“Death at Feast again”: the voice epic in the critical reflections of Lewis and Tolkien




by Edoardo Rialti

to George Steiner



It is but right that a philologist should describe his end and the means to it in the short formula of a confession of faith; and let this be done in the saying of Seneca which I thus reverse: Philosophia facta est quæ philologia fuit. By this I wish to signify that all philological activities should be enclosed and surrounded by a philosophical view of things, in which everything individual and isolated is evaporated as something detestable, and in which great homogeneous views alone remain.
F. Nietzsche, Homer and classic philology

I would give a good deal a great deal to hear any ancient athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so muchthat we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years.
C. S. Lewis, De Descritione Temporum

‘Now we had better have it again,’ said an Elf… ‘Really we cannot answer your question at one hearing!’
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
1.Two warriors in battle

During the siege at Helm’s Deep, as the tidal wave of Orcs undulates like a dark wheat field, an odd pair of friends, Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf, incite each other to a prowess competition: ‘Down from the wall leapt Gimli with a fierce cry that echoed in the cliffs. “Khazad! Khazad!” He soon had work enough.“Ai-oi!” he shouted. “The Orcs are behind the wall. Ai-oi! Come, Legolas! There are enough dor us both. Khazad ai menu!” (Tolkien, 1954 [2004], 535).’
In the relationship between such different warriors, who come from races used to looking at each other askance, but who discover a growing affection, such as to constitute a fantasy distaff to Roland and Olivier or Amis and Amile (this also in the self-evident, Quixotian physical imbalance between them), many have seen and pointed out an echo of the relationship between J.R.R. Tolkien himself and C.S. Lewis. During their first meeting there seemed to be only walls between them, as there can only be between a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irishman turned atheist. Even the renewed Christianity of Lewis – even if he acknowledged his great debt to Tolkien – kept the distance of the Anglican confession. And even their education and their vision of literature belonged to the different parties of Philology and Literature. By Lewis’ explicit admission ‘at my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both(Lewis, 1955, 264)’. Despite all this the two shared the same love for Nordicity, and the desire to find new narrative forms for myths and fantasy : ‘Tollers [Tolkien’s surname], there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves (Carpenter, 1977, 172).’The success and the relevance of The Lord of the Rings and Narnia show us that Gimli the Dwarf was right in encouraging Legolas in entering the ring: there were indeed enough readers for both. Nonetheless it is no less suggestive and stimulating to observe the two at work in their other common battlefield, the teaching of ancient epic poetry – especially the Anglo-Saxon one – where their different contributions have been so valuable as to function as watersheds in the history of textual critique and the study of literary genres. As another eccentric philologist noted:

‘What have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self. Compare these objects, see how one complements, expands, surpasses, transfigures another, how they form a stepladder upon which you have climbed up to yourself as you are now’ (Nietzsche, 1955 [1876], 100).

Tolkien devoted to Beowulf a consistent part of his work , while Lewis ranged over a more diverse field, going from comparative criticism (his well-known Prolegomena to medieval literature which expanded on The allegory of love and would eventually lead to The Discarded Image) or the English poetry of ‘500-‘600. They were both inspiring teachers, able to get their students involved in a truly immersive experience into the life of the texts . We can see how the enchantment of poetry and the rituals of the ancient world sometimes could strangely spill over mere textual analysis from anecdotes of those who remember their lectures. It is often true, as Augustine of Hippo said, that we become what we love. Tolkien’s lectures became true theatre, which suddenly dropped the students in the middle of Hrotghar’s court:
‘He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon … It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that Beowulf was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of an examination but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry. As one former pupil, the writer J.I.M. Stewart, expressed it: “He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests.” Another who sat in the audience of these lectures was W.H. Auden, who wrote to Tolkien many years later: “I don’t think I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf”(Carpenter, 1977, 138)’.

Meanwhile whoever was tutored by Lewis might learn at his own expense that Spenser’s and Malory’s chivalry was not dead yet:

‘When an Australian student professed that he could never read Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, and refused to admit its good qualities even after Lewis had chanted a hundred lines of it at him, Lewis declared: “The sword must settle it!” and reached for a broadsword and a rapier which were inexplicably in the corner of the room. They fenced – Lewis of course choosing the broadsword – and Lewis ‘actually drew blood – a slight nick’ (Carpenter, 1979, 214).

Beowulf and the study of epic poetry appear therefore under different guises in the two works which are the object of this essay’s analysis, two works written in short interval and equally decisive given their impact in their respective fields: the Tolkien essay The monsters and the critics – Hobbit-like in its polemic from the very title, which could be read as an opposition as a possible identity as well – in 1937, and A Preface to Paradise Lost by Lewis, which gathers and develops his lecture series in Bangor, North Wales, in 1942. Tolkien’s text is now a cornerstone, whose importance in its field and in Tolkien’s own imagination has been widely studied. Yet a closer comparison with Lewis’different approach in the same very years-a topic which should certainly contextualised in the wider horizon of their entire literary approaches – might still cast some deeper light on both works.
What did it mean, for Tolkien and Lewis, to learn how to literally listen to the voice of epic poetry, in the very way it comes to us from ancient texts?For both of them, the very first step was the reverse of well know platonic quote, ‘Speak to me, so that I could see you’. We need to see for the sake of listening.

