Tolkien, Beowulf, and inspiration

It’s been almost two months since J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday, but I think that Tolkien’s influence and presence in the fantasy world merit giving the whole year over to him. So does Suparna Banerjee, writing for TheHindu.com. But why am I posting an article about Tolkien’s contributions to the world of modern fantasy on a blog that’s all about Beowulf?

Well, Tolkien’s connection to the poem is one reason. He wrote vehemently for its serious consideration as a work of meaningful art in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (which you cna read in full here). He also translated the poem from Old English, though this wasn’t published until only a few years ago. But, the other reason to mention him is that Beowulf was one of the major taproot texts that influenced his writing for himself and his children.

If you’ve never heard of the term “taproot text” before, it refers to stories that existed well before literature was divided into the various genres we see on bookstore shelves now, but that have major elements of those genres.

So, things like Beowulf, “The Squire’s Tale”, Orlando Furioso, and The Faerie Queene are all taproot texts for fantasy fiction. And, although these taproot texts aren’t required reading for people who write in a genre that grew out of them, they can still bring a great deal of insight. These stories also bring things back to basics, which I think is what happened with Beowulf and Tolkien.

There were fantasy stories before Tolkien and well after Beowulf, after all (Edward Plunkett’s are among my favourites, especially “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth”). In fact, Banerjee outlines how Tolkien brought these various elements of fantasy together in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But I don’t think that he would have managed what he did without being as familiar with Beowulf as he was.

Which is why I think Beowulf is so important to come back to as a reader and translator myself.

Beowulf is unlike anything that’s coming out these days, and though it’s a bit dated in some ways, it brings a distant time and society to life. And it does so in a way that combines the historic and the fantastic to make an unforgettable story with a fully realized world. The Beowulf poet took what was mundane when it was being written (political marriages, battling, hall etiquette, the social hierarchy and its attendant wealth distribution system) and adds the fantastic while still being believable.

Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the dragon in Beowulf proves that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, but I would say that Beowulf‘s dragon (and the whole story) never feels as lofty and idealized as, say, the courtly romances of King Arthur. Beowulf is no perfumed prince living apart from everyone but wife and children, he is pure physicality present in the goings on of hall society and the personal and national battlefield alike, and that’s what makes it the story that, I think, inspired Tolkien the most.

What do you think of the idea of Beowulf as an inspiritional story? Let me know in the comments!

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