Wednesday 20 December 2023

JRR Tolkien, Beowulf; and the nature of this mortal life

From Beowulf and the Critics by JRR Tolkien, edited by Michael DC Drout, 2002. 

[Drout:] Tolkien located civilization in the masculine institutions of the Beowulf poet (in particular the bright hall), outside of which the chaos-monsters ruled. The primary theme of Beowulf, Tolkien wrote, is "that man, each man and all men and all their works shall die." Beowulf is not subject to reproach for fighting with the dragon because he would have died anyway, albeit from a different sling or arrow of fortune. In Beowulf and the Critics Tolkien quotes from both the Seafarer and Hrothgar's words to Beowulf [translations by JRRT]: 


I believe not that the joys of earth will abide everlasting. Ever and in all cases will one of three things trouble his heart before the appointed day: sickness, or age, or the foeman's sword from the doomed men hastening hence will his life ravish


Soon hereafter it will come to pass that sickness or sword shall rob thee of strength, or grasping fire, or heaving flood, or biting blade, or flying spear, or dreadful age; or the flash of eyes shall foul and darken. Swiftly will it come that thee, o knight, shall death conquer


Comment. Thus it was and thus it is still...

Albeit that for us, in The West, death has recently conquered and the joys of earth been extinguished more by sickness or "dreadful age"; than by sword, fire, flood, or spear. 

Yet, it can been seen that our barbarian ancestors implicitly knew there was more to the world than the bright hall of mortal life and the chaos-monsters that surrounded such brief and fragile joys. Because these men had an ethic of courage; a morality that regarded death in battle against monsters, in obedience to duty to one's lord, in defence of one's people - as better ways to die than sickness or age.

There was therefore an unrecognized, implicit knowledge that - in spite of their belief that the monsters would eventually win, and chaos would consume the world of men; this ought to be resisted and delayed. 

In other words; although neither consciously known nor named, there was assumed to be some higher perspective, some point-of-view which stood above the apparent division of reality into temporary mortal joy and enveloping eternal chaos... 

And it was this higher perspective from-which came duty and values: and virtues. 

Such Men of the Dark Ages had an existential overview of reality and the human condition which is almost completely lacking in the modern West. 

We are, instead, so consumed by shallow, short-termist hedonic (utilitarian) concerns and fears; that we have genuinely lost sight of the reality and inevitability that all our joys and sufferings, our triumphs and disasters, are all temporary; and man, each man and all men and all their works shall die.

Knowing such facts-of life; to such men as Beowulf and his contemporaries; Jesus Christ's offer of the chance for resurrected eternal life in heaven; and a permanent escape from the tyranny of death, was a no-brainer!

Of course such Men wanted what Jesus Christ offered! 

That they wanted it was clear, certain and obvious - the only question was whether or not this "Jesus" really could fulfil his promises. Once convinced Jesus could do what he said - their decision was made. 

Once a pagan Anglo Saxon had been convinced that following Jesus really was a way to eternal Heavenly life; there was no question but he would seize the offer in both hands, and do whatever was required to obtain it.

(And the same applied to the Vikings who came some centuries after.) 

By contrast, modern Men of The West are so pathetically bound up in their everyday machinations, their hope for little pleasures and fears of possible suffering; that they cannot even comprehend the nature of Life; and failing to comprehend the problem, are indifferent to the solution. 

Consumed by trivia and selfish-utilitarianism; Modern Man is not sufficiently interested in the eternal questions to make an effort to investigate the real nature and potential validity of what Jesus offers. 

Our existential and spiritual inferiority to the Anglo Saxon pagans is an objective fact. We are so very inferior to them, that we have not even acknowledged the unavoidable existence of the question of Life - leave aside making an effort to evaluate the rightness of possible answers.