Nominated for a Best Fan Writer Ditmar, 1998.
Thylacon II, Australian NatCon, 1998.
Tolkien's work makes for an interesting case study when examining the suggestion that "along with the wish to revere the medieval world goes an apparently irresistible urge towards satire, parody and other forms of comic subversion of it". This is due to the fact that he wrote both literary criticism of medieval texts and fictional `alternate medieval mythology', and used humour in both.
His reverence for medieval literature is obvious in his defence of Beowulf  in the influential essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". But with lines like "the Jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, fitting from one tum-tum tree to another", it is also often a very amusing essay. I think his creative work The Hobbit, is similarly both reverent and humorous. Although set in an `Otherwhere' rather than a realistic recreation of the medieval world, it has much in common with the Beowulf poem. It makes use of comic devices such as riddling, puns, parody, and satire.
However, although in both of these texts it is obvious that Tolkien reveres the early medieval poem of Beowulf, is it really the medieval world of the poem that he attempts to subvert with his humour? Is the humour linked to the medieval subject matter at all, or is its presence coincidental? In this essay I will explore Tolkien's use of the comic in the Beowulf essay and The Hobbit in order to try and discover whether it is the medieval world which is his target.
Reverence of the Medieval World
What is it that causes us to revere the medieval world in the first place, and inspires academics such as Tolkien to make a life long study of its artefacts? Umberto Eco has suggested that we expend so much energy re-creating the Middle Ages because our society is still firmly linked to many of the institutions, problems, and conceptions first developed in the medieval world.
Our return to the Middle Ages is a quest for our roots, and since we want to come back to the real roots, we are looking for "reliable Middle Ages," not for romance and fantasy, though frequently this wish is misunderstood and, moved by a vague impulse, we indulge in a sort of escapism à la Tolkien.I think this is rather unfair to Tolkien, because his reverence for the medieval world does not seem to arise from a search for a `reliable Middle Ages' at all. The medieval world he is interested in is the more abstract one to be found in medieval literature and medieval literary techniques. The roots he searches for are those of `romance and fantasy'. This is particularly obvious if we look at the issues he focuses on in his Beowulf criticism and how they intersect with his own fiction.
It is readily apparent that Tolkien thinks highly of Beowulf when he says "it cannot, I think, be disputed, that Beowulf is more beautiful, that each line is more significant ... than in the other long Old English poems". It is also obvious that he thinks the fantastic elements of the poem are potentially the most important feature - naming the essay as he does after the monsters. But the fact that he reveres the artefact does not, in itself, reveal his response to the medieval world, although it is through a love of medieval literature such as Beowulf that his interest in the medieval world is engaged.
I would argue that it seems Tolkien's main interest lay not in the `real' middle ages to be discovered through historical, archaeological, or anthropological examination and interpretation of medieval artefacts, but rather in the creative representation of the world in medieval literature. In other words, he was interested more in what a poet, such as the Beowulf poet, did with his material and his choice of words, and less in where the material came from or if it were historically `true'. Tolkien's interpretation of what the Beowulf poet achieved is given in these terms:
Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark of Geatland or Sweden about A.D. 500. But it is ... on a general view a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought. The whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet's contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but noble and fraught with deep significance - a past that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity of sorrow. This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground.Here then, in my opinion, is the medieval world Tolkien most `reveres': the illusory, sub-created world of the medieval poet. His fascination for it is evident not only in his Beowulf essay, but in his fiction. While Tolkien examines the sub-created world of the medieval poet in the essay, he attempts a similar sub-creation of an invented medieval world in The Hobbit. He does this by using real medieval tropes from sources such as Beowulf, and mythical history layered upon invented legend.
Having established both a `reverence' and a type of `medieval world', it is possible to attempt to answer the question about humour. Is Tolkien's use of humour linked to this reverence of the medieval world?
Tolkien's use of humour in the Beowulf essay is not linked to his discussion of the sub-creation of the medieval poet. It is, rather, directed at the critics who have tried to interpret the poem in terms of a `real' medieval world. However, before dismissing the idea of a link, I think it is worth looking at reverence expressed through emulation rather than critical appreciation. For the use of humour in The Hobbit is a different matter entirely.