2. Two allegories against allegory

Tokien’s study-Beowulf: the monsters and the critics- is, paradoxically, a declaration of civil war on his own beloved philological school, or at least a consistent part of it:
Beowulfiana is, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one. It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem. It has been said of Beowulf itself that its weakness lies in placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important on the outer edges. This is one of the opinions that I wish specially to consider. I think it profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it. Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 103).

In order to justify his adversion to this reduction and this interpretative vivisection, the very narrator who would fight to defend his Lord of the Rings from the different allegorical interpretation which sprang up at its appearance to the extent of saying, in the programmatic Second Preface, ‘I cordially dislike allegory’ (Tolkien, 2004 [1965] xxiv) would call in an allegoric fable – à la Marziano Cappella – to illustrate the critical misfortune of Beowulf:

But the fairy godmother later invited to superintend its fortunes was Historia. And she brought with her Philologia, Mythologia, Archaeologia, and Laographia. Excellent ladies. But where was the child’s name-sake? Poesis was usually forgotten; occasionally admitted by a side-door; sometimes dismissed upon the door-step. “The Beowulf”, they said, “is hardly an affair of yours, and not in any case a protégé that you could be proud of. It is an historical document. Only as such does it interest the superior culture of to-day.” And it is as an historical document that it has mainly been examined and dissected (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 104).

This appropriation has transformed the poetic text into an embryonic text, a mere starting point to develop other kinds of research, without paying any true attention to the specific voice of the poem:

‘Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it was not—for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better—for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 105).

It is truly significant to take note of how Tolkien considers the label of epic genre as one of the possible reductions and misunderstandings of which Beowulf was a victim. But it is only at the end of his critical reasoning that this position will emerge more clearly. And it is in ‘yet another allegory’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 105) – much more famous – that Tolkien speaks out for both reviewing the critical history of Beowulf and for indicating, with one last suggestive image, the overturning of his perspective, his proposal for a new reading.

‘A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: “This tower is most interesting.” But they also said (after pushing it over): “What a muddle it is in!” And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: “He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.” But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 105-106).

The great mistake, in many ways, has been to consider ornamental and superficial what had truly captured the explicit imaginative attention of the poet – the struggle of the hero with two different monsters in two different moments of his life, the ascent of bold youth and the slow decline of wise old age – as if Beowulf’s value had to be sought elsewhere anyway, in its cultural and historical information. The reduction to mere folkloric mish-mash makes for the umpteenth mistake, even if a different one:

‘The habit, for instance, of pondering a summarized plot of Beowulf, denuded of all that gives it particular force or individual life, has encouraged the notion that its main story is wild, or trivial, or typical, even after treatment. Yet all stories, great and small, are one or more of these three things in such nakedness. The comparison of skeleton ‘plots’ is simply not a critical literary process at all. It has been favoured by research in comparative folk-lore, the objects of which are primarily historical or scientific’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 111).

For Tolkien the critic/reader cannot limit themselves to looking at Beowulf, but they must look with Beowulf. And what the poet wants us to look at – through the eyes of the anonymous warrior – are the eyes of the dragon against whom the hero will fight his last battle.

3. In defense of dragons

An efficient textual understanding, therefore, ‘is plainly only in the consideration of Beowulf as a poem, with an inherent poetic significance’(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 106). And despite the scholars, just like the apostles, are hard-headed people, Gutta cavat saxum, and we can put in focus a first, sketched effective description: ‘Slowly with the rolling years the obvious (so often the last revelation of analytic study) has been discovered: that we have to deal with a poem by an Englishman using afresh ancient and largely traditional material’(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 107). And in this perspective, what had been classified as mere narrative foam reveals itself as the deep heart of the sea observed from the tower:

‘And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant. If we omit from consideration the vast and vague Encircler of the World, Miðgarðsormr, the doom of the great gods and no matter for heroes, we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf’s bane ‘(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 109).

