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Based on Barrow-Downs Forum material compiled (and mostly written) by Legolas
Any errors of spelling or grammar have been corrected silently.

"What is Beorn? In The Hobbit Bilbo calls him a man, yet he was able to shapeshift into a bear. Something doesn't jive there." (-Thingol)

Gandalf gives quite a description of Beorn in The Hobbit:

'He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin; sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of.
At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own. He lives in an oak-wood and has a great wooden house; and as a man he keeps cattle and horses which are nearly is marvellous as himself. [...] I once saw him sitting all alone on the top of the Carrock at night watching the moon sinking towards the Misty Mountains, and I heard him growl in the tongue of bears; 'The day will come when they will perish and I shall go back!' That is why I believe he once came from the mountains himself.'

Later he says, more simply...

'A man; no doubt a bit of a sorceror, but a man.'

Tolkien gave a simple explanation for the questions about such a complicated character in Letter No. 144:

Beorn is dead; see vol. I p. 241. He appeared in The Hobbit. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning 1340). We are now in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.

One might ask how Beorn and his kind fit into Middle-earth. Aragorn, speaking to Legolas and Gimli in The Two Towers, gives us information that could easily be over looked:

It was in forgotten years long ago that Eorl the Young brought them out of the North, and their kinship is rather with the Bardings of Dale, and with Beornings of the Wood, among whom may still be seen many men tall and fair, as are the Riders of Rohan.

The concept of Beorn can seem quite foreign in Middle-earth to the reader at first. Some insight can be gained when looking into the literature and myths Tolkien was inspired by. Carrūn, a member of our forum, presented one theory on the inspiration behind Beorn.

"...but in regards to Beorn I got the following from the book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey. Pages 31-32 have a fairly decent analysis of the character and his background. I'll include some bits of it here. (It should be noted that my statements are based on assuming the information in this book is correct.)

His character is based off of Beowulf - 'He had to teach the Old English poem Beowulf probably every year of his working life, and one of the elementary data about that poem (like most things about the poem, it took half a century to be noticed) is that the hero's name means 'bear:' he is the bee-wolf, the ravager of the bees. He is also immensely strong and a keen swimmer, both ursine traits (for polar bears in particular are semi-ampibious), however he remains Human all the way through his story with only ocasional hints that there may be something strange about him.'

It can also trace its roots from The Saga of King Hrolf & His Champions. The head of these champions is one Bothvarr Bjarki, a clear analogue to Beowulf in what he does. Bjarki means little bear. Bothvarr's father is called Bjarni which means 'bear' and his mother is Bera which means 'she-bear.' Like many Old Norse heros, he is eigi einhamr, 'not one-skinned.' In the climactic battle he turns into a bear or rather projects his bear-fetch or bear-shape out into the battle until he is disturbed & the battle is lost.

So Tolkien took these elements and put them together.

'If there is one thing clear about Beorn in The Hobbit, it is that he is a were-bear; immensely strong, a honey-eater, man by day but bear by night, capable of appearing in battle 'in bear's shape.' His name, Beorn is the Old English 'cognate,' or equivalent of Bothvarr's father's, Bjarni, and in Old English it means 'man:' but it used to mean 'bear,' taken over & humanized....Tolkien went above these merely verbal puzzles to ask himself, given all the data above, what would a were-bear actually be like?'" (-Carrūn)

Primary sources:
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (144)
The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings

Forum resources:
On Beorn I
On Beorn II
On Beorn III
On Beorn IV
On Beorn V

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