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Beowulf 10

  • Date Submitted: 06/19/2011 07:15 PM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 54.6 
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Tolkien, J. R. R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-295. Rpt. in World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale's Literary Criticism Series. Ed. Polly Vedder. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 June 2011.

[In the following excerpt from a 1936 British Academy lecture, Tolkien asserts that Beowulf, in addition to possessing historical and linguistic significance, is the most successful poem in Old English literature based upon its aesthetic qualities.]
I have read enough, I think, to venture the opinion that Beowulfiana is, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one. It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem. It has been said of Beowulf itself that its weakness lies in placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important on the outer edges. This is one of the opinions that I wish specially to consider. I think it profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it. Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art....
So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts (such as the date and identity of Hygelac) that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical senseā€”a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed...

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