The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of seven essays by J. R. R. Tolkien:

  • “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics”
  • “On Translating Beowulf”
  • “On Fairy-Stories”
  • “A Secret Vice”
  • “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
  • “English and Welsh”
  • “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford”

Tolkien is one of those excellent academics who use academic terminology not to impress, but to enlighten. Unlike so many of the dreadful writers of today’s academe, his purpose is always to express himself as clearly and as precisely as he can. When academic/scientific language is necessary, it is employed; when clarity and reason would be served by straightforward language, or poetic language, he uses those. The result is the kind of academic work I wish there was more of: readable but not simplistic, intellectually stimulating without pretension.

The high points of the book are “On Fairy-Stories” and “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” Both express and analyze the origin and meaning of the impulse in humans to tell stories of the imagination, and show more comprehension of that most important aspect of art than any other academic work I have ever read. It may well be that this profound understanding of and respect for the form were part of what allowed Tolkien to write literary masterworks such as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, whereas so many modern “fantasy writers” only manage to publish derivative drivel.

I’d read most of these essays before, but what struck me this time around was one particular aspect of Tolkien’s argumentation: that much of fantasy is about our desire to come into contact with the Other. By “Other” he did not mean that overused term so popular in postcolonial studies (which leads to perhaps the most insultingly stupid verb ever invented, “othering”), but something more literal: the non-human. This is something which a lot of academics, caught between pseudo-scientific relativism and a nihilistic rejection of all that science reveals about the universe, cannot understand. Since they cannot imagine the Other, they imagine that every story must exclusively refer to humans, and every story that contains a non-human element is read as allegory: therefore the Elves cannot be Elves, but must stand for the Übermensch, and aliens cannot be aliens, but must always stand for immigrants, and ghosts cannot be ghosts, but must stand for sexual repression, even if the text indicates the opposite (see The Turn of the Screw for how desperately academics will try to impose their reading on a text).

Thus it is often asserted by such individuals that fairy-stories derive from a time when humans did not see themselves as separate from their environment, and when the idea of a prince turning into a frog seemed “normal.” Tolkien exposes this commonly held view as the nonsense that it is; if people really thought this way, why would they tell stories about it? The reason we have such stories, or that such stories survived the ages, is because they document something that the tellers considered extraordinary or emotionally powerful (which doesn’t mean they thought it was true, just remarkable – as a story).

That recognition – that the literature of the imaginary is not about humans with pointy ears, but about looking into the unknown, making contact with the Other – is a very important one to all lovers of literature and poetry and other mythopoetic forms (such as games), and one of many reasons to read this collection.

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