Beorn again: Tolkien’s favoured lycanthrope

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.

For more on Beorn, read as SJ swoons for him at BookSnobbery, while Kate at Kate of Mind warns that as much as he rules and all, he’s still a bear and not to be approached lightly.

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.

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14 thoughts on “Beorn again: Tolkien’s favoured lycanthrope

  1. Oh, man – I love that last image you used. Very nice.

    As far as Beorn picking a side, but Bombadil and OMW not, I think I remember reading something Tolkien said about how the whole Bombadil section didn’t really have much bearing (heh, punintentional) on anything else…didn’t I?

    • 🙂 I LOVE a good pun. Now bear with me, here…

      I’m not sure what Tolkien said of it outside the book — my memory of reading it and re-reading it, though, was that at the Council of Elrond, the great and wise seem to go to great lengths to explain why a Maiar running loose has no bearing on the massive events of Middle-earth. I’m not a Bombadil-hater, I think he’s a great character; but I’m not sure Tolkien had worked out all the details when he brought him in, and then never removed him from the story. I need to read the Christopher Tolkien books on this part of Tolkien’s work.

      But Beorn, man… there’s a battle where orc asses need to be kicked and names taken? He’s there. In a KID’S BOOK. How many kid’s books have an awesome lycanthrope like that running around? Not enough, I say.

      • Well Tom Bombadil was left as intentional enigma (but he really HAS a role in-story, who was it that provided heroes with magical weaponry able to kill Nazgul?). But returning to Beorn he really is interesting character and has this wild side to him (or we can say he is a bit morally ambiguous) it is clearly stated that he is cruel for enemies and does not hesitate to torture and kill captives (or at least torture is implied) as he once caught orc and warg to question them and later we see warg’s skin nailed to a tree and orc’s head on a stick like a trophy. Another thing that makes him even more awesome, he is a voluntary shapeshifter, he changes form at will, he is a man but also a bit of magician with other powers (like talking with animals) and he has rather gruff personality, of course during the course of story he warms up a bit and stops isolating himself (he invites people to celebrate Yule with him and becomes a great chieftain of strong numerous people of Beornings, some of whom could have a share in magical abilities if the famous bear gathering did not compose only of ordinary bears, if you know what I mean), he also started a family, probably large one and his descendants retained his powers, of them we only hear about his heir and new chieftain Grimbeorn the Old but that doesn’t mean he is an only child :). And we get to know a thing or two of the Beornings, they are not overly fond of dwarves like their famous leader but are friendly enough in times of peace, they are considered best bakers (honey-cakes of Beornings are great delicacy) and they are strong people keeping order in their lands guarding roads, fords and mountain passes (the High Pass, Old Ford and Ford of Carrock) and they set up high tolls 🙂 (presumably thanks to that they are able to field large and well equipped armies, they profit from traffic through their land, especially dwarven merchants and craftsmen passing from Erebor and Iron Hills to Ered Luin and back again :).

  2. Thanks again for the language lesson. The post brought to mind an image of a ferocious wolf in hover mode with gianormous bee wings.

  3. I teach Freshmen English and we read the Hobbit. This is very good information. Character research is always tricky for the students at this level. Quite a few liked this character.

    Yes, I have a cool job at times and I get PAID to read and teach the Hobbit.

    Thanks David, I’m enjoying your website.

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  5. His son is mentioned in TFoTR, although I feel like not enough time has passed for a magical giant dude to have gotten too old. And he doesn’t seem like the settling down type.

    • I was tempted to get into a discussion of the Beornings, which I admittedly knew more about from playing M.E.R.P. than reading the books. Stuff like this makes me wish Tolkien had lived hale and hearty for a good ‘nother 20 years — there was so much left to learn about Middle-earth. Maybe that’s why I like it! There are things to ponder, not everything is neatly tied up.

  6. Thanks for some insight on Tolkien I might never explored on my own. I’m a fan, but it has been on a more casual level. I do wish I had more time for this kind of stuff, and I really enjoy your posts.

    • Thanks Amberr! I think part of the reason I keep going back to these stories is that I really got into some of the sources Tolkien drew from — the Icelandic sagas, Norse myths, and Beowulf (and many more are on my reading list). Every time I reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings I find something new in them. If you’re interested, there’s a great book called J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, which looks at how he developed his stories of Middle-Earth.

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