Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”
Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:
Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.
Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”
This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there have only been a few black scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies to publish on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.
Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He spent his first years in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his birth in Africa scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:
The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.
Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:
Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.
Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.
Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.
In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:
Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.
As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.
In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”
Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:
But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.
Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:
Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.
Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrison, the corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.
Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:
One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.
Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:
In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.
In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.
Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:
…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.
In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”
As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.
Editors’ note: This essay has been updated to reflect the fact that while Tolkien may be considered South African by measure of his birthplace, he moved to England as a toddler.