Beowulf: Toni Morrison and the legacy of Tolkien
September 27, 2019 3:20 AM   Subscribe

'The Question of Race in Beowulf' by Dorothy Kim: J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal scholarship on Beowulf centers a white male gaze. Toni Morrison focused on Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures.

Dorothy Kim writes about the legacy of Tolkien's work on Beowulf as foundational to the study of the poem and how this contributed to black scholars being shut out of the field, including in his own day with Stuart Hall.

Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf.

Kim brings up Toni Morrison's essay Grendel and His Mother', from her 2019 collection The Source of Self-Regard as perhaps the first piece from a black intellectual to "talk back to" the early English literary corpus and white supremacist gatekeeping (though she also notes challenges from other POC scholars) and discusses her engagement with John Gardener's novel Grendel.

In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.
posted by ocular shenanigans (17 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Really interesting article, thanks for posting it!
posted by tobascodagama at 6:49 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I've read Gardner's Grendel, so I just poked around online and, according to Gardner, Grendel was basically supposed to be Sartre and it was all about how much existentialism sucks? Go figure. I do love an examination of a cultural touchstone and this article has several interesting takes, not the least being highlighting the white supremacy in Tolkien's work.

A little music to go along with the article (Youtube).
posted by malphigian at 7:49 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, this is timely for me; I read Beowulf for the first time this past weekend. It's been heavy on my mind these past few days, especially the idea of vengeance, and I've been eager to delve into how other interpretations and retellings center Grendel and his mother in particular. I have Headley's The Mere Wife and Gardner's Grendel both lined up to read soon.

Morrison's interpretation of the destruction of the sword is a really engaging way to read that moment, and it's dismaying to know how many critical voices have been discouraged from this field. Being a POC, I admit some of my trepidation about approaching Beowulf was the, uh, "image problem" referenced in the "Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies" link. Morrison's essay, and Kim's framing of it here, is really exciting.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 8:47 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

very interesting! I have a B.A. in Medieval History (focusing on lit) and love to get a chance to catch up on some new scholarship. I didn't know about this particular issue (exclusion and gatekeeping of POC academics) but can't say I am surprised...

I hope we will see more POC being welcomed into the fold, with new voices and fresh interpretations. surely we are all the richer for them?
posted by supermedusa at 8:48 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by hypnogogue at 8:56 AM on September 27, 2019 [20 favorites]

Very interesting. I need to think about this more, and to read more about all this in general. But what comes out of this for me is: There's been seen a Study of the Thing (Beowulf) itself and a Study of the Study of the Thing. Given that the Thing exists only as translations, and before that, an oral history... it appears that any Study of the Thing needs a Study of the Study to really understand what the Thing actually is. The Thing only really Is what we Study It as. Or something. Admittedly I'm not expert.

In a way, Beowulf doesn't really exist. Study of Beowulf makes it what it IS for us today. Studying Beowulf Changes It.

posted by SoberHighland at 10:46 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I still love this, too.
posted by thivaia at 10:49 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, Medieval Studies' loss is everyone else's gain with regard to Stuart Hall, but still—how do you say "Christ, what an asshole" in made-up elf language?
posted by wreckingball at 10:50 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Well, let's not forget this, which features on my trial playlist.
posted by praemunire at 11:04 AM on September 27, 2019

I mean, Medieval Studies' loss is everyone else's gain with regard to Stuart Hall, but still—how do you say "Christ, what an asshole" in made-up elf language?

Quenya, Sindarin or Nandorin?
posted by scalefree at 11:19 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I learned a lot from this, thank you for posting it.
posted by PMdixon at 5:02 PM on September 27, 2019

Despite his having been born in Bloemfontein, Tolkein was not really a "white South African" by any normal definition, Stuart Hall calling him "my ascetic South African language professor,” notwithstanding (he had good reason to be bitter).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 6:23 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for referencing Stuart Hall and, via Wikipedia, his wife Catherine; did not know from them and I'm glad to know now.
posted by huimangm at 2:13 AM on September 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

One quibble with an otherwise illuminating article: I don't think Tolkien's identification of Grendel with the "race of Cain" is explicitly about blackness; the "sons of Ham" aren't descendants of Cain in the Bible, and I believe Tolkien's use of the word "race" here refers to the race of monsters described in the opening of Beowulf.

But yeah, the European habit of inventing "races" of almost-human monsters with wicked yet inscrutable motivations is profoundly interwoven with European constructions of race.
posted by toastedcheese at 5:32 AM on September 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

John Gardner's Grendel is an amazing book. (And short.) Although the term "othering" was not around when Grendel was written, the story is basically about how Grendel was made into a monster by being othered by Hrothgar's people. I have no idea why I didn't think about racial othering (or Said's Orientalism, or Fanon, etc.) when I read the book. Plus, Grendel's curse has much in common with the Biblical curses and their use in justifying slavery, as well as Tolkien's vile comments about Ethiopians. Thanks, Toni Morrison.
posted by kozad at 8:12 AM on September 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

The layers of interpretation over an artifact like the text of a poem make things very messy. The gatekeeping and translator biases are recent enough to be clear, but who knows how much of the poem itself was modified before it was written down.

The Christianization of Scandinavia didn't start until the 8th century, and the oral origins of Beowulf may well predate that, so references to Cain would be coming from a modern (for the time) interpretation of the monster, from a time when monsters were very real things, and it was the invasion of Germans (carrying Latin text) that were pushing out the native ways of the Geats and Danes.

Of course, reading the poem as a metaphor is perfectly valid for any group that sees an image of their situation, but that's likely to be different from what it meant at the time of its creation.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:18 AM on September 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

> "Grendel was basically supposed to be Sartre and it was all about how much existentialism sucks?"

Well ... yes. There are huge sections of the book where Grendel is trying to figure out whether life has meaning or is nothing more than a series of pointless accidents, and ultimately coming to believe that it's the second one.

Like Grendel's conclusion that the whole of reality is like a senseless animal after being gored by the bull; or his argument with the dragon over whether the storyteller's stories have meaning or are merely attempts to impose arbitrary meaning on an ultimately meaningless world; or his decision that both killing and not killing Wealtheow are equally pointless actions; or his musings on the futility of religion after watching the ceremony. He dies believing life is an accident and cursing existence. The whole book can pretty easily be viewed as a long scream of rage by a character who decides that he has been born unwilling into an uncaring, arbitrary, and pointless universe.

It's a great book.
posted by kyrademon at 12:28 PM on September 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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