J.R.R. Tolkien was a noted scholar of medieval literature. He wrote and delivered exhaustive speeches on Beowulf. He would have been remiss if he had not let some of that work’s stories and deeds seep into his own masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he admitted doing so. What is even more interesting is what Tolkien deemed important enough to adapt from Beowulf to his own creation.
Grendel was of course a very important figure in Beowulf. Besides there being no reason for the story to be told without its villain, Grendel is the physical descendant of the murderer Cain. This is quite clearly laid out in the text: “Many doomed beings were descended from Cain, including the detestable outcast Grendel” (Beowulf 57). Technically, then, Grendel could be considered to have descended from humanity. He is a twisted, damned being, with extraordinary strength and malice, but perhaps human somewhere in his ancestry. Beowulf, with his similarly superior strength, might be a little closer related to his foe than he would like to believe.
The character of Gollum draws obvious parallels. He is also a twisted, corrupt being. The wizard Gandalf surmises that Gollum is of a line of Hobbits called the Stoors (FOTR 62). It makes one wonder if, perhaps, the hero of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, could possibly be distantly related to Gollum himself. Whether or not they are kin, though, Frodo and Gollum are a lot alike. Both have exceptional strength of will, and both survive with the Ring for a considerable length of time.
Grendel and Gollum both have better than average physical strength, as author David Day notes. Day says, “just as some unknown power gave Grendel enormous physical strength and long life, so the evil power of the Ring lengthened Gollum’s miserable life for centuries and seemingly enhanced the power of his wraith-like hands” (Day 142). Even though Frodo’s quest is to destroy the Ring and overthrow Sauron, it is Gollum that is his nemesis, just as Grendel is Beowulf’s.
One of the clearest uses of Beowulf by Tolkien occurs in The Hobbit. When Bilbo first braves the Dragon Smaug’s lair, he doesn’t stay very long but has the presence of mind to retrieve “a great two handled cup, as heavy as he could carry” (The Hobbit 185). Afterwards, Smaug goes on a fiery rampage and burns the city of Esgaroth to cinders. Similarly, the dragon in Beowulf succumbed to its pyromaniacal tendencies after “a certain man lashed it into fury by taking a golden cup back to his master as a peace offering” (Beowulf 81).
two episodes easily add weight to the argument that Tolkien used Beowulf
as an important, if not a primary, inspiration for his own epic. He
admits to it in one of his letters. He says: “Beowulf is among
my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the
mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose
naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances” (Letters
31). Tolkien himself supports the premise of this analysis.
There is another almost one-to-one parallel in The Hobbit. Beowulf and Tolkien’s Beorn are similar in more than just half a name. David Day lays this all out in one elegant sentence: “With his pride in his strength, his code of honour, his terrible wrath, his hospitality … Beorn is Beowulf” (Day 149). Perhaps even in their mode of fighting, the two men are alike. Beowulf tears his foes apart with his monstrous grip, and Beorn uses the form of the bear to rip his foes, most often orcs and wargs, into shreds.
Day makes another very interesting observation. The names Beorn and Beowulf are practically identical. We know that Beorn is a shape-changer, and can transform into a bear. Well, in Old Norse, his name actually means bear (Day 150). Through linguistic detective work, Day also discovered that Beowulf translates as bee-wolf and “bee-wolf means bear” (Day 150). Tolkien uses his genius as a philologist to cleverly use the character of Beowulf, including his name, in The Hobbit without the gall of being obvious.
Someone not familiar with Tolkien’s work might find it hard to compare the men of Rohan with the Anglo-Saxon people of Beowulf’s time. The horse was of vast importance to the people of Rohan, and its army relied overwhelmingly on cavalry. However, the Anglo-Saxons, and Beowulf’s people, the Geats, did not even fight on horseback. More useful to Beowulf was perhaps the boat. But the person who looked this far and no further would be misleading themselves.
David Day again provides most of my information. He points out that Meduseld, the Golden Hall of the Rohirrim, is Anglo-Saxon for “Mead Hall” (Day 154). Day also mentions that both Gandalf and his party, and Beowulf describe their destination halls (Meduseld and Heorot, respectively) as being golden-roofed and reflecting the sunlight (Day 154).
Going closer and more personal, additional similarities can be seen. Theoden and Hrothgar are plagued by many of the same issues. Hrothgar cannot stop Grendel from devouring his kinfolk. Alexandra Bolintineanu says of Hrothgar in an essay, “his age and his powerlessness against the monster slaughtering his retainers, against the usurpation of his son’s legacy” (Bolintineanu 269). Also, Hrothgar loses his most trusted advisor, Aeschere, to Grendel. Instead he must rely upon an outsider, Beowulf, to solve all his problems.
Theoden has some of the same problems. He too is very old, and up until the intervention of Gandalf is aged prematurely to the point that he cannot govern his people. Like Hrothgar with Grendel, Theoden is powerless against his closest foe, the wizard Saruman. Not only that, but Theoden also loses his most trusted counselor, Grima Wormtongue, although not to death. Theoden’s son is also deprived of his legacy, and this time by death.
Many names found in Beowulf are also found in The Lord of the Rings, and sometimes in more prominent roles. The name of Eomer appears very briefly in Beowulf, as a son of Offa. But Eomer is very important in Tolkien, as the hero of the Rohirrim and heir to Theoden’s throne. Hama is mentioned in Beowulf also, and appears in Tolkien as Theoden’s doorwarden. Last but not least, the people of Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, are known as the Helmings. Helm was, of course, a king of Rohan in Tolkien.
Despite not being any great lovers of mounted combat, the Anglo-Saxon people still found their way into Tolkien’s men of Rohan. Even the language of the Rohirrim is very close to Anglo-Saxon. Names and places are moved liberally from Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings. The nature of the peoples, as brave, generous, and heroic, is also the same. They might not all be bee-wolves, but the Rohirrim are Beowulf’s people.
because a case for similarities between Tolkien and Beowulf is easily
made, does not make the effort pointless. Now that films have been made
of both Beowulf (in the Thirteenth Warrior) and The Lord of the Rings,
their histories are more topical than ever. Also, because of the likely
lack of knowledge by the general public of the earlier work, it might
be necessary to remind them that Tolkien did not come up with his tales,
peoples, languages, and deeds out of thin air. He drew upon ancient
peoples and ancient works, still important and applicable to the world
today, in order to form his masterpiece. In short, he drew upon Beowulf.
The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, 1993
Day, David. The World of Tolkien. New York: Gramercy, 2003.