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Tertiary characters in 'The Hobbit': Beorn

dormouse
Half-elven

Mar 13 2012, 9:16am

Post #1 of 12 (2620 views)
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Tertiary characters in 'The Hobbit': Beorn Can't Post

"Couldn't you find someone more easy-tempered? Hadn't you better explain it all a bit clearer?"

Beorn is one of those wonderfully (or frustratingly) enigmatic characters that Tolkien seemed just to 'discover' - influenced by multiple threads of the folklore and early literature he knew from his professional work, by his children's likes and dislikes, by family games and jokes, by - who knows what else - but always with his own unique twist. They came into his mind, landed on the page, and only then, as the legendarium grew and took shape, did he try to 'place' them in his world and define them. So what is Beorn? Man under enchantment? Bear under enchantment? In a letter of 1954 to Naomi Mitchison, who was reading page-proofs from 'The Lord of the Rings' ['Letters, no.144, p.178], Tolkien was quite specific:

'Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.'

And in the published story Gandalf tells Bilbo and the dwarves, 'he is under no enchantment but his own', setting Beorn apart from the many fairy-tale characters trapped under someone else's enchantment, which they must somehow break.

... even so, the character as written in 'The Hobbit' leaves a lot of room for question and interpretation.

So here are a few thoughts - feel free to throw in your own:

1. We're told Beorn is a 'skin-changer', both in the story and in the letter quoted above. Why 'skin-changer'? Why not 'shape-shifter' or 'werebear' - descriptions other commentators often use for Beorn, though, so far as I know, Tolkien never does. Are the descriptions synonymous, as people seem to assume, or can you see real differences between them?

2. What do you think 'he is under no enchantment but his own' actually means? Simply that Beorn has the power to change his skin at will - or perhaps that he has placed himself under a self-imposed enchantment.

3. Beorn as an exile. There are a lot of exiles in Tolkien's stories and Beorn seems to be one of them. That image Gandalf gives us of Beorn in bear's form alone on the Carrock by moonlight, looking towards the Misty Mountains and growling to himself, 'The day will come when they will perish and I shall go back' is one of my favourite visual images from the book. But why do you think it is that it's Beorn the Bear who seems to feel his exile, not Beorn the Man? Also, is there any significance in the fact that Beorn the Bear seems to be part of a community of bears while Beorn the Man is very much a loner?

4. When we first meet Beorn he lives alone with only his animals for company, though he has an unusually deep understanding of them which seems to be mutual. He's not a 'wild man' as such - he gardens, cultivates, keeps bees - but he doesn't have humans (or dwarves, hobbits, elves etc.) around him and doesn't particularly welcome them. After the Battle of the Five Armies, we're told, he throws a great feast at his house inviting 'men from far and wide' and goes on to become 'a great chief' in the region, also to father a son. Why the change?


Otaku-sempai
Half-elven


Mar 13 2012, 2:20pm

Post #2 of 12 (373 views)
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No enchantment but his own. [In reply to] Can't Post

I have the impression that Beorn, in bear form, might have killed somebody without really meaning to. He may not trust himself around other people and his exile may be self-imposed.

I think that Beorn breaks his 'curse' at the Battle of the Five Armies when he finds himself fully in control of his bear form. It is only after the slaying of Bolg and the rescue of Thorin ('though the dwarf dies of his wounds later) that Beorn sees himself as fit to walk again among other Men.

"Darkness beyond blackest pitch, deeper than the deepest night!
King of Darkness, who shines like gold upon the Sea of Chaos.
I call upon thee and swear myself to thee!
Let the fools who stand before me be destroyed by the power you and I possess!"


titanium_hobbit
Rohan


Mar 14 2012, 12:19am

Post #3 of 12 (391 views)
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Beorn love [In reply to] Can't Post

I love how he pokes Bilbo's tummy disrespectfully.

"I will go back"- I wondered if Beorn had emerged from the mountain.

The Beornings in LOTR- they are burly men, but don't skin change, eh? I guess it is an enchantment, rather than something genetic.

Hobbit firster, Book firster.


Have you explored all of TORN's forums?


elevorn
Lorien


Mar 15 2012, 7:09pm

Post #4 of 12 (381 views)
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beornings [In reply to] Can't Post

The descendents of Beorn could change into bears. I don't know how long or how many generations it lasts, but his son Grimbeorn could.