Beowulf’s bane… a significant expression for the imagination of someone whom, in those same years, was writing about Isildur’s bane, the Ring of Power.
The anonymous poet ‘esteemed dragons, as rare as they are dire, as some do still. He liked them—as a poet, not as a sober zoologist; and he had good reason’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 109).As some do still… and for good reasons. If ever the Wildian bon mot that every critical text is in fact an autobiography held true, it was certainly so here, in this smiling aside. The dragon-slayers are often dragon-lovers too. In those same years, in the equally decisive essay On fairy stories, Tolkien had confessed that he ‘desired dragons with strong desire’ (Tolkien, 2005 [1947], 47)since he had been a boy.
It is with this explicit and deeply held partisanship that the philologist defends both the man who sings of dragons and the dragon itself: ‘Any theory that will at least allow us to believe that what he did was of design, and that for that design there is a defence that may still have force, would seem more probable’(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 110). Hovering over the fight with the dragon is the ‘judgement that the heroic or tragic story on a strictly human plane is by nature superior’(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 112) in the presence of a ‘dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes’(Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 113). Thus, Tolkien’s defence of the power and value of a mythological narration betrays more than one purely personal side, since he seeks to write his own Middle-earth into that self-same tradition:

‘The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 112).

Whoever is familiar with the Tolkienian legendarium can immediately perceive the appropriateness of such a critical perspective when applied to those stories. Asmocked Sam Gamgee at the Shire’s tavern, many dragon-lovers have had to persuade themselves that they were appreciating something else in Beowulf:

‘It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present: to metrical art, style, or verbal skill. Correct and sober taste may refuse to admit that there can be an interest for us—the proud we that includes all intelligent living people—in ogres and dragons’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 112).

For Tolkien instead

‘a dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 113).

It is indeed the dragon-lover who, just like the aficionado of detective stories or sci-fi, knows whether or not the narrative or poetic mechanisms of that specific topos work or not. And it is by looking at Beowulf’s nemesis that Tolkien lets us glimpse a magnificent critical intuition about the basic closeness between hero and monster:

‘there are in any case many heroes but very few good dragons. Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind—as þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad; stonc æfter stane, 2285—in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life)’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 114).

A few years earlier Tolkien had made his own contribution available, enlarging the ranks of the literary dragons with the malice, greed and destruction of Smaug the Magnificent in The Hobbit. And all this, it is understood, without slipping into the despised allegory. Now the view from the tower is clearer, and it is possible to berate the short-sighted critiques of the past with additional sarcasm:

‘In this poem the balance is nice, but it is preserved. The large symbolism is near the surface, but it does not break through, nor become allegory. Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North. And this, we are told, is the radical defect of Beowulf, that its author, coming in a time rich in the legends of heroic men, has used them afresh in an original fashion, giving us not just one more, but something akin yet different: a measure and interpretation of them all’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 114).

What we have before is not just an epic poem, therefore, but rather a critical reinterpretation of pre-existing texts, and of a great mythological theme. We can thus overturn the traditional critical judgment: ‘a poet has devoted a whole poem to the theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time. The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 115)

4. Elegy for a deceased cosmos

What is essential is the confrontation with death, in the solemn perspective that the ancient Nordic Ragnarok, the great final battle with the forces of darkness, bore upon this personal and collective experience. And this is a theme that in Beowulf does not echo only as a background noise, but is rather incarnated one last time with lively and powerful effectiveness. Beowulf

‘is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy. It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone: lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod. So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say he gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 115)

Despite being composed during the Christian era by an equally monotheistic author, nourished on Biblical and even Virgilian echoes, in the specific adventure of the old king and the dragon who kill each other we find personified the universal ‘vision of the final defeat of the humane (and of the divine made in its image), and the essential hostility of the gods and heroes on the one hand and the monsters on the other’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 117). A contrast which Tolkien underlines in another of his most famous critical passages, and in which we find more than one marker of its weight and influence in the Tolkienian narrative style itself. The difference between Nordic and Greek-Roman mythology would not, in Tolkien’s opinion, reside in the heroes, equally pitted against monsters and often overpowered by them with one last treacherous stroke – let’s think for example about Nessus’ shirt – but rather in the Gods themselves. The Olympians too fought Giants, but theirs was a war

‘differently conceived. It lies in a chaotic past. The ruling gods are not besieged, not in ever-present peril or under future doom. Their offspring on earth may be heroes or fair women; it may also be the other creatures hostile to men. The gods are not the allies of men in their war against these or other monsters. The interest of the gods is in this or that man as part of their individual schemes, not as part of a great strategy that includes all good men, as the infantry of battle’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 121-122)

This has precise imaginative and narrative implications:

‘This may make the southern gods more godlike—more lofty, dread, and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death. Such a mythology may hold the promise of a profounder thought. In any case it was a virtue of the southern mythology that it could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy. For in a sense it had shirked the problem precisely by not having the monsters in the centre—as they are in Beowulf to the astonishment of the critics. But such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges and under suspicion of being connected with the Government. It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 122)

And if late antique and medieval Christianity had taken up the epistemological categories of classical philosophy, it was rather in this Nordic imagination that it gave equal development, and a different conclusion to much of its spiritual epos:

