J.R.R. TOLKIEN is certainly not the only person to ever translate the word “middangeard” in Beowulf as “Middle-earth” — but his word choice, obviously, is more conspicuous (and interesting) to us than it is in other editions.
In fact, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary: Together with Sellic Spell edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 425 pp., $28) is an exciting, complete work that stands fully on its own two legs. The publication of this book is truly an event.
And a revelation.
Thanks to the inclusion of Tolkien’s fascinating notes on the etymology of key words and phrases, the book throws open a window on his lifelong relationship with the poem and what he thought of its tangled textual complexities.
That relationship, by the way, is not always reserved and restrained.
“[W]as the poet a dolt?” Tolkien asks himself at one point. “There are then only two possible alternatives. (i) The poet made a bad blunder …. (ii) The text has suffered alteration since it left his hands.”
Tolkien worked on his “Beowulf” in the mid-1920s before embarking on a world-building saga of his own. For more background I’d point you to either Joan Acocella in The New Yorker or Michael Alexander in The Guardian who recently wrote about the circumstances surrounding the poem’s translation.
CALL OF THE SIREN is interested in one of these circumstances: That this translation was supposed to remain Tolkien’s private work.
To some critics, Tolkien’s decision not to publish this translation is a sign of either his embarrassment or uncertainty.
Maybe, they suggest, the poem was just a side diversion from his mature scholarly efforts — an indulgence, even a bad habit (the highest literary equivalent of junk food).
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. What Tolkien’s Beowulf translation illustrates isn’t a literary hobby of some kind —it’s directly, vitally in line with his own massive creative enterprise.
And that alignment goes far beyond the translation of a single word, middangeard. There are many other resonances between the poem and Tolkien’s own work that this intriguing, valuable new book sheds light on.
As the poem opens, Beowulf and his men — “Geatish knights,” Tolkien calls them — learn of the troubles of the Danish lord Hrothgar with a monster, Grendel, who sneaks into his mighty hall, Heoret, and kills his men while they sleep. This villainy enrages Beowulf, who sets sail with his men to petition Hrothgar for the right to defend him against the monster.
Resonance #1: Heoret, the grandiose hall, sits at the very center of the Danes’ daily life — like Meduseld, the golden hall of Theodan, king of Rohan in LOTR. In both cases, in fact — Beowulf and Tolkien’s epic — warriors must leave their weapons outside before entering and approaching the king. A minor similarity, but an interesting one.
Resonance #2: A small band of warriors is dispatched on a difficult mission—to kill Grendel, to accompany Frodo and dispose of the One Ring. In Michael Alexander’s Beowulf translation, that small band of Geatish warriors is called a “fellowship” –Tolkien calls them “a proud company … dauntless company.” Ah well.
I guess calling