Beorn seems such a bipolar character to me, one minute he doesn't like people, then he holds a feast. Its just an odd character, then again so is Bombadil.
Regardless Beorn had a hatred of the Orcs an perhaps his stewing about going back when he is in bear form could be his longing to return to the mountains, or even across the mountains towards the shire. Could be that he was asked to go to the east and hold the passes and the roads by some power that foresaw his necessity in that area.

"clever hobbits to climb so high!"


telain
Rohan

Mar 18 2012, 3:55pm

Post #5 of 12 (214 views)
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Agreed.// [In reply to] Can't Post

 


telain
Rohan

Mar 18 2012, 4:12pm

Post #6 of 12 (264 views)
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on were-people [In reply to] Can't Post

I really liked Otaku-sempai's response -- I do think that Beorn couldn't (or felt he couldn't) control himself in bear form and therefore imposed a sort of exile by scaring people away. He may have also disliked the way humans and hobbits (and elves?) treated animals, given that he himself was an animal at least part of the time.

I think the idea of skin-changer resonates somewhat with Edward James Olmos' character in the 1981 film Wolfen directed by Michael Wadleigh. Though there are obvious discrepancies, one being whether EJO's character actually could change into a wolf, but the idea to me seems compatible. With the change comes a difference in how one interacts with the rest of the world. Deeply held values and moralities might be acted on quite differently while one was physically a different animal.

With these thoughts come the idea of Beorn the Man (alone) v. Beorn the Bear (part of a community). Here, I think it is difficult for Beorn to see part of himself connected to humans who might kill animals for sport or use animals as beasts of burden, or as pets, against their will. The bear side perhaps is less morally ambiguous -- and perhaps more consistent with his values. I agree that his fighting on the side of Hobbits, Dwarves, Humans, and Elves probably gave him the confidence in his ability to control his bear-form, but also proved that not all Humans have such low opinion of animals (case in point, Bard). Seeing this, he could allow his human side to connect a bit more to other people in the world.


dormouse
Half-elven

Mar 18 2012, 4:46pm

Post #7 of 12 (242 views)
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It's interesting, isn't it.... [In reply to] Can't Post

... you see, what I would have said about Beorn as a 'were-bear', if I'd been answering the question and not asking it, is that the difference between Beorn and a were-wolf is that the were-wolf has no control over his changes. Full moon and he changes, he can't help it. My feeling with Beorn is that he can help it - his enchantment is his own and he changes when he intends to - but then, I do like Otaku-sempai's response, and yours, that he can't control his actual actions in bear form, and perhaps this explains his isolation from human society. His skin changing does seem to relate to his level of emotion - when the anger boils up (or the homesickness), or when he needs to fight, he's a bear.

I also like your thought that, living partly as an animal among animals, Beorn has a different and much gentler approach to animals than other men, and he has a mutual communication with animals which is much more than normal human.


sador
Half-elven


Mar 19 2012, 1:14pm

Post #8 of 12 (210 views)
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Aaargh! [In reply to] Can't Post

A long post deleted! I'll just repeat my answers to your questions.

1. We're told Beorn is a 'skin-changer', both in the story and in the letter quoted above. Why 'skin-changer'?

For the joke of Bilbo calling him a furrier. The Hobbit is first and foremost a comedy.

Why not 'shape-shifter' or 'werebear' - descriptions other commentators often use for Beorn, though, so far as I know, Tolkien never does. Are the descriptions synonymous, as people seem to assume, or can you see real differences between them?
With all due respect to Shippey - he is not "other commentators", implying that Tolkien himself was one!
But as much as I like the word 'werebear' - was it even coined before 1983?

2. What do you think 'he is under no enchantment but his own' actually means?

I like the idea of a curse - but I think it is more stating that others have no power over him; quite like Tom Bombadil.

3. Beorn as an exile... Why do you think it is that it's Beorn the Bear who seems to feel his exile, not Beorn the Man?
I'm not sure; it is probably that it is in a bear's guise that he climbs the Carrock.

Also, is there any significance in the fact that Beorn the Bear seems to be part of a community of bears while Beorn the Man is very much a loner?
I suppose that he needs to become a part of a community of Men to actually go back (and even proceate).