‘A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world. The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten, the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes. For it begins to dissolve, even as the contest on the fields of Time thus takes on its largest aspect. The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important. It is no defeat, for the end of the world is part of the design of Metod, the Arbiter who is above the mortal world. Beyond there appears a possibility of eternal victory (or eternal defeat), and the real battle is between the soul and its adversaries.’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 119. Italics are mine)

The importance of this cultural crossroads for Tolkien is evinced by the precise taking up of the same polar opposition between quantitative defeat and qualitative victory, both in a letter where the author reflected on the vision of the world, and by literature in general, as seen in a passage of The Lord of the Rings itself, in the mouth of the Elven queen Galadriel: compare ‘I am a Christian…so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a “long defeat” — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory’ (Tolkien, 1995 [1981], 254), and ‘Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat’ (Tolkien, 2004 [1954], 357. Italics are mine).
However, as Tolkien notes,

‘that shift is not complete in Beowulf-whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 119).

Certainly the papist philologist did not despise it, nord id it the anonymous man of letter who cast one last glance upon the twilight of the gods.

‘Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material. We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 119).

Continuing in the allegory evoked by Tolkien, we can even come to the conclusion that it is only from the great and dark sea of ancient, tragic myth that we can truly look to the tower on the cliff, and glimpse it as it rises into the lightless sky:

In Beowulf we have, then, an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one—literal historical fidelity founded on modern research was, of course, not attempted. It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 123. Italics are mine).

The tolkienan conclusion is then quite shocking for our literary categories:

Beowulf is not an “epic”, not even a magnified “lay”. No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: there is no reason why they should. Though if we must have a term, we should choose rather “elegy”. It is an heroic-elegiac poem; and in a sense all its first 3,136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: him þa gegiredan Geata leode ad ofer eorðan unwaclicne: one of the most moving ever written. But for the universal significance which is given to the fortunes of its hero it is an enhancement and not a detraction, in fact it is necessary, that his final foe should be not some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 127-128).

5. The voice of poetry: not a tune, but a balance
This allows us to justify both the whole and its parts:

‘The general structure of the poem, so viewed, is not really difficult to perceive, if we look to the main points, the strategy, and neglect the many points of minor tactics…It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 124-125).

And to listen to the stylistic and expressive solutions, the voice of the alliterative poem. Since here as well form and content are one:

‘In any case we must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale. The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music. In this fundamental fact of poetic expression I think there is a parallel to the total structure of Beowulf… because in it the elements, language, metre, theme, structure, are all most nearly in harmony. Judgement of the verse has often gone astray through listening for an accentual rhythm and pattern: and it seems to halt and stumble. Judgement of the theme goes astray through considering it as the narrative handling of a plot: and it seems to halt and stumble. Language and verse, of course, differ from stone or wood or paint, and can be only heard or read in a time-sequence; so that in any poem that deals at all with characters and events some narrative element must be present. We have none the less in Beowulf a method and structure that within the limits of the verse-kind approaches rather to sculpture or painting. It is a composition not a tune’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 126).

It was this layered and self-aware complexity, still prodigiously one in its end result, that Tolkien aspired to invoking since the Hwaet! thundered in class:

Beowulf is not a “primitive poem”; it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity’ (Tolkien, 1936, in Beowulf, 2000, 129-130).

And even its own specific flavour. Since the aware reader, too, has sat upon the seats of Hrotgar’s palace, and has discovered that the poem, like life itself, is a ‘drink dark and bitter: a solemn funeral-ale with the taste of Death’ (Tolkien, 1940,IX).
Solemnity. Tolkien’s analysis closes with this term, like a Wagnerian Adagio that accompanies the royal funeral which closes the poem, just as it had opened it. And it is truly evocative to notice how it will be that self-same term to take up a central role in Lewis’ reflection on the voice of epic poetry.

6. Ti esti?
Lewis’ analytical method and judgement about heroic epic shows itself to be immediately different from, yet tangential to, Tolkien’s own. If the philologist had encouraged us to ascend to the top of the tower of the poem, Lewis, faithful to Socratic search and to the Aristotelian exhortation to ask the right preliminary questions, wants first of all to put in focus what kind of tower we mean to design.

‘The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is¬ what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them’ (Lewis, 1942, 1)

And if Tolkien had reviewed the incomplete intuitions and common misunderstandings of past critics, Lewis, with the genius of someone who knows that you can have the measure of the true bibliophile not in a bookshop but on book stalls, gives us a summary of a common mistake in reading (and therefore in critiquing) starting from a clue found among used-book sellers. After such a deduction, we can truly say the authentic critic and university lecturer is not just he who can read between the lines of authors and students, but even into the things students choose to underline:

‘The misunderstanding of the genus (narrative poetry) I have learned from looking into used copies of our great narrative poems. In them you find often enough a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin. It is easy to see what has happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’-little ebullient patches of delight such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves, he has had no conception. The misunderstanding of the species (epic narrative) I have learned from the errors of critics, including myself, who sometimes regard as faults in Paradise Lost those very properties which the poet laboured hardest to attain and which, rightly enjoyed, are essential to its specific delightfulness’ (Lewis, 1942, 1-2).

