Friday, March 24, 2006

The Monster and the Critics

J. R. R. Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This nearly everyone knows. What many might not know is that Tolkien wrote a good many essays. Beyond being the author of two classic, 20th century novels (The Lord of the Rings actually being a novel published in three volumes, rather than three separate novels), Tolkien was also professor of Anglo-Saxon language (today better known as "Old English") at Pembroke College from 1925 to 1945 and professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College from 1945 to 1959, both colleges being at Oxford. Quite naturally, Tolkien wrote essays in his chosen fields.

Many of these essays were collected together and published in The Monster and the Critics in 1983, ten years after his death. The Monster and the Critics is a must read not only for Tolkien fans, but for anyone interested in the English language, English literature, and English mythology. Featured prominently at the beginning of the book is Tolkien's 1936 lecture "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics." With the exception of Lord of the Rings, this could well be Tolkien's greatest and most influential work. Prior to "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics", studies of Beowulf largely focused on the language of the poem and it was treated as a source of Anglo-Saxon history. At the time most scholars downplayed the poem's fantastic elements (such as Grendel and his Mother). Tolkien argued that these elements were pivotal to the poem and focused instead on the very poem itself. "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" is widely seen as a turning point in the study of the poem. Beyond redirecting scholars' focus on the poem from its linguistic elements to the actual content of the poem, Tolkien established that it was indeed one of the greatest works written in the English language.

Although the other essays in The Monster and the Critics were not quite as influential as "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics," they are well worth reading nonetheless. "On Translating Beowulf" was written for the 1940 edition of Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (J. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn) and focuses on the difficulty of translating the poem into modern English. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the English language. Like "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics," "On Fairy Stories" has also had a lasting influence. This essay is Toklien's defence of the fantasy genre. He argues that the genre allows readers to look at their own world from the point of view of other worlds. In this way the assumptions one had always held about the world can be challenged and changed by yet another point of view. Tolkien further argues that works of fantasy (or as he terms them, "fairy stories") can be enjoyed as escapist literature. Finally, he argues that they can serve as a source of emotional reassurance, their happy endings offering hope to the reader. First published in 1947, "On Fairy Stories " has been used ever since then as a defence of the fantasy genre. The essay also contains Tolkien's thoughts and philosophy regarding the genre, thus letting the reader look into the mind of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

"Secret Vices," a lecture which Tolkien gave in 1930 at an Esperanto meeting, is on the construction of languages. It deals with the relation of languages and mythology. It also offers insight to the workings of Tolkien's mind regarding his own contructed languages (Quenya and Sindarin). "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a study of that poem, written as an introduction to his own translation. "English and Welsh" was a valedictory speech that Tolkien gave to the University of Oxford in 1955, explaining the origins of the term "Welsh." It is important in giving us Tolkien's own thoughts on language and linguistics.

The Monster and the Critics brings together some of Tolkien's best and most important essays. They are well worth reading for any Tolkien fan, giving insight into the workings of Tolkien's mind and his thoughts on language, linguistics, mythology, and fantasy. They are also a must read for anyone interested in the English language and mythology. Beyond being one of the most influential authors of fictions in the 20th century, Tolkien was also one of the most influential scholars of English language and literature.

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