|Artist Anke Eissmann|
The “irrelevances” Beowulf critics point to are the three episodes in which Beowulf fights monsters. W.P. Kerr compares these episodes with the exploits of traditional heroes of tragedy saying, “there are other things in the lives of Hercules or Theseus besides the killing of the Hydra or of Procrustes” (10). The monster battles in Beowulf are certainly the bulk of the poem and some are even told twice (once by the poet narrator and then again in dialogue). And while it is true that little else happens to Beowulf besides these adventures, Tolkien argues against their belonging in “the outer edges.” He states, “the monsters…are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem” (19). And for Tolkien, Beowulf’s most significant underlying theme is the idea that “lif is læne” (life is loan) (19). Nothing illustrates this more than the three separate encounters with monsters, for each fight focuses on the tragedy of the life cycle and of human mortality.
In his first battle with Grendel, for instance, Beowulf is a man in his prime. He is not merely fit and able, but a man with extraordinary strength and seemingly endless endurance. Grendel knows immediately “he had never encountered, in any region/of this middle-earth, in any other man/a stronger hand grip” (Beowulf lines 751-3). Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother further proves he is an exceptionally strong youth. These scenes illustrate Beowulf’s strength as a man and highlights what Tolkien calls his “first achievement” (28). But they also hint at the tragedy of man because Beowulf fights not for his love of life, but for fame and to be remembered: the poet tells us “So must a man/ if he thinks at battle to gain any name/a long living fame, care nothing for his life” (Beowulf lines 1534-6). Beowulf fights because his life is loaned and he wants to be remembered after death.
Thanks to the Mythgard Institute and Verlyn Flieger's Tolkien's World of Middle-earth course for initiating these thoughts- in the form of an exam no less!