Seeing Stones

September 2, 2023
Simon Cook

‘Seeing Stones’ is a series of posts on a short story about a tower, made of old stones and destroyed in a later generation by the friends of the builder. The story was told as an allegory of the making and reception of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien in a lecture delivered at the British Academy in London one Wednesday in November 1936.

The posts explore the relationship between Tolkien’s art and his scholarship, and are published in ‘A Sense of History’, an obscure corner of the Silmarillion Writers Guild. As the name alone should tell you, this guild is gnomic, creative, and scarier than the monster lurking under your stairs - the brightest jewel in the wider online world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

I was lucky to get the gig. Obviously, I had to talk my way round the visa questions (as my personal contribution to fan-fiction is thin and I’d take a bed on the window-side of a Hobbit-hole over an Elvish flet any night of the week). But the visa came through, and I’m now talking to the one group of people who I reckon might be receptive to what I have to say about this 1936 story of old stones and tower.

From the origins of ‘Tolkien scholarship’, back in 1979, down to our own days, a consensus misreading of this 1936 allegory has prevailed. At the foundation of this misreading are two monographs by a couple of academics who, despite disagreeing on everything else, agreed that the man in the story who builds the tower, and who is supposed to be the Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf, is really a depiction of Tolkien himself.

This inability of English and North American academics of the 1980s to recognize a picture of tradition when it is staring them in the face is a primary reason why Tolkien’s stories of the Three Ages of Middle-earth have never been placed coherenly in relationship to Beowulf. My hope is that artists who identify themselves as fan-fiction writers can recognize a fan-fiction artist’s tribute to his source.

Naturally, the nature of Tolkien’s fan-fiction is different to that practiced today. Tolkien was faced with a problem distinct from yet akin to that of the Anglo-Saxon poet, namely identifying the ancient stones that provide the raw materials for the builder. Tolkien’s gift to subsequent generations of a vast mass of new ancient stone radically alters the situation of the aspiring tower-builder. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s story of the Anglo-Saxon artist supplies the basic model of his own art, and hence, I suggest, may be of some practical interest to fan-fiction authors today.


‘Seeing Stones’ appears each month on the SWG website. As new posts appear, I will update these contents:

  1. July. Beleriand in Beowulf. Beowulf offers an Anglo-Saxon view upon the world of the old homeland, before migration to the British Isles and conversion to Christianity. The poet takes history as a process of forgetting. In the world of the poem, knowledge of heaven above was forgotten a long age before, while what is beyond the western ocean is in the process of being forgotten.

  2. August. 1936. Tolkien’s famous lecture on Beowulf was delivered in London in November 1936. Today it is perhaps too easy to overlook the shadow that had fallen on those times. This post reads the northern ‘theory of courage’ as set out in the lecture in relation to the wider world beyond the ivory towers of the British Isles.

  3. September. Rock Garden. The first of two posts on my method as a Tolkien fan exploring the 1936 allegory of the Old English Beowulf. Here I unveil the original allegory, which has the merit of providing a diagram of Beowulf that illustrates precisely what the argument of the 1936 lecture is all about (as opposed to the allegory of the tower that actually introduces and frames the argument, and which nobody understands).

  4. October. Fawlty Towers. Tolkien scholarship fell at the first hurdle because the academic discussion of Tolkien and Beowulf was authoritative, and brooked no meddling, yet woeful. The door that was ajar was closed and hidden. This post samples Tom Shippey’s influential take on Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet.

  5. November. First Brick in the Wall. The architect of the lamentable reading of the 1936 allegory that has passed as consensus for half a century was Jane Chance Nitzsche. On a first reading, her psychoanalysis of Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ is totally out to lunch. But Chance was at least more right than those who followed, for where they saw only an allegory, she spotted a fantastic story. The fantasy she unveils is her own, yet it does touch in places on the magic of Tolkien’s 1936 tale of the tower.

  6. December. A Turn under the Sky. A second post on my method as a Tolkien fan reading Tolkien’s Beowulf scholarship. Basically, I discover in his stories an extended commentary on his scholarly analysis of the story told by the Anglo-Saxon author. This helps make sense of both story and scholarship. The method is illustrated with reference to the ‘heroes under heaven’ who appear in the exordium to Beowulf.

  7. January. … Dunno yet. Basically, from the start I’ve intended to write on the individual stones as Tolkien reads them, situating them in the great diagram of the rock garden. But I got distracted. So this is the plan for the New Year, with Ingeld and Freawaru the central attraction, alongside the monsters and the original ancient sea-king.


Art credit: Image worked up with thanks from Dave World’s The Callanish Stones 4k drone , Isle of Lewis, Scotland.