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He points out that the poem's theme is a serious one, mortality, and that the poem is in two parts: the first on Beowulf as a young man, defeating Grendel and his mother; the second on Beowulf in old age, going to his death fighting the dragon.The work has been praised by critics including the poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney. Drout called it the most important article ever written about the poem.The general structure of the poem is then clear, writes Tolkien.
In it, Tolkien speaks against critics who play down the monsters in the poem, namely Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, in favour of using Beowulf solely as a source for Anglo-Saxon history.
Tolkien argues that rather than being merely extraneous, these elements are key to the narrative and should be the focus of study.
Tolkien is therefore very interested in the contact of Northern and Christian thought in the poem, where the scriptural Cain is linked to eotenas (giants) and ylfe (elves), not through confusion but "an indication of the precise point at which an imagination, pondering old and new, was kindled".
The poet takes an old plot (a marauding monster troubling the Scylding court) paints a vivid picture of the old days, for instance using the Old Testament image of the shepherd patriarchs of Israel in the folces hyrde (people's shepherd) of the Danes.
Similarly, he dismisses notions that the poem is primitive: it is instead a late poem, using materials left over from a vanished age: When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. The scholar and translator Roy Liuzza commented that Tolkien's essay "is usually credited with re-establishing the fabulous elements and heroic combats at the center of the modern reader's appreciation of the poem." Liuzza at once went on to write, however, that "the separation of the poem into 'mythical' and 'historical' elements is a false dichotomy".
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. He argues that if myth can condense and hold the deepest sources of tension between self and the social order, and dramatises current ideologies by projecting them into the past, then even the hero Beowulf's mythic fights are at the same time throwing light on society and history.
Tolkien argues that the original poem has almost been lost under the weight of the scholarship on it; that Beowulf must be seen as a poem, not just as a historical document; and that the quality of its verse and its structure give it a powerful effect.
He rebuts suggestions that the poem is an epic or exciting narrative, likening it instead to a strong masonry structure built of blocks that fit together.
Tolkien finds it improbable that "a mind lofty and thoughtful", as evidenced by the quality of the poetry, "would write more than three thousand lines (wrought to a high finish) on matter that is really not worth serious attention".
He notes that heroic human stories had been held to be superior to myth, but argues that myth has a special value: "For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected." In Tolkien's view, the poem is essentially about a "man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time". Grendel and the dragon are identified as enemies of a Christian God, unlike the monsters encountered by Odysseus on his travels.