The Fingerprint of the Master - Beowulf and the Critics
By Jason Clarke
Tolkien scholars and fans alike will have a new, never-before-published book to sink their teeth into in the coming year. Titled Beowulf and the Critics, the book is a collection of writings by Tolkien that served as the basis for his seminal 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."
"The Monsters and the Critics" is well-known to students of Beowulf. But many Tolkien fans are unaware of the importance of Tolkien's work on the poem, and on his scholarly pursuits as a whole. Tolkien was a professor of English at Oxford long before he was a successful author, and Beowulf and the Critics highlights some of Tolkien's most significant academic work.
The new book is being compiled and edited by Michael Drout, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. In 1996, while Drout was completing his dissertation on tradition and inheritance in Anglo-Saxon texts, he visited Bodleian Library at Oxford to examine Tolkien's notes for "The Monsters and the Critics." To his surprise, at the bottom of the box of Tolkien's writing, he found not a few pages of notes but over 170 folios (with Tolkien's tendency to write only on the recto for each piece, about 200 pages) of unpublished material on Beowulf. Drout quickly realized he had found something special, and moved to have copies made of the notes.
"I had to get in touch with the Tolkien estate," Drout said in a phone interview. "They were totally helpful the whole way through. I think the reason no one has noticed this material before is because it wasn't until 1986 that Christopher Tolkien donated it to the Bodleian."
The main content of Beowulf and the Critics will consist of the two manuscripts that Tolkien wrote prior to "The Monsters and the Critics." Manuscript A consists of 71 folios, while B is made from 107 folios; but what Tolkien ultimately published in "The Monsters and the Critics" is much shorter than either manuscript. Drout noted that, "The second book [Manuscript B] is a revision of the first, but is very different, and 'The Monsters and the Critics' is different from either." Drout said that the manuscripts are extensively annotated by Tolkien himself, and also added that both manuscripts are decaying, and are very hard to read already - though that isn't due only to the decay.
"His handwriting is very difficult, mostly because he was writing this for himself; he couldn't afford to pay a typist. It's really hard to read, and as the thing goes on, it appears he would write faster and faster," Drout said.
The published book will include both Tolkien's annotations as well as annotations by Drout himself, and will feature an introduction by Drout. He emphasized the fact that Beowulf and the Critics will hold an interest for the Tolkien fan as well as the scholar of Beowulf.
"It's a lot more 'readable' compared to most academic texts," Drout said. "You can read this and it will make sense; it was meant as a lecture for undergraduates. It can also serve as a good entry point into Tolkien scholarship, especially because it's been annotated. Once you've finished reading all of Tolkien's fiction, 'what do I read now?' is a common problem for Tolkien fans. The next-best things to Tolkien are texts like Beowulf, or [the Scandinavian poem] Rolf's Saga. The value of this book is in seeing what he was reading, what he thought was worth talking about."
How do the manuscripts differ from the published version of "The Monsters and the Critics"? "Tolkien was much more judicious in published version," Drout said. "[In the original manuscript] he says flat-out that Beowulf was written in 750. In "The Monsters and the Critics," he also backs off his criticism of other scholars. In the manuscripts, he offers an interesting analysis of 'Hrothgar's sermon' [a controversial passage in Beowulf]. The manuscripts really clear up much of what Tolkien said in "The Monsters and the Critics."' Drout likened the enigmatic references Tolkien makes in "The Monsters and the Critics" to the poems and stories of ancient Middle-earth that are scattered throughout The Lord of the Rings; the two manuscripts, he said, were like reading The Silmarillion and discovering what lay behind all the obscure references.
Drout said that he had noticed a revival of interest in medieval literature in recent years. "But I don't know what the cause of it is. My medieval Anglo-Saxon classes have been full. The students find that it's really wonderful literature; hopefully the films will add to that rather than harm it." On the upcoming films, Drout said that the trailer "looked surprisingly good" but added cautiously that he was "hoping not to be disappointed."
Drout added one of the best things about looking at the manuscripts was finding a small blot of ink that Tolkien had wiped away, leaving a fingerprint. "That was the moment in the Bodleian when I suddenly realized how closely I was working with an author who is my intellectual hero: his fingerprint was right there, on the paper I was copying."
At press time the book's due date was uncertain, but it should be published within a year, Drout said.