7. Marriage or celibacy?

It is one of the motifs of Lewis’ critique, the education to that ‘fine art of reading’ – to quote his friend Lord David Cecil – that fine art which is able to immerse itself into the text and appreciate the beauty of the different literary languages, and the imaginative regions they explore. Here too form and content are not frame and picture, as we might superficially think. Epic form is epic content. Because of this, when it comes to the ancient, medieval, and renaissance poet

‘the first question he asked himself was not ‘What do I want to say ?’ but ‘What kind of poem do I want to make ?’-to which of the great pre-existing kinds, so different in the expectations they excite and fu lfil, so diverse in their powers, so recognizably distinguished in the minds of all cultured readers, do I intend to contribute ? The parallel is not to be found in a modern author considering what his unique message is and what unique idiom will best convey it, but rather in a gardener asking whether he will make a rockery or a tennis court, an architect asking whether he is to make a church or a house, a boy debating whether to play hockey or fo otball, a man hesitating between marriage and celibacy’ (Lewis, 1942, 2).

And the author of The Allegory of Love, just like Tolkien, employs a wedding and birth allegory to illustrate the shortcomings of a certain kind of literary criticism:

‘Every poem can be considered in two ways-as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exist to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers. Another way of stating this duality would be to say that every poem has two parents-its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its fa ther the pre existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. By studying only the mother, criticism becomes one-sided’ (Lewis, 1942, 2-3).

There follows one of his most felicitous and well-known mots: ‘It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamoured of a woman, but also to be enamoured of the Sonnet’ (Lewis, 1942, 3).
8. Primary and Secondary Epic
Once these basic categories have been introduced, Lewis can offer up the following distinction, which constitutes his main contribution to the object of our study. And this is at first a purely chronological and stylistic distinction, which however implies also a different thematic finality, as we shall see in our conclusion:

‘The older critics divided Epic into Primitive and Artificial, which is unsatisfactory, because no surviving ancient poetry is really primitive and all poetry is in some sense artificial. I prefer to divide it into Primary Epic and Secondary Epic-the adjectives being purely chronological and implying no judgements of value. The secondary here means not ‘the second rate’, but what comes after, and grows out of, the primary. The Primary Epic will be illustrated fr om the Homeric poems and from the English Beowulf.’

We may easily see the differences with Tolkien’s thought. In this perspective, not only is Beowulf not considered as a late or even antiquarian work, being instead expicitly an epic aligned with the classical poems from which it is separated by a thousand years (it is not primitive, as the colleague-philologist himself stated, but still primary), but, where Tolkien had moved from the particular to the general, from the single tower whence to glance at the sea, Lewis instead wants to detail an entire region, bringing together two narrative worlds which Tolkien had clearly put in opposition, at least in part. If we were to be too rough and quick about it, if not entirely off the mark, we could say that Tolkien gets his start from the theme (what the poet is singing of) and Lewis from the style (how he is singing of it). To be truly able to read and evaluate Homer and Beowulf, therefore, it is the critic’s duty ‘to discover what sort of thing the Primary Epics were, how they were meant to be used, what expectations they hoped to satisfy’(Lewis, 1942, 12). And in order to do it Lewis, unlike Tolkien, does not start from the monsters or another load-bearing narrative element, but rather from the meta-literary passages in the texts themselves:

‘Both Beowulf and the Homeric poems, besides being poetry themselves, describe poetical performances, at feasts and the like, proceeding in the world which they show us. From these descriptions we can gather what the epic was in a heroic age; but it does not follow that Beowulf and the Homeric poems are themselves the same kind of thing. They may or may not be what they describe’ (Lewis, 1942, 12).

From the description of the Phemios and Demodokos in Homer we can first of all say that

‘Primary Epic is not to be identified with ‘oral poetry of the heroic age’, or even with ‘oral court poetry’. It is one of the different kinds of poetry heard in a heroic court. Its sharp distinction from lighter kinds makes less impression on us than it should because we merely read about it. If we had seen the poet, first ordered to get up and take his place in a comic and indecent ballet, and then, seated and honoured with wine and spontaneously beginning his tragic lay at the inner prompting of a goddess, we should never again forget the distinction’ (Lewis, 1942, 13).

