Those of you who have been Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog and following the many posts collected at BookSnobbery, or those who are just fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, may be interested to read more on the Big Friendly Guy who pops up briefly in the story but is none the less memorable for all that. I’m talking, of course, about Beorn.
Tolkien explored the notion of “the wild” literally and figuratively in the character of Beorn. He was a civil (if potentially dangerous) host, and the head of a well-ordered household in which domestic animals obeyed his commands. Yet he lived between the inhospitable Misty Mountains, home to the less-than-human goblins (or orcs, as Tolkien later referred to them), and the menacing Mirkwood, perilous to all who entered.
Beorn himself was something more — or other — than human.
He’s described with some caution by the wizard Gandalf as “appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”
The wizard warns Bilbo Baggins and his companions that Beorn is a “skin-changer,” who is sometimes a man and sometimes a great black bear, and not to be trifled with.
When Gandalf and pint-sized Bilbo approach his home, surrounded by domestic animals running free and a multitude of oversized bees, it’s clear Beorn is gigantic even to Gandalf.
Tolkien was likely having fun with the character’s name on several levels. Beorn is homonymous with the Old Norse name Björn, still common in Iceland today, which means “bear.” Given Tolkien’s familiarity with Old Norse literature, this is hardly accidental.
Further, Beorn’s principal sources of food are cream and especially honey, since he doesn’t slaughter the animals in his care or hunt, and he cultivates the giant bees.
Those who have read Tolkien’s literary criticism, specifically the piece he’s best known for in academic circles, may have noticed another connection: Beowulf.
Tolkien gave special attention to the Anglo-Saxon epic poem in “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” still considered required reading on the subject. A common explication for the name Beowulf, belonging to the Geatish hero of the poem, is in the form of a kenning — a compound metaphorical reference with a particular meaning.
“Beo” is an Anglo-Saxon root meaning “bee” and “wulf” means “wolf”; so Beowulf, the mighty hero who dispatches not only the trollish Grendel with his bare hands but also Grendel’s monstrous mother, has a name that means “bee-wolf,” or, more transparently, “the animal that is a wolf to bees” — that is, a bear.
As for Beorn, his name shares the same phoneme, beo, and whether this is an accident or a pun on Tolkien’s part, I can’t say; but knowing Tolkien’s passion for Beowulf it’s hard to ignore the multiple meanings.
Aside from all the etymological significance of the character, Beorn actually shows up again at a crucial point in the story. This is a bit spoilery if you haven’t read The Hobbit yet, so if you are trying to avoid ruining the ending (somewhat), do NOT look at the image below.
Beorn fares better, narratively speaking, than other of Tolkien’s mysterious characters of great power who come into the story briefly and then disappear, such as Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow. Bombadil is quickly explained out of the action of Lord of the Rings; and Old Man Willow seems to exist only to show the dangers of the Old Forest on the edges of The Shire. They’re also unaligned powers, not beholden to either the forces of good or evil in Middle-earth.
Beorn, on the other hand, picks a side, showing up to do his part in the Battle of Five Armies and thus is given a second act; whereas Bombadil and Willow are not. Why? I think Tolkien just liked his bee-wolves.
I’d love to hear what you think, too, so roar away in the comments.
UPDATE: I neglected to include Danielle’s Wordless Wednesday post at ProfMomEsq, which features a great image of Beorn by John Howe. Also, I would have thought my WordPress plugins would add an earlier post here at As You Were about Beowulf, but I guess the bots missed it. I just don’t think the Beowulf story is dead and buried, because we seem to keep retelling it.
- The total-nerd Tolkien reading plan (davidjonfuller.com)
- Why I read Tolkien (davidjonfuller.com)
- Countdown To Comic-Con: Beorn Appears In New HOBBIT Banner (badassdigest.com)
- Wilderland and Thror’s Map (wordsathome2.wordpress.com)