The Hobbit and Beowulf
So far I have airily waved my hand and said "The Hobbit is largely inspired by Beowulf," without providing any evidence to support my claim. It is obviously not his only source of inspiration, but I think it is one of the more important sources. The similarities between the two texts have been noted by many critics, perhaps most thoroughly by Bonniejean Christensen in her essay "Tolkien's Creative Technique". After analysing the major congruencies and differences between the two texts she concludes:
Tolkien's literary work derives its scope from his medieval studies and its form from his theory of subcreation, the rearranging in the secondary world of the artist the components perceived in the primary world. He has rearranged material in Beowulf as he interprets it from his own scholarly and Christian perspective to create The Hobbit.Because the ties between the world of Beowulf and the world of The Hobbit are so strong, I feel it could be fruitful to consider the question of humour and reverence through a comparison of the two texts.
When we look at the forms of Beowulf and The Hobbit, it becomes apparent that whatever detail they may have in common they belong to different genres. Beowulf is "an heroic-elegiac poem" ending in "a dirge". Its feeling of solemnity is largely due to its use of "dyscatastrophe" - the sorrowful and tragic ending. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a mostly prose quest, with a happy ending - a "eucatastrophic" tale. As a consequence it is nowhere near as solemn as Beowulf. But are any of these differences between the two texts adopted by Tolkien in order to introduce comic subversion?
While it is possible that the change from the dyscatastrophic to the eucatastrophic ending could have been used as comic subversion, I am inclined to think it isn't. It may well be a `subversion', but not an especially comic one. A tale with a happy ending is not necessarily a `funny' tale. It is possible to imagine a retelling of Beowulf with a happy ending, that is not at all comic, rather like many of the Arthurian Romances. Likewise a version can be envisioned which is very humorous, but still with a tragic ending - laughter being used as "an affirmation of suffering". Both of these alternatives would certainly change the emphasis and themes of the world presented, but only the second could possibly be considered a `comic' subversion of the medieval world. But in this case the subversion would be due to the comic details of the narrative, rather than the ending. In the case of The Hobbit the humour is not a direct product of the `happy' ending (such as a punchline would produce), but rather due to the use of jokes, puns, riddles and such effects throughout the narrative.
The importance of the change of subject matter from an heroic epic with monsters at the centre, to a quest using elements of Faerie does seem more closely tied up with Tolkien's use of humour and reverence. Displacing the 'hero' from the centre of The Hobbit, and focussing instead upon the thief allows for the introduction of farcical moments that would have been inappropriate in an heroic epic, such as Bilbo loosing his buttons squeezing through the Goblin's back door (p. 82). By using a `middle class' rather than a noble protagonist, noble forms become a target of parody. And the monsters are no longer merely foes to be slaughtered, they are rather to be outwitted, usually through riddling.
Despite the presence of these types of humour, Tolkien has not produced an irreverent text: an outright parody or satire of Beowulf, or a farce. For although parody and riddling are central to the text of The Hobbit, as I will shortly demonstrate, it has a story, characterisation and themes of its own.
Riddling and Word Play
There is word play in both of the texts under discussion. While some of the subtleties of language of the Old English poem are no longer comprehensible to us, the name of the protagonist `beo-wulf' is still able to inform us of the nature of its bearer. In the same way, but more comically, Bilbo's name from the maternal line, `Took', is a perfect name for a thief!
This usage of words with double meanings illustrates the importance of the choice of words in literature which is attempting to create the illusion of a whole `other' world. Words have real power in these texts.
This is particularly apparent in Beowulf in the episode of Unferth's `flyting', or verbal testing, of the young warrior. Fortunately Beowulf can hold his own as well verbally as he can in battle:
Secge ic the to sothe, sunu Ecglafes,In The Hobbit, words become mightier than actions, as Bilbo's most significant confrontations with the foes Gollum and Smaug, take the form of trial by riddles. This riddling in place of battle has the potential to be a fundamental subversion of the heroic epic, and is, by its nature, comic. The reason for its use is the thematic shift between the two texts, from an examination of heroism to an interest in the common man's moral responsibility for the common good. Beowulf performs feats of battle, as is expected in his warrior society. Bilbo performs mental and moral feats, in keeping with the expectations of a modern, middle class society.
thæt næfre Grendel swa fela gryra gefremede,
atol æglæca ealdre thinum,
hyntho on Heorote, gif thin hige wære,
sefa swa searogrim, swa thu self talast. (590-594)
[`I tell you for a fact, son of Ecglaf, that the dreadful monster Grendel would never have committed so many terrible deeds against your chief, humiliation in Heorot, if your heart and mind were as warlike as you yourself claim.' (p. 62-63)]
The dragon, as `ultimate foe', has also changed in nature. The Beowulf dragon is clearly "not an evil creature like Grendel, but rather a destructive force of nature". Whereas Smaug is equally destructive, but also cunning, with a "wicked inside" (p.191). Not much seems to have been written about how the riddling affects the potency of Smaug as a dragon, but in my opinion it increases his dangerousness. What power does a mere ambulatory flamethrower have to terrify, in comparison to a powerful personality driven by an evil heart and the ability to breath fire? For all that The Hobbit is considered a children's book, I feel that in Smaug Tolkien has created one of the most charmingly sinister bad guys I've ever met. And all through the addition of riddle-talk to the prototypes of Fáfnir and Beowulf's Bane. He has done justice to his "profound desire" for dragons.
