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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Historical Tidbit: How J.R.R. Tolkien Made Beowulf Famous

Most of us read Beowulf in school, or at least read excerpts and talked about it, right? There are also plenty of film versions of the story available these days.

The story of Beowulf and Grendel is important for many reasons. It represents the first story, mostly passed down through oral tradition, that was also written down. It's also the oldest known fiction written in English. Volumes have been written about this legend and it's importance to our culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, and literature in general.

Did you know...that it was J.R.R. Tolkien that brought Beowulf to the world's attention?

It's true. Before Tolkien's time, the story of Beowulf and Grendel was very obscure, and used solely as a historical document, rather than a literary pillar or a work of art. No one read it in school back then. No one knew what it was. No one had heard the tale. Tolkien came across it in his research and understood it's import. He brought it to the attention of the Big Wigs at Oxford, begging them to pay attention. 

J.R.R. Tolkien (Source)
He wrote some essays and later a famous lecture known as Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, in which he begged his colleagues not to dismiss the fantastical elements of Beowulf. He asked them to look at it as a work of art and a cornerstone in the development of many literary forms, including folklore, narrative, and fantasy. His paper became known as the formative work in  Beowulf studies. (Source)

Eventually, his efforts brought the story to the world. He helped people understand that this story was not getting the attention it deserved. That it was a massively important part of our history, and especially in the development of our literature. 

Without Tolkien, most of us today probably wouldn't know a thing about the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf, and his battle against the monster Grendel. The text would have remained obscure, as many similar texts do that never see the recognition they deserve.

I gotta say, I've always been impressed with Mr. Tolkien, but after hearing Orson Scott Card tell this story at the LTUE conference, I'm thinking J.R.R. Tolkien was foreordained before birth to bring amazing stories to the world. And boy did he ever succeed!

What do you think of this? How different would the world be without Tolkien's contributions?


  1. Well, no I didn't know this! So thank you Mr. Tolkien! And thank you for this little tidbit!

  2. Wow, I knew Tolkien studied Beowulf for a period of time, but I didn't know this! Amazing. I've never read Beowulf (sadly, they don't teach it at my school), but I know the general story. And I knew that it was ancient. Thank you for this post! Now I know why it's so popular: because the creator of the LotR endorsed it! :D

  3. It's hard to believe people didn't realize how important it is. That shows what a visionary Tolkien was.