The Fragility of Civilization
For this shall many a spear cold at morn be grasped and seized, lifted in hand; nor shall the music of the harp awake the warriors, but the dusky raven gloating above the doomed shall speak many things, shall to the eagle tell how it sped him at the carrion-feast, when he vied with the wolf in picking bare the slain. (Beowulf 2539-44)
The inevitability of civilization’s decline and fall is one of the most prominent themes in Beowulf, as shown in Wiglaf’s foreboding speech. It is therefore unsurprising that noted Beowulf scholar J. R. R. Tolkien included similar themes in his own novel, The Lord of the Rings. The text of Beowulf suggests that the past was full of irreplicable glories that have faded, leading to a bleaker present and further degeneration in the future. Naturally, this idea seems to have resonated with Tolkien, a medievalist disillusioned with modernity and industrialization (Letters 165). At the centre of both works is the notion that with all change, even with great victory over evil, something invaluable and stabilizing is necessarily and irreconcilably lost. These tales can seem bleak, but they teach an important lesson from which we can all learn: peace and prosperity are fragile, and progress is never guaranteed.
The overall atmosphere of Beowulf could be described as profoundly melancholic, characterised by a nostalgia for lost glory, and this mood is established from the very beginning of the poem. The prologue (1-40) describes the life of Shyld Shefing, a Danish king whose power and benevolence is the source of his people’s wellbeing: “[He] mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute — a good king was he!” (6-9). This is the first of many examples in which figures from the ancient past are praised. The narrator then relates Scyld’s passing and ship-burial, which leave his people inconsolable. The arc of Scyld’s life parallels that of Beowulf and, more generally, the trajectory of civilization as portrayed by this scop. In each case, moments of glory vanish as quickly as they come, leaving a sense that the future will never match the past’s grandeur. The most that can be hoped for of anything or anyone good is not that they will last, but that they will be worthy of fond remembrance and songs.
Likewise, The Lord of the Rings is full of reminders that its world is in a fallen state, as all majesty and magic have slowly waned over the millennia. A notable example of this circumstance is the elves: their power is slowly fading, to the point where they are forced to leave Middle-earth. As Elrond puts it, describing events of the Second Age, roughly three thousand years ago, “‘I remember well the splendour of their banners [. . .] It recalled to me the glory of the elder days [. . .] And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken’” (316). He reminisces about the regality of the elves of that age, while stating that even they were lesser than those of the First Age, another three millennia prior. Characters in both this novel and Beowulf are much more apt to look back fondly at history than to look to the future with any great hopes or aspirations. Even Frodo, after he has helped destroy the Ring and restore peace to the Shire, can see no future for himself in Middle-earth. Because of the lasting effects of the Ring, he must leave Middle-earth along with the elves.
Though the worlds of these texts tend toward declination, societies can experience improvements in fortune. These golden ages are, however, as ephemeral as the leaders who facilitate them. In Beowulf, a kingdom is only as good as its king, and when bereft of one, is always on the edge of invasion and ruin. In the poem, the death of a “good king” (9) is an immensely destabilizing event, since the safety and survival of the tribe relies largely on the quality of its leadership. This fact is best illustrated in the moments of despair after Beowulf’s death. Wiglaf’s lengthy speech (2446-544) is a grim reminder of the frailty of peace and plenty. He predicts imminent invasions and imagines the joy and music associated with Beowulf’s reign replaced with ravens, eagles, and wolves feasting on the slain. The Geats’ greatest protector has died, leaving nothing to shield them from a harsh world filled with enemies. By the end of the poem, there is not much hope for the Geats, other than the prospect of Beowulf’s reign going down in history as a golden age.
The idea of dying a glorious death worthy of song, as Beowulf does, is echoed by the character of Théoden, King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings. The Rohirrim are notably given Old English names, and although Tolkien insists that “[t]his linguistic procedure does 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 due to their circumstances [. . .]” (1493-4), the text suggests that they at least had similar attitudes toward the importance of strong leadership. As with the Geats in Beowulf, the battle fortunes of the Rohirrim seem inextricably linked to their king’s well-being. When Théoden is in a weakened state, under the influence of his malicious advisor Wormtongue, Rohan experiences relentless defeats, yet within days of recovering his strength, Théoden leads his host to glorious victory against the odds. In fact, both times Théoden leads a charge into battle, the sun rises at that exact moment, as if his courage is driving away the darkness of despair (705, 1096-7). Théoden has striking similarities to King Hrothgar from Beowulf. He is benevolent and wise, but he is also an aged king who requires the aid of outsiders: Gandalf, Aragorn and other members of the Fellowship of the Ring, just as Hrothgar needs Beowulf. Théoden is also, like Beowulf himself, a source of hope and courage for his people, and both leave their subjects sorely distraught after their heroic deaths in battle.
