were adapted in Tolkien’s work and can most easily be seen in the character of Eowyn. She also believes his study of women in the poem had an impact upon not only his fiction but his relationships with women during his life. Fox-Lenz reminded the audience that the status of women in Anglo-Saxon culture was not necessarily what most expect. They enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy, power, and status. She argues that with Christianization came a change in the prerogatives of Anglo-Saxon women.

Of course, no discussion of Beowulf and high fantasy can be complete without mentioning dragons and treasure. Beowulf’s battle with the dragon is the last great event of his life. This dragon had been terrorizing his kingdom and stealing treasure to hoard it. Beowulf faced the dragon with only one of his thegns who survived to tell the tale of Beowulf’s triumph. Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit is based directly upon this Old English text.

Wagner pointed out that contemporary High Fantasy, with its many great authors, have drawn upon and been influenced by Tolkien. Tolkien, in turn, drew upon and was influenced by Beowulf. The large and engaged crowd certainly found the hour, and the many points raised by Wagner and Fox-Lenz very interesting.

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