J.R.R. Tolkien was a world renowned Anglo-Saxon and Medieval poetry scholar, but he is generally remembered for his popular novel The Hobbit and even more memorable The Lord of the Rings. Despite being literary masterpieces, these compositions share a connection between his scholarly works on English poetry. Such Anglo-Saxon and Medieval poems within Tolkien’s studies that pertain to his fictional creations were the poem Beowulf and the Middle Age Poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He published definitive scholarly writings on each of theses poems which displayed new perspectives on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Tolkien employs theses poems to create a world similar to Anglo-Saxon times and his novels allow the readers to view a period not only of violence and war, but also of a society that demonstrates hope and morals. Tolkien’s understanding and interpretation of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight create an underlining story that reveals several parallels with his famous masterpieces.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Tolkien’s father was a wealthy banker whose job required him to relocate to Bloemfontein, South Africa, where Tolkien was born. While in Africa, Arthur Tolkien contracted an illness and never recovered, dying when Tolkien was only four years old. Later in 1904, his mother died and he was brought up by a monk in the Catholic Church until he received a scholarship at the age of nineteen to attend Oxford University. Tolkien entered the British army during World War I and came to realize that the evils in the world were a result of machines, the destruction of a nature, and a human desire to dominate others. After the war he returned to Oxford and was named Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the university, which was the highest position in Anglo-Saxon studies. At Oxford, he addressed his first famous speech on Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics, which established his fame throughout the scholarly world.
Tolkien’s understandings of Anglo-Saxon literature and his experiences in World War I greatly motivated him to write The Hobbit. War and destruction play an essential part in The Lord of the Rings and the Battle of the Five Armies, in The Hobbit, serves as a representation of the battles in the Great War. Tolkien incorporates many of his wartime encounters in The Hobbit, but he also gathers ideas from Beowulf, and blends modern views on war with Anglo-Saxon myth. Although Tolkien tries to mix these two different time periods into his novel in order to create new ideas, he does seem to take a plot directly from Beowulf. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins accompanies the dwarf king, Thorin, who leads a party in search of treasure and Bilbo ends up discovering the treasure under a mountain. A dragon, called Smaug, sleeps on top of the treasure while Bilbo, in order to show his worthiness to king Thorin, steals a golden cup. “Above him [Bilbo] the sleeping dragon lay, a dire menace even in his sleep. He grasped a great two-handed cup, as heavy as he could carry, and cast one fearful eye upwards. Smaug stirred a wing, opened a claw, the rumble of his snoring changed its note”. The similarity to Beowulf’s storyline of a dragon guarding a treasure and being awoke by a thief, displays an unmistakable connection to Tolkien’s studies on Anglo-Saxon literature.
Religious influence and morality surround many of the themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien was fostered by a Catholic monk after his parents died. Aragon and Gollem represent each side of morality in Anglo-Saxon times and both characters parallel Beowulf and Grendel in Beowulf. Aragon demonstrates the strength and political skills of Beowulf and he becomes a king just like Beowulf, while Gollem and Grendel might be considered equals because both are outcasts and society has deemed them horrible monsters. Tolkien means to parallel theses characters in The Lord of the Rings so that the readers think about the morality of the situation, and he allows for redemption for Gollem which make him a dynamic character unlike Grendel who is forever an evil being intent on killing. “This grim spirit was called Grendel, mighty stalker of the marches, who held the moors and fens; this miserable man lived for a time in the land of giants, after the Creator had condemned him among Cain’s race-when he killed Abel the eternal Lord avenged that death”. Tolkien argues in his speech The Monsters and The Critics that “The focus on Grendel is too much, the theme of this poem should be criticized on how historically, evil, in its purest form, is defeated at the hands of divine help”. Tolkien means to say the Grendel was slain with the help of God and also that Beowulf was inspired by a greater being. Although Aragon and Gollem never exchange blows, each undergoes a moral change which suggests that God inspires both of them and while Aragon’s change is not as revealing as Gollem’s is; Aragon does transform into the ultimate hero similar to Beowulf.
