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Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, The

by J.R.R. Tolkien

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There’s a lot to complain about with literary criticism. The student’s natural suspicion that teachers are “pulling things out of the air” when they interpret a book is a direct result of irresponsible criticism. Students may not remember everything we teach them, but they remember ridiculous critical assessments, holding on to them as proof that thinking too hard about a book makes you draw poor conclusions.

It’s been almost eleven years since I read the critic who claimed that Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham was that author’s “most successful resolution of the theme of parental rejection.” But of course I remember. It’s fun to be reminded that academics who take themselves too seriously can wind up looking foolish.

Such anecdotes must not be used, however, as a basis for rejecting all literary criticism. We should remember the good as well as the bad. Have you ever read a critic who opened your eyes? If you have, you know how exciting good criticism can be.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” effortlessly demonstrates the value of responsible literary criticism. Though he can’t avoid all academic jargon and posturing, Tolkien gets to the heart of Beowulf. While other critics wish that Beowulf was something else—“a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica”—Tolkien appreciates the poem for what it is, and helps regular people appreciate it, too.

By the time we finish his essay, we understand the power of Tolkien’s conclusion: “At the beginning [of the poem], and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts . . . and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. Grendel is maddened by the sound of harps.”

by Jeff Baldwin