After spending a few weeks wrestling with Tolkien's interpretation of Beowulf, I found myself sitting down and reading Seamus Heaney's translation of the text during a spare moment. I came to the place where Beowulf presents Hrothgar with the hilt of the ancient sword that slew Grendel's mother. Hrothgar looks down at the hilt with its ancient runes and carvings depicting the war between the giants and God and meditates on the fortunes of men. In a flash of insight, I thought: this is the whole poem!
Let me explain. Tolkien believed that the genuine contribution of the Northern peoples to European culture was the theory of courage. The Northern heroes, at their best, were men who fought for order against chaos -a battle they knew they were doomed to lose. If they were true heroes, their souls would join the gods and aid them in the final battle against darkness and its monsters and again go down fighting, spitting in the face of the meaninglessness that would ultimately consume even the gods. Tolkien said of them that they did not consider defeat a refutation. The gods were still in the right even if they would lose in the end. Tolkien believed that the Christian poet of Beowulf sensed the value of this theory of courage and sought to preserve it in his work. If ancient pagans could die for order and light knowing that those things would lose out in the end, how much more should Christians die heroically (this was a great age of mission and martyrdom for the Anglo-Saxon church) when they know that Good and Truth will win out in the end.
Move back to the wondrous hilt. The golden hilt, with its untranslated runes and depictions of the war between order and chaos is the old body of pagan poetry that the Christian poet so admired. It has richness, beauty, and power, but the blade itself had only power to kill and then perish in the blood of Grendel's Mother. Without that blade, the hilt is useless, a mere artifact of remembrance. We're never told that Hrothgar has a new blade fitted to the hilt. Symbolically, he can't: the old paganism may give a man power to die well, but once the old gods have failed, Hrothgar has nothing definite with which to replace them. The Christian poet of Beowulf, however, sees use for the old tales. The tales, with their theory of courage, are the hilt into which the unbreaking blade of Christianity is to be set. The poem, if you will, is an answer to Alcuin's what hath Christ to do with Ingeld? If Tolkien is right, then the Beowulf poet might say that Ingeld, properly understood, prepares us to serve Christ the better by reminding us just how far a man can go without hope. If he, without ultimate hope, can still walk as a hero under heaven, how much more so they who believe in the triumph of the risen Christ?