Patrick J. Callahan begins his essay, “Tolkien, Beowulf, and the Barrow-Wights,” by summarizing the Lord of the Rings. He then focuses on the episode of the barrow-wight and asks the question if Tolkien included this scene for plot development or leisurely purposes. Callahan feels that this scene is similar to Beowulf’s slaying of the barrow-dragon, and purposes to use this parallel as an analytical tool to answer his question. Callahan argues that Tolkien uses the encounter with the barrow-wight in the Lord of the Rings to portray Frodo’s generosity in a manner of Beowulf like courageous self-sacrifice.
Callahan starts his argument by describing and comparing the barrows for both the barrow-dragon and wight and the hoarded treasure the demons are guarding. This works strikingly well because it allows the reader to visualize where the following actions will occur; furthermore, the settings are so strikingly similar that the reader can just imagine one barrow and one cursed hoard to use for both encounters.
Callahan then describes the monsters as lasting and as symbolic embodiments of the curse on the treasure they so desire. This idea makes sense thematically, however, literally, if a challenger never arises to reclaim the prizes, it is doubtful that the dragon could survive until the end of time.
Consequently, Callahan exposes a “unique” difference between these monsters; he claims that the dragon fights intruders off, where as the wight lures them in to “commander their bodies.” This difference does not help Callahan’s point; he does not need to include this information because it reveals a difference in the monsters, which could imply a difference in situation between Beowulf and Frodo’s encounters.
Callahan quickly focuses back to his topic and claims that even though both Frodo and Beowulf did not actually vanquish the monsters, the victory is still theirs because of the courage. This works well, except Callahan decides to expound upon Tom Bombadil’s role as a secondary character in the text. This makes it seem as if Callahan is straying away from his topic. However, he pulls himself back together by explaining that in the end the curse is lifted from both barrows by the distribution of the wealth. This final piece of evidence is nice because the encounter has an ending; Callahan leads the reader to a determined finishing point and gives the argument a defined end.
The conclusion ends by reminding the reader of the key points and answering the “so what” question: that the Lord of the Rings reveals the Beowulf like “Christianized warrior” through self-sacrificing moral action to decide to do good, and to have the courage to do so.
Callahan, Patrick J. “Tolkien, Beowulf, and the Barrow-Wights.” Notre Dame English Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1972), pp. 4-13. The University of Notre Dame.