The time has come (the walrus said) to talk of Tolkien and Beowulf.
Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar, and he delivered a famous lecture ("The Monsters and the Critics") that called for an examination of Beowulf as poetry, as story rather than artifact. After all, its reliability as a historical document has to be questionable. Sure, it didn't survive all those centuries because of any perceived literary merit -- it was just luck -- but to Tolkien, "there is not much poetry in the world like this." And thus he changed Beowulf scholarship forever. Now we approach it as poetry, not solely as a record of the stories told in the eleventh century, or the funeral practices, or the geography of Scandinavia. Yes, we study it because it's all we have. If dozens of Old English epics survived, maybe we'd study "The Lay of Brainless Bartholemew" or something. But that alone doesn't mean Beowulf is worthless as literature.
ANYWAY, so Tolkien was the most influential Beowulf scholar who ever lived. But as a person who grew up inundated with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (my mother had read both out loud to me and my brother at least twice by the time I was eight), I'm much more interested in what the Titanic did to the iceberg.
After all, reading Beowulf, it's hard not to see the obvious. Beowulf's dragon is awoken when a hapless slave steals a gold-plated cup from his hoard. The dragon, enraged, flies around setting fire to things and generally laying waste and terrorizing the countryside. The Hobbit (of which, unfortunately, I don't have a copy to hand) duplicates this almost exactly ... Bilbo Baggins sneaks up on the dragon Smaug and steals a large gold cup. When Smaug realizes that the cup is gone, he blames the townsfolk who nest at the base of his mountain and starts flaming houses. Of course, Tolkien's dragon is writ larger. In Beowulf, the dragon lives in a "barrow" -- basically a little mound. I like imagining a tiny, cute dragon that belches little smoke puffs. Smaug has an entire mountain, and his stomach is nearly invincible because it is MADE OF TREASURE.
It makes sense that The Hobbit would have smatterings of Beowulf. Tolkien began The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his kids, so why not borrow a little from the Old English poem he was an expert on? It's not like the kids were going to call foul. Then when it gets published it just looks like masterful allusion. Everybody wins. Oh, Tolkien, you crafty man.
In countless other little ways, Beowulf influences Tolkien's sagas of Middle Earth. Even the word 'orc' is derived from 'orc-neas,' a term appearing in Beowulf that Heaney translates as "evil phantoms" (ll. 112). In fact, Old English massively influenced the names and languages Tolkien used in Middle-Earth (my favorite? The characters Eomer and Froda, of Beowulf. Also, did you know that Frodo was originally named Bingo? Heh.)
Is there a point to all this? Um ... Tolkien said he was trying to create a "mythology for England," which puzzled me because England has plenty of mythology, from Arthur to Robin Hood. Problem is, none of these stories is as bad-ass as Beowulf. Even the Round Table doesn't have the same primitive Viking brotherhood vibe that Tolkien so clearly craved and so painstakingly recreated in his own work. Reading Beowulf makes the Lord of the Rings seem almost like fanfiction. The best fanfiction ever written, but still. I bet Tolkien would have participated in Beowulf LARPs if they'd existed at Oxford.