Nor could it be forgotten by those who have been immersed in this sudden imaginative spell, with which a few lines can suddenly make us part of Alcinous’ court. Only a great narrative ability, joined to years of passionate knowledge, can give birth to these images, which are much more powerful and rich than a simple abstract announcement.
When it comes to Beowulf, Lewis’ path is clearly woven with Tolkien’s:

‘In lines 2105 and following we have a performance given by Hrothgar himself. We learn that he sometimes (hwilum) produced a gidd or lay which was sop and sarlic (true and tragic), sometimes a tale of wonders (sellic spell),and sometimes, with the fetters of age heavy upon him, he began to recall his youth, the strength that once was his in battle; his heart swelled within him as he remembered the vanished winters. Professor Tolkien has suggested to me that this is an account of the complete range of court poetry, in which three kinds of poem can be distinguished-the lament for mutability now represented by The Wanderer and The Setifarer, the tale of strange adventures, and the ‘true and tragic’ lay such as the Finnsburg poem, which alone is true epic’ (Lewis, 1942, 14).

This allows a first reading of Beowulf itself, which

‘itself contains elements of the sellic spell, but it is certainly sarlic and probably much of it was regarded as sop. Without pressing these distinctions too far, we can certainly conclude from this passage that the author of Beowulf is aware of different kinds of court poetry. Here, as in Homer, Epic does not mean simply whatever was sung in hall. It is one of the possible entertainments, marked off fr om the others, in Homer by the spontaneity and quasi-oracular character of the poet’s performance, and in both Homer and Beowulf by tragic quality, by supposed historical truth, and by the gravity that goes with “true tragedy”’ (Lewis, 1942, 14-15).

This understanding of form, this not unclothing poem and poet from their remote and antiquated clothes and gestures, in search of a generic ‘unchangeble human heart’ (Lewis, 1942,61-64), trying rather to don ourselves a helmet, or throw on a chiton, allows us to see and move in a different way, as anybody who has ever acted, even if only in a Carnival panto, knows; it allows us to look and even think in a different way. Epic therefore reveals itself as before everything else

‘poetry about nobles, made for nobles, and performed on occasion, by nobles. We shall go endlessly astray if we do not get well fixed in our minds at the outset the picture of a venerable figure, a king, a great warrior, or a poet inspired by the Muse, seated and chanting to the harp a poem on high matters before an assembly of nobles in a court, at a time when the court was the common centre of many interests which have since been separated ; when it was not only the Windsor Castle, but also the Somerset House, the Horseguards, the Covent Garden, and perhaps even, in certain respects, the Westminster Abbey, of the tribe. But also, it was the place of festivity, the place of brightest hearths and strongest drink, of courtesy, merriment, news, and fr iendship. All this is a long way fr om Mr. John Milton printing a book to be sold in seventeenth-century London, but it is not irrelevant. From its early association with the heroic court there comes into Epic Poetry a quality which survives, with strange transformations and enrichments, down to Milton’s own time, and it is a quality which moderns find difficult to understand’ (Lewis, 1942, 15)

A quality which for Lewis is tied up to a term studied from the philology of his colleague Tolkien.
9. By Jove!

The name of Mozart appears in the long quotation which follows, and this is no chance, because it one of the most famous of Lewis’ fughe, where, to better illuminate a detail or a certain aspect, he suddenly launches upon a vertiginous series of associations, meant to open up for us a certain mental or spiritual climate, the vitality and the implications of the history of culture, more than simple information. The creator of the demon bureaucrat Screwtape was also in excellent terms with the ‘comparative devil’ which Citati attributed to Mario Praz. Tolkien concluded his work paying homage to the specific solemnity of Beowulf. Lewis takes his start exactly from this point, in his eyes fundamental to truly take part in the vitality implied in the epic text.

‘This quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modem English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is fa miliar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much of a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp-and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a majordomo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast-all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to fo rget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual’ (Lewis, 1942, 15-16).

We can see how dear this theme is to Lewis’ narrative imagination in the tribute the writer himself pays to the “discarded image” of the Medieval Heaven in his novel That Hideous Strenght, which describes the descent of the Angelic Intelligences which rule the planets in perfect and glorious obedience, among them Jove, living archetype of this self-same quality:

‘Before the other angels a man might sink: before this he might die, but if he lived at all, he would laugh.If you had caught one breath of the air that came from him, you would have felt yourself taller than before. though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would worn your robes magnanimously. Kingship and power and festal pomp and courtesy shot from him as sparks fly from an anvil. The pealing of bells, the blowing of trumpets, the spreading out of banners, are all means used on earth to make a faint symbol of his quality. It was like a long sunlit wave, creamy-crested and arched with emerald, that comes on nine feet tall, with roaring and terror and unquenchable laughter. It was like the first beginning of music in the halls of some King so high and at some festival so solemn that a tremor akin to fear runs through young hearts when they hear it’ (Lewis, 2013 [1945], 201. Italics are mine).

