Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

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"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" was a 1936 lecture given by J. R. R. Tolkien on literary criticism on the Old English heroic epic poem Beowulf. It was first published in that year in Proceedings of the British Academy, and has since been reprinted in many collections, including in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, the 1983 collection of Tolkien's academic papers edited by Christopher Tolkien.

This paper is regarded as a formative work in modern Beowulf studies.[1] In this talk, Tolkien speaks against critics who play down the fantastic elements of the poem (such as Grendel and the dragon) in favour of using Beowulf solely as a source for Anglo-Saxon history. Tolkien argues that rather than being merely extraneous, these elements are key to the narrative and should be the focus of study. In doing so he drew attention to the previously neglected literary qualities of the poem and argued that it should be studied as a work of art, not just as a historical document. Later critics who agreed with Tolkien on this point have routinely cited him to defend their arguments.

The paper remains a common source for students and scholars studying Beowulf and was praised by Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his translation of the poem. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson call it in their Beowulf, An Edition (1998) "the most influential literary criticism of the poem ever written". The paper also sheds light on many of Tolkien's ideas about literature and is a source for those seeking to understand his writings.

The lecture is based on a longer lecture series, which exists in two manuscript versions published together as Beowulf and the Critics (2002), edited by Michael D. C. Drout.

Editions (incomplete list)[edit]

  • "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 (1936), 245–95.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics (1983). London: George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-809019-0
  • Nicholson, Lewis E. (Ed.) (1963). An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0-268-00006-9


  1. ^ Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, p. 14, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1