Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) 101-115
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Beowulf as Fairy-story:
Enchanting the Elegiac in The Two Towers
Richard W. Fehrenbacher
Though scholars have long noted that the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien's Rohan and Anglo-Saxon England are pretty much identical, they have until recently hesitated to examine other parallels between the fictional and historical cultures—or for that matter, between The Lord of the Rings and Anglo-Saxon literature.1 I suspect this reluctance stems at least partly from Tolkien's own claim that his use of the Anglo-Saxon language in The Two Towers did "not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English otherwise, in culture or art, in weapons or modes of warfare, except in a general way"2 (RK, VI, Appendix F, 414), and it is true that even a less-than-rigorous reading of the The Lord of the Rings will reveal any number of anachronisms and inconsistencies that defeat easy allegorical translations of Third Age Rohan into, say, eighth-century Mercia. However, as Tom Shippey has noted in his J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, upon more careful examination Tolkien's "merely" linguistic appropriation of Anglo-Saxon England in The Lord of the Rings appears to "[run] very deep" (91).
Shippey argues that the Rohirrim present a specific "image of Englishness—Old English, of course"(91) and that this "Old Englishness" stems from not just a linguistic but also a literary source: "the underlying model for much of what [The Riders of Rohan] do and how they behave is furthermore perfectly obviously the Old English epic of Beowulf"(94). I would like to extend Shippey's examination of the similarities between The Two Towers and Beowulf—which he mostly limits to a convincing demonstration of the close parallels between the treatment of the fragmented Fellowship upon its arrival at Edoras and Beowulf's at Heorot.3 I'd suggest that the Rohan episode's parallels with Beowulf run even deeper; that in fact the Fellowship and Beowulf step into strikingly similar situations. In both, an elderly king barely manages a precarious grip upon his throne; in both, the king is possessed of a nephew perceived (at least by some) as treacherous and potentially usurping; in both, a close female relative of the king's is married to a neighboring lord; in both, the kingdom's borders are troubled by threats of war the king cannot adequately address.
These similarities have been mostly overlooked due to some equally striking differences. For example, unlike Beowulf's Denmark, in Tolkien's Rohan there lurk no monsters. Though such creatures are not far to seek [End Page 101] in most of Middle-earth, no grimma gæst stalks the moors surrounding Meduseld. Since Grendel, his mother and the dragon serve as Beowulf's primary antagonists and their attacks provide most of the narrative impetus for Beowulf, their absence from the Riddermark tends, I think, to obscure the similarities between the texts. Of course, another significant difference between the works is how these initially unpromising situations resolve themselves. For Beowulf's Danes, doom beckons. The Geatish hero's epic fortitudo cannot save Hrothgar from senescence or Heorot from flames, nor can it prevent the "ambiguous"4 Hrothulf from ascending (perhaps illegitimately) to the Danish throne or the peace woven by Freawaru's marriage from unraveling. Indeed, Tolkien saw Beowulf as "an heroic-elegiac poem . . . all its first 3,136 lines are a prelude to a dirge" (MC 31). In the Lord of the Rings, however, the similarly unpromising state of Rohan is somehow redeemed. The Fellowship rescues Théoden from dotage and reconciles him to his nephew Éomer, Saruman's encroaching orcs are defeated, and Éowyn (after escaping the attentions of Gríma) marries Faramir in a nuptial that cements the previously wary alliance of Gondor and Rohan.
Of course, any attempt to address the similarities between Beowulf and The Two Towers should probably attempt to account for the differences, and I think that both can best be understood...