10. Hammers and cavalry charges: the voice of epic poetry

Here is what the reader must expect, look for and evaluate, even in his own bedroom or in a university course. Not a lyrical effusion nor simple narrative poetry, however warlike: ‘This is the first fence we must get over. Epic, from the beginning, is solempne. You are to expect pomp. You are to “assist”, as the French say, at a great festal action’ (Lewis, 1942, 16). In light of this specific celebration, we can understand in a deeper and more detailed manner the stylistic choices whose interpretation requires another perspective turnaround:

‘The most obvious characteristic of an oral technique is its continual use of stock words, phrases, or even whole lines. It is important to realize at the outset that these are not a second¬best on which the poets fall back when inspiration fails them: they are as fre quent in the great passages as in the low ones.” It has been believed and repeated that formal epithets were meant to hold up the poet’s performance, but it necessary instead to remember that “all art is made to face the audience. Nothing can be left exposed, however useful to the performer, which is not delightful or at least tolerable to them’ (Lewis, 1942, 19).

And here is another great critical intuition:

‘A stage set must be judged from in front. If the poet’s ease were the sole consideration, why have a recitation at all? Is he not very well already, with his wine at his elbow and his share in the roast pork? We must therefore consider what these repetitions do for the hearers, not what they do for the poet’ (Lewis, 1942, 19).

And it is the reader themselves who has to discover the taste for it, ‘if any one will make the experiment for a week of two of not reading poetry and hearing a good deal’ ((Lewis, 1942, 19. Italics are mine):

‘The pleasure which moderns chiefly desire from printed poetry is ruled out anyway. You cannot ponder over single lines and let them dissolve on the mind like lozenges. That is the wrong way of using this sort of poetry. It is not built up of isolated effects; the poetry is in the paragraph, or the whole episode. To look for single, ‘good’ lines is like looking for single ‘good’ stones in a cathedral.’

It is not about isolating a specific moment, but entering into a flow. The same goes for language : it must be

‘familiar in the sense of being expected. But in Epic which is the highest species of oral court poetry, it must not be fa miliar in the sense of being colloquial or commonplace. The desire for simplicity is a late and sophisticated one. We moderns may like dances which are hardly distinguishable fr om walking and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake fo r ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry’ (Lewis, 1942, 20).

Faithful to the lesson of his old high school teacher, for whom ‘the person who miss the syntactic points-he miss the aesthetic ones as well’ (Lewis, 2013 [1955], 137), Lewis knows how this very immersion in the epic style allow to truly enjoy its thematic and existential depth, to expose us to that peculiar and irreplaceable status:

‘The unchanging recurrence of his wine-dark sea, his rosy-fingered dawn, his ships launched into the holy brine, his Poseidon shaker of earth, produce an effect which modern poetry, except where it has learned fr om Homer himself, cannot attain. They emphasize the unchanging human environment. They express a fe eling very profound and very fr equent in real life, but else¬where ill represented in literature. What is really in our minds when we first catch sight of the sea after a long absence, or look up, as watchers in a sickroom or as sentries, to see yet another daybreak ? Many things, no doubt-all manner of hopes and fe ars, pain or pleasure, and the beauty or grimness of that particular sea and that particular dawn. Yes; but under all these, like a base so deep as to be scarcely audible, there is something which we might very lamely express by muttering “same old sea” or “same old morning” . The permanence, the indifference, the heartrending or consoling fa ct that whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always enters into our experience and plays no small part in that pressure of reality which is one of the differences between life and imagined life. But in Homer the pressure is there. The sonorous syllables in which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning, or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not with poetry about the things, but almost with the things themselves’ (Lewis, 1942, 21-22).

Tolkien had already expressed the specific voice implied in the kenningar and in Beowulf’s alliterative metre. Lewis highlights the difference with classical hexametres, even in the common identity of epic style:

‘In part, this difference of technique goes with a shorter line, a language more full of consonants, and doubtless a slower and more em¬phatic delivery. It goes with the difference between a quantitative metre and one which uses both quantity and stress accent, demanding their union for that characteristic of alliterative verse which is called weight. One of Homer’s great passages is like a cavalry charge; one of Beowulf‘s, like blows from a hammer or the repeated thunder of breakers on the beach. The words flow in Homer; in Beowulf they fall apart into massive lumps’ (Lewis, 1942, 24-25).

11. Death at Feast again

We have already sketched out how Lewis’ distinction between Primary Epic (Homer and Beowulf) and Secondary Epic (Virgil, Dante, Milton) does not stop to chronology and to the continuous echoes and variations that the Secondary offers to the Primary. Therefore we see Lewis make clear where, in his opinion, we can look for the true basic difference, a thematic difference rooted in a different conception of personal and collective history:

‘In my opinion the great subject (‘the life of Arthur, or Jerusalem’s fall’) was not a mark of primary epic. It enters the epic with Virgil, whose position in this story is central and who has altered the very notion of epic; so much so that I believe we are now tempted to read the great subject into primary epic where it does not exist’ (Lewis, 1942, 26).