Riddling and wordplay have an effect on the atmosphere and thematic emphasis of the novel but are not particularly subversive. It is true that the subversion of the battle of swords into the battle of wits is comic, but 'battle' is still taken seriously, even if its nature has changed. A real battle is even the climax of the novel. The use of riddle battles is more like an 'in-joke', for the enjoyment of those who know the hero epic genre, than a fundamental subversion of the medieval heroic tradition. The really significant comic subversion, in relation to the sub-created medieval world, occurs through Tolkien's use of parody.
Tolkien deliberately parodies several elements of Beowulf, including the `historical asides', the commenting narrator, some elements of the monsters, the expectation of an heroic protagonist, and the use of formal language.
The story of Beowulf fighting the monsters is frequently interrupted with asides containing short histories of other peoples, usually involving wars or royal behaviour. Two examples are: the inclusion of the ancient historical tale of the fall of Finnsburh (1068-1159), and the `drinking gossip' about Offa's queen (1931-1957). These asides have caused much debate amongst the critics, some of whom have claimed they are more important that the Beowulf story. That, in fact, the "irrelevancies [are] in the centre and serious things on the outer edges". This is an assertion that Tolkien debates in his Beowulf essay, arguing that the asides can be read as having moral significance for the main protagonists, as well as aiding in the creation of texture and verisimilitude in the world of the poem.
Tolkien also uses the technique of asides which include `ancient' history in The Hobbit, and they too aid in creating a feeling of `reality' by giving the work texture. But they are often very funny, or even silly, and arguably irrelevancies. In light of the `irrelevancy' debate active in Beowulf criticism, Tolkien's asides in The Hobbit can be seen as a parody of the Beowulf poet's technique. The most obvious example of this is the tale of Golfimbul.
If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realise that this is only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took's great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge ... that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins ... in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul's head clean off ... It sailed a hundred yards ... and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented at the same time. (p.24)A guiding narrator is also present in both The Hobbit, as can be seen in the quote above, and in Beowulf. In Beowulf the narratorial intrusions often "occur in the digressions but are actually comments on the main story", but they are also present in the main narrative as evaluative statements. In one such example the narrator comments on the virtues of having a Christian heart (170-188). Another is the approving statement about Wiglaf's actions during Beowulf's final battle: "Swylc sceolde secg wesan/ thegn æt thearfe!" (2708-2709). ["That is what a man should be, a thane in time of need!" (p. 162-163)]. This kind of narratorial intrusion is present in order to underline important themes.
The Hobbit narrator has quite a different role. Having `poetical exaggeration' pointed out to us, as The Hobbit's narrator does, hardly counts as a commentary on the main story. And as a reader, I find myself in disagreement with many of The Hobbit narrator's remarks. For instance, I've never thought the idea of being stuck in a tree, surrounded by wolves (or wargs) was very funny - even at a distance - as the narrator suggests in `Out of the Frying-pan into the Fire' (p. 90). However the placement of this suggestion has the effect of reducing the scaryness of the scene. Comic subversion of the dangerous elements of the story seems to be this narrator's primary function - and a useful function it is in a tale for children. However, it effectively disrupts Tolkien's goal of sub-creation, by reminding us that we are involved in reading an artificial construct, and so the narrator can also be seen as a comic subversion of this `medieval' world.
The presence of monsters in The Hobbit can certainly be seen as a tribute to Beowulf - particularly Smaug. However, even some of the monsters are subject to this comic deflation. The first we encounter are the three trolls, or more appropriately, the three stooges. `Yer can't expect folk to stop here for ever just to be et by you and Bert. You've et a village and a half between yer, since we come down from the mountains' (p. 37), says William in a `cockney' accent. The three of them very shortly after fall into a slapstick routine of kicking, thumping and rolling on the ground.