Gollem and Aragon represent a moral metamorphosis throughout the trilogy; however, Gollem’s split personalities show heavy contrast between good and evil. Gollem demonstrates the epitome of an extreme moral change during his journey to Mt. Doom with Frodo and Sam. He transforms from being a character that hates everything except his “precious” into an innocent guide that serves Frodo throughout their journey to Mt. Doom and back into a greedy monster that ultimately sacrifices himself for Frodo’s sake. Gollem even undergoes a physical change during the novel, where before his change of heart; he was a pale, hideous monster and afterwards, he begins to appear like a hobbit. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings also incorporates immorality in society by placing a powerful Ring to rule all others. The Ring is a prime example of moral corruption in The Lord of the Rings, because it leads Gollem to murder for it and even Frodo succumbs to the power of the ring when he has a chance to destroy it.
In Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, materialism acts as a constant theme and Tolkien uses the vices of materials as the greatest downfall to mankind. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Green Knight rides into Camelot and challenges King Arthur to strike him, but if he should still live then a year later, the Green Knight would be allowed to strike Arthur with the same force. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge in order to spare the King should he not kill the Green Knight. “‘Would you, worthy lord,’ said Gawain to the king ‘Bid me step from this bench and stand by you there, So that I void of villainy might vacate this table, And if my liege lady would allow my idea, I would come to your counsel before your great court”. Sir Gawain strikes the Green Knight, but his body vanishes after being hit and the vow that he will come for Sir Gawain in a year echoes throughout the castle. Sir Gawain decides to venture out in the world to find the Green Knight and during his journeys he discovers a castle and is allowed to stay under the agreement that each will swap what he has earn during the day. The master hunts for two days while Sir Gawain is tempted by the mistresses in the castle. Sir Gawain exchanges two kisses for the animals which the master hunts; however, on the third day, the master’s mistress offers Gawain a green girdle which makes the wearer untouchable. The green girdle symbolizes materialism in society and the selfishness of humans when one possesses a power object. The Ring and the girdle have similar qualities that Tolkien employs in his masterpiece. Sir Gawain realizes that this girdle has the power to save him from the Green Knight and he decides to keep the girdle instead of exchanging it with the master. The master exposes the truth that Sir Gawain withheld the girdle, but the master is in fact the Green Knight and Sir Gawain, having learned the valuable moral of trustworthiness, is saved.
Tolkien creates a similar character to Sir Gawain with Frodo and he incorporates the flaws and personality of Sir Gawain into Frodo. Frodo’s decision to take the Ring to its destruction mirrors Sir Gawain’s own sacrifice to save King Arthur. The decision of Frodo displays no hint toward personal glory or a heroic gesture, yet he feels a strong inclination to destroy the Ring because he believes it is his duty. Both Frodo and Sir Gawain seem to be insignificant characters at the start of the story and even Sir Gawain is the least of Arthur’s knights. Frodo, on the other hand, isn’t popular around the Shire and he really doesn’t associate other hobbits. The innocent characteristics of Sir Gawain and Frodo demonstrate that both embark on their adventure because of a sense of duty and humility and not because of pride or recklessness. Tolkien assigns Frodo with the hopeless task of destroying the Ring, while Sir Gawain ventures out to find someway of defeating the Green Knight. Both are presented with a supreme test and both seem to fail at the final moment. Gawain yields to the irresistible temptation of the green girdle, while Frodo tries to keep The Ring. The true nature of their tests isn’t revealed to them (or the reader) until nearly the end of the story. It’s a classic “bait and switch” situation. Gawain believes he’s being tested for courage when he’s actually being tested for chastity. Frodo’s mission succeeds not because he is courageous and loyal, but because he shows pity on Gollum. Thus, in both Sir Gawain and The Lord Of The Rings, Christian virtues of chastity and charity trump the pagan virtues of courage and fortitude.