In the world of Beowulf, even if one lives in an age of peace and wealth, it is still almost impossible to forget that previous periods were much grander, as this tale is full of reminders of the splendour of ancient times. The treasures and artifacts in the narrative carry with them a sense of grandeur and history. This is especially true of the “sword endowed with charms of victory” found in Grendel’s Mother’s cave (1304-5). This ancient weapon has mysterious powers and is greater than any that could have been forged in Beowulf’s day. Perhaps the most haunting passage in the whole poem is the one describing the origin of the dragon’s hoard (1879-911). It tells of a lonely soldier, the last of his people, entrusting his tribe’s riches and legacy to the ground before he goes to his grave, taking with him the final memories of a fallen culture. Like all wondrous things in Beowulf’s world, the hoard passes into oblivion. Even the epoch in which the poem takes place was distant and lost at the time of its creation, only known through legends and songs. Though the mighty hall of Heorot stands throughout the duration of the poem, we are reminded that it is soon fated to fall in the fire of battle (65-9), fitting the text’s prominent pattern of civilization falling into decline soon after reaching the height of their power.
It seems that Tolkien was equally enthralled by the idea of a world filled with the ruins of great, awe-inspiring works that can never again be achieved. In Middle-earth, the wrecks of glorious kingdoms are ever-present, inspiring dread and wonder in the hearts of those ancients’ lesser descendants. Examples abound, from the astonishingly huge statues of the Argonath to the desolate elf-kingdom of Eregion and the demon-haunted ruins of Moria, once the greatest of the dwarf strongholds. It seems that all kingdoms in Middle-earth, no matter how splendid, ultimately tend towards degradation and ruin, and even the kingdoms such as Gondor which have not wholly fallen are in a state of decline in the Third Age. Of Gondor’s three major cities, one is an abandoned ruin, one a stronghold of the enemy, and the last is highly depopulated and in a state of disrepair, kingless and hopeless. Yet even when Gondor is restored to some of its former glory, under Aragorn’s leadership, it is arguably still much reduced from the splendour of its ancient past, as Gondor is but a scion of the fallen island kingdom of Númenor. Númenor was once an almost Edenic land of peace, plenty, and long life, but it was slowly corrupted by greed, power-lust, and later, the influence of the Dark Lord Sauron, until it was finally sunk by Eru, the supreme creator of Tolkien’s world (The Silmarillion 267-91). All that remains of this once great kingdom are a few artifacts, such as the palantíri. Indeed, many of the greatest structures, weapons, and magical artifacts of Middle-earth, from the Rings of Power to the elven swords from Gondolin, are also from the distant past, almost forgotten until they are stumbled upon by chance or fate.
Implicit in both narratives is the idea that the greatest evils along with the most sublime and powerful good are fading from the diminishing world: Beowulf rids the world of three fearsome monsters, yet the famous hero is also slain. This idea is even more prominent in The Lord of the Rings: Sauron is defeated, but the waning of the elven rings’ power also necessitates the elves’ removal from Middle-earth. Even the Gondorians, who stand victorious, are still slowly losing the divine blessing of their long lifespans, becoming like ordinary humans. The destruction of the One Ring marks the end of an era of noble battles between the forces of good and evil and the start of an era dominated by mundane conflicts, often fought for petty reasons such as “the Scouring of the Shire” that awaits the hobbits on their return. Furthermore, Tolkien even started writing a sequel to The Lord of the Rings called The New Shadow, set in Gondor, but, as he later explained, “it proved both sinister and depressing.” It would have concerned the plots of an evil cult that came into being simply because “the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless.” He expresses that such “quick satiety with good” is an “inevitable” subject in a story concerning humanity, and writing this bleak story is “not worth doing” (Letters 344).
Though both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings take place in medieval or medieval-inspired settings, the former was written in the Middle Ages and the latter in modern times. While the themes in both works are similar, their authors’ contexts could hardly be more different. The Beowulf poet seems to have envisioned a world where every improvement fades away, leaving less than there was before, with true progress out of reach. On the other hand, Tolkien, who loved the countryside and forests, lived in a rapidly progressing world and feared what was being left behind. In his tales, evil is often represented as industrialized forces encroaching on the natural world, while the fading, glorious civilizations of the past represent a more harmonious relationship with nature. While the author of Beowulf, who was living in a dark age, could not foresee the advancements to be made in the future, Tolkien, who had lived through such changes, consistently portrayed them as a furtherance of the pattern of fall and degradation captured in the words of Beowulf. The authors of these works seem to call out through the pages, warning readers to take nothing for granted – the forces maintaining peace are delicate.
Beowulf. Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, Harper Collins, London, 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2000.
—. The Lord of the Rings. London: Harper Collins, 2007.
—. The Silmarillion. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2004.
* Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf is referenced throughout this essay; therefore, the line numbers are different from those of the original poem.