4. When we first meet Beorn he lives alone with only his animals for company, though he has an unusually deep understanding of them which seems to be mutual.
Yes. As a rule, The Hobbit is concerned a lot with animals, and not with trees - the only personality Mirkwood has is that it is, well, huge and dark. The Lord of the Rings is quite the opposite; I've once suggested (question no. 6) this reflects the differet modes in which the books were written.

It is also noteworthy that Beorn is the first character who actually wields an axe - although I suspect that like Shardik he fought with his bear hands. Treebeard would be very suspicious of him!

He's not a 'wild man' as such - he gardens, cultivates, keeps bees - but he doesn't have humans (or dwarves, hobbits, elves etc.) around him and doesn't particularly welcome them.
As long as he doesn't, he will be alone and sterile.

After the Battle of the Five Armies, we're told, he throws a great feast at his house inviting 'men from far and wide' and goes on to become 'a great chief' in the region, also to father a son. Why the change?
I once had a UUT about this.
And just for provocation's sake - is this different from Eowyn?



Otaku-sempai
Half-elven


Mar 19 2012, 4:29pm

Post #9 of 12 (255 views)
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The term 'werebear' [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Why not 'shape-shifter' or 'werebear' - descriptions other commentators often use for Beorn, though, so far as I know, Tolkien never does. Are the descriptions synonymous, as people seem to assume, or can you see real differences between them?
With all due respect to Shippey - he is not "other commentators", implying that Tolkien himself was one!
But as much as I like the word 'werebear' - was it even coined before 1983?



The word 'werebear' was most definitely in usage before 1983. I can trace it immediately to Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (both from 1977) along with terms for other lycanthropes such as: Wereboar, wererat, weretiger and (naturally) werewolf. We know that the term 'werewolf' is far older than this. I can trace 'wererat' to Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and Gray Mouser" novel The Swords of Lankhmar (1968).

Werebear legends can be traced to Scandinavia, ancient Greece, and to Native-American myths.

"Darkness beyond blackest pitch, deeper than the deepest night!
King of Darkness, who shines like gold upon the Sea of Chaos.
I call upon thee and swear myself to thee!
Let the fools who stand before me be destroyed by the power you and I possess!"


(This post was edited by Otaku-sempai on Mar 19 2012, 4:30pm)


sador
Half-elven


Mar 20 2012, 12:14pm

Post #10 of 12 (218 views)
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Well [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't think Bödvar Bjarki was like your classical werewolf - so I don't think calling him a 'werebear' is so obvious. And the term is lyacanthropy and not ursinthropy.

I doubt that Tolkien would have approved of a construct such as Lieber's wererats (although I admit to not having known anything about Lieber until now - thank you!), and the earliest occasion you use for 'werebear' was after he died.


Otaku-sempai
Half-elven


Mar 20 2012, 8:23pm

Post #11 of 12 (311 views)
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Well, well... [In reply to] Can't Post

My reply wasn't about whether or not Tolkien had ever encountered the term 'werebear'. It was about whether the word had been coined prior to the establishment of a trademark for a line of teddybears that you cited. I was able to establish that the term existed since at least 1977 and probably before then. That is all.

"Darkness beyond blackest pitch, deeper than the deepest night!
King of Darkness, who shines like gold upon the Sea of Chaos.
I call upon thee and swear myself to thee!
Let the fools who stand before me be destroyed by the power you and I possess!"


Twit
Lorien

Apr 4 2012, 7:45am

Post #12 of 12 (1728 views)
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Hmmm.... [In reply to] Can't Post

I like the idea that he has imposed exile upon himself because he doesn't trust himslef around others as a bear. However why doesn't he attack and eat his own animals? It seems he has some way of controlling himself. I wonder if (along with not liking the way some people hunt and treat animals) he just doesn't like the company of people that much.
I really like the idea that he gains some control (or some confidence in that control) during the battle and feels able to mix again. Perhaps it was thanks to Bilbo and the Dwarves that he was ready to fight with other people - showing him what he was missing as well as reminding him that there was something out there worth fighting for (sounds familiar Wink) And that he wouldn't neccessarily eat his friends.

 
 

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