Grendel is also a man-eater, but what a difference in representation:
Him Grendel wearth,Grendel is no stooge to be defeated by a verbal trick. He is an abominable `boundary stalker' who "devastate[s] the social fabric of the Danish ... court" when he attacks the premier cultural artefact, the mead hall Heorot.
mærum maguthegne, to muthbonan,
leofes mannes lic eall forswealg. (2078-2080)
[Grendel destroyed the famous young thane with his mouth, swallowing the entire body of the beloved man. (p. 132-133)]
Why this astonishing difference in treatment? I think it is Tolkien's way of easing us into this strange new world. We are rather like Bilbo, in that we are from a place without monsters.
Bilbo's attempt at the [troll's] purse acknowledges that beings who for him belong in tales are as real as himself, though he is ignorant of important facts about them; the reality of trolls implies that other matters of legend he has yet to meet, such as elves, goblins, and dragons, will prove as real.As Bilbo's resistance to the idea of monsters is broken down, so too is our resistance to the idea of such a world. By making our first encounter with monsters comic, we do not have to take it all seriously right from the start. By the time we reach Gollum and Smaug, we are ready for `real' monsters, although even with these the comic is firmly attached in the form of riddling. Tolkien is using humour to deliberately subvert the monstrousness of the Beowulf monsters that are his prototypes, in order to make his own world more accessible to a modern audience. He builds a world in which we learn the rules as Bilbo learns them. Much of the humour arises from rules of Middle Earth being rather different from those we expect. The 'breaking' of rules to establish new ones gels well with theory defining the comic and the tragic:
Every tragic or dramatic text not only tells the story of a violation of a rule, it restates the rule. ... In comedy, ... the broken frame must be presupposed but never spelled out.Tolkien is attempting something very interesting in The Hobbit. He is breaking the 'rules' of the heroic epic, thus producing a comic subversion. And he is stating some new rules of heroism, rules to be ultimately used for tragic effect. The tragic climax is reached with the Battle of Five Armies, which is very much in the tradition of the heroic epic. The heroes of it are nothing like traditional 'heroes'. Yet we take them seriously because of the groundwork Tolkien has laid. This breaking and re-stating of rules is most apparent when Bilbo first gains some credibility as a 'hero' by defeating Gollum. The victory is through trickery and luck rather than noble heroism. "Bilbo rejoins his companions, secretly carrying Gollum's magic ring, [after which] their adventures come more and more to belong to an archaic world". We have been eased into the world with comedy, and now solomness is allowed a place once more. By this point Tolkien has either succeeded or failed in enabling our suspension of disbelief, and so the initial reason for the comic subversion becomes less important.
However there is another reason for comic subversion, which is tied in with Tolkien's major theme. The subversion of the traditional heroic ideal in favour of the middle class hero. We no longer have a protagonist with a nobly heroic agenda, we have an amateur thief whose adventure begins as "little more than a lark with venal motives". Tolkien makes much of the incongruity of such a protagonist. He may look like a child, and in some cases be treated as inferior, but deep down inside he has as much iron as Beowulf, and considerably more ingenuity. He is not unlike Twain's Connecticut Yankee in this regard. "He is not limited to the viewpoints of an heroic age ... [and] can respond to its difficulties in unexpected ways disconcerting to its natives."
The motivations of the main character are subverted by humour. Bilbo is derided by many of the other characters, for example when one of the dwarves says he "looks more like a grocer than a burglar" (p. 24). The reason given within the text for the incongruity of choosing such a participant for a quest is that Gandalf couldn't find:
`a mighty Warrior, [or] even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. ... That is why I settled on burglary.' (p. 27)A common theory is that medieval texts with noble heroes were composed primarily for noble audiences. Tolkien is not writing for a noble audience, he is writing for the modern middle class. For this reason I believe he has invented the hobbit, as a kind of `middle class' hero. And ennobling the middle class hero will only work through devaluing the nobly born heroes.
If the first motive for comic subversion was accessibility, the second is to move ideas of nobleness from the nobility to the middle class. Evidence which indicates that Tolkien's subversion of the norms of Beowulf's medieval world is a deliberate `denoblifying', is the continual deflation of formal speech. The use of formal speech cannot be missed in Beowulf, where almost every utterance made by the characters uses it:
`We synt gumcynnes Geata leodeThe first deflation of a formal speaker in The Hobbit happens in the very first chapter, when Bilbo interrupts Thorin at the `Unexpected Party', with a shriek like "the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel" (p. 23). This is not an isolated event. It is also present at the climax of the story:
ond Higelaces heorthgeneatas.
