Homer vs. Beowulf: Tolkien and Nietzsche on the necessity of Monsters

“In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things–the folk-tale element–in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops–the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is hateful to Zeus and hte other gods: yet the Cyclops is himself god-begotten and under divine protection, and the fact that Odysseus has maimed him is a wrong which Poseidon is slow to forgive. But the gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God. Grendel and the dragon are constantly referred to in language which is meant to recall the powers of darkness with which Christian men felt themselves to be encompaeed. They are hte ‘inmates of Hell’, ‘adversaries of God’, ‘offspring of Cain’, ‘enemies of mankind’. Consequently, the matter of hte main story of Beowulf, monstrous as it is, is not so removed from common mediaeval experience as it seems to us to be from our own…. Grendel hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man. And so Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age of the Germans, nevertheless is almost a Christian knight.”

The Flame Imperishable

There is much in Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf that bears comparison with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, one instance of which is the role of foil that Homer’s epics play in their respective arguments. Tolkien quotes at length this passage from another scholar’s essay titled “Beowulf and the Heroic Age”:

In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things–the folk-tale element–in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops–the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is…

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