With the human face of Beorn finally revealed (Warning: visual spoilers on that link!), I thought readers might be interested in a little bit of book character history and background.
The most common questions that people ask concern his ability to change shape. Is it magical? Is he cursed? Does he have control over it? Did Tolkien mean Beorn to be some kind of beserker?
Here, Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez has a quick look at the evidence available.
Was Beorn in The Hobbit a Were-bear?
A were-bear, like a were-wolf, is a man who unwillingly transforms into the shape of an animal (a bear). In The Hobbit Gandalf says of Beorn that he is a “skin-changer”, meaning something other than a were-bear. In Letter No. 144, written in April 1954, Tolkien wrote to Naomi Mitcheson:
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.
In The Hobbit Gandalf provides as much background concerning Beorn as one is likely to find in any Tolkien book:
…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. They work for him and talk to him. He does not eat them; neither does he hunt or eat wild animals. He keeps hives and hives of great fierce bees, and lives most on cream and honey. As a bear he ranges far and wide. 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.
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