In this perspective, the future has changed the eyes with which we read about the past, but a more precise examination of the text reveals the retrospective trick. In fact, ‘about the fall of Troy, Homer has nothing to say, save incidentally’ and this because

‘Primary Epic neither had, nor could have, a great subject in the later sense. That kind of greatness arises only when some event can be held to effect a profound and more or less permanent change in the history of the world, as the founding of Rome did, or still more, the fall of man’ (Lewis, 1942, 28).

Homer’s tower and Virgil seem to look out onto the same classical-pagan sea, but it is not so. In Greek Epic ‘no one event is really very much more important than another. No achievement can be permanent: today we kill and feast, tomorrow we are killed, and our women led away as slaves. Nothing “stays put”, nothing has a significance beyond the moment’(Lewis, 1942, 28-29). Instead, in the new Virgilian conception of time, ‘the fall of Virgil’s Troy is a catastrophe, the end of an epoch. Urbs antiqua ruit- “an ancient city, empress of long ages, falls”. For Homer it is all in the day’s work’(Lewis, 1942, 29). And that is why Lewis, well-aware of the temporal distance and the radical differences, inscribes Beowulf in the same cyclical world as Homer, because

‘it strikes the same note. Once the king is dead, we know what is in store for us: that little island of happiness, like many another before it and many another in the years that fo llow, is submerged, and the great tide of the Heroic Age rolls over it:
Laughter has left us with our Lord’s slaying,
And mirth and music. Many a spearshaft
Shall freeze our fingers in frightened dawn,
As our hands hold it. No harp’s delight
Shall waken warriors. The wan raven
Keen for carrion, his call sending,
Shall utter to the eagle how he ate his fill
At War’s banquet; the wolf shared it.’ (Lewis, 1942, 29-30)

According to Tolkien’s image, Death always surrounds mankind’s feast, whether in Achilles’ tent or Hrotghar’s palace.
Naturally, Lewis- for whom the mere words The Twilight of the Gods played a decisive existential role in all his imaginative and even spiritual journey – too takes note of and passionately loves the echo of Ragnarok which the Beowulf poet endows with a powerfully effective image in the grand central theme of the hero fighting the monster. But, despite the self-evident Virgilian influences of the anonymous medieval author, which Tolkien had also discussed, this – where Lewis’ essay explicitly overlaps with Tolkien’s analysis of the monster – makes him place the Anglo-Saxon poem not after Virgil, but between Homer and Virgil: ‘Beowulf is a little different. In Homer the background of accepted, matter-of-fact despair is, after all, a background’(Lewis, 1942, 30). And here instead we have Tolkien, in short, or rather the same theme fingered by Tolkien and filtered by Lewis’ sensitivity:

‘In Beowulf that fundamental darkness comes out into the foreground and is partly embodied in the monsters. And against those monsters the hero fights. No one in Homer had forught against the darkness. In the English poem we have the characteristic theme of Northern mythology-the gods and men ranged in battle against the giants. To that extent the poem is more cheerful at heart, though not on the surface, and has the first hint of the Great Subject. In this way, as in several others, it stands between the Iliad and Virgil. But it does not approach Virgil very closely. The monsters only partly embody the darkness. Their defeat-or its defeat in them-is not permanent or even long lasting. Like every other Primary Epic it leaves matters much as it found them: the Heroic Age is still going on at the end’ (Lewis, 1942, 30-31).

For Lewis, therefore, the classical and Norse epic, whose backgrounds Tolkien saw as opposed to each other, are rather sitting on the same side of the fence, and their counterbalance is made up by those poets and poems which, whether pagan or Christian, insert personal and collective events in a linear tapestry which gives us a different feeling for history. A very different distinction. Joining together the terms invented by both scholars, we can say that for Lewis the Long Defeat in Beowulf has not entirely become the Great Subject yet. This also because we get the impression that Lewis is more focused on Beowulf’s victory over the Orc Grendel than on the following defeat of/by the dragon, more focused on the sharing of the divine battle than on its end result (a significant echo of this different valuation could be noted in Tolkien and Lewis’ alike and yet unlike love for the fragment of The battle of Maldon, and its presence in The Homecoming of Beorthnoth and Perelandra, as well as in their very unlike esteem about the poetical embodiment of this same “Nordic” topic in G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. Two topics which would require their own essays).
All this would stand in even deeper significance, if properly compared to the meta-literary passages in Lewis Tolkien’s fiction , from the very first song of the Dwarves in The Hobbit to the allitterarive poems of the Riders of Rohan, from the debates about poetic lines with the aliens in Out of the silent planet to the Greek master of poetry in Till we have faces. But we can already claim that the two warriors haven’t just discovered enough enemies for their bow and axe. They have also discovered that you can ascend to the top of the same tower, glance out on the same beloved sea and, even while breathing the same breeze, listening to the same wind, where Hrothgar’s voice is still echoing, and still notice and hear very different things and shades in all of them.

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