Habbath we to thæm mæran micel ærende,
Deniga frean' (260-261, 270-271)
[`We are men of the Geatish people and the companions of Hygelac's hearth. ... We have important business with the famous lord of the Danes.' (p. 46-47)]
`We are sent from Dain son of Nain,' they said when questioned. `We are hastening to our kinsmen in the Mountain, since we learn that the kingdom of old is renewed.' ... This, of course, [is] the polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions. (p. 235)That `formal' speech is used, and then stripped of its authority with the sting in the tail, also strips the authority from those characters who use it most - the leaders and kings. And this relates directly to the novel's major themes. Beowulf can be read as an examination of both heroism and kingship, while The Hobbit focuses on the power of the common man and "renunciation".
The main characters of Beowulf are all either kings or heroes or both. In the first half we are shown an unheroic, but stable and generous king in Hrothgar. In the second we see Beowulf as a king still trying to be a hero, and more interested in taking treasure than in awarding it. But his tragedy is greater than one man's greed or misjudgment.
This theme is the fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society. The hero follows a code that exalts indomitable will and valour in the individual, but society requires a king who acts for the common good, not for his own glory.Beowulf's misjudgment compounded with his solitude, his lack of children or loyal men-at-arms, "will have terrible consequences for the dynastic history that must resume after his death." For the violent wars of the secondary tales will remain long after Beowulf is gone, especially with the throne in uncertain hands such as Wiglaf's. But it is societal conflict manifested in his personal conflict between his duties and desires that sees Beowulf undertake the futile fight.
The tragedy of Beowulf unfolds precisely around the transformation of Beowulf the man ... into Beowulf the monster - the fierce and implacable warrior who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of fame and wealth.The theme of the destructiveness of greed is also central to The Hobbit. But rather than having a dichotomy where one man is destroyed by conflicting social forces, we have the testing of two very different men. One is the `ordinary' man - Bilbo, and the other is the King Under the Mountain - Thorin. No longer is heroism a major issue, but the role of the individual's actions for the common good becomes the linchpin of the eucatastrophic ending.
"Like the greedy dragon whose role as `King Under the Mountain' Thorin assumes after his death, he refuses to share the hoard with ... even his own comrade Bilbo." Thus the king, who should know to respect his public role and duty to the common good, is once more doomed through his personal greed, this time with hardly even enough death-bed regret to redeem him.
Bilbo as a common man has no inherited public role to live up to. His triumph is that he learns to respect the common good anyway. He began the quest in search of achieving wealth by theft. He finished it by renouncing treasure, and paying for hospitality he stole from the Faery King. His motive when he renounces his claim to wealth, is to try and avoid war and many deaths of his fellow 'common men'. Ironically, it is not Bilbo's sacrifice which saves the day, but the advance of the Goblin army, the threat of which acts as a unifying force.
That Bilbo's renunciation failed to bring about the common good is not important thematically. It is the action of personal renunciation that makes him the hero of his story rather than the victim of it.
It is through multiple subversions of the Beowulf poet's sub-created world that this escape from tragedy can occur. From noble to middle class, from wars to riddle battles, from physical prowess to mental acuity, from conflicting social expectations to voluntary renunciation. As I have shown in this essay, all of these subversions have been achieved through the use of humour, particularly through riddling and word play, parody, irony and farce.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien's reverence of the sub-created medieval world is obvious through his usage of its tropes, and expectations. His humour is directly linked to a subversion of that world, for two main reasons. First, to make the sub-created medieval world more accessible to the modern audience through parodies of elements found in Beowulf. Second, to alter the themes so that they better suit a modern audience, moving the focus from the nobly heroic to the moral actions of the middle class.
I think there is perhaps one other reason for Tolkien's use of comic subversion of the medieval. It is called Smaug, the chiefest and wittiest of calamities. The comic 'subversion' of the Beowulf dragon to create Smaug, with his wicked heart, magnetic personality, and sly speech, surely fulfils Tolkien's deep `desire' for dragons and other creatures of fantasy in a way no 'straight' dragon ever could.
In conclusion, our case study of Tolkien shows that he does use comic subversion of the medieval world in his own fiction, but not in his critical writing. We also know that it is not because he is afraid of using humour in critical essays that he refrains - he uses it in other contexts. There is, therefore, some support for the suggestion that reverence of the medieval world tends to foster an urge towards comic subversion of it. But the results are hardly conclusive. If there is such an urge, it is apparently not always "irresistable".
Why we respond so well to humour based on medieval tropes is another question entirely. If our return to the Middle Ages really is a quest for our roots, as Umberto Eco suggests, perhaps we use humour as a form of protection. To keep intact our self identity in the face of the unknowable, and yet familiar, 'other'.
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Last Updated 10-Aug-2001.
Copyright © 1998 by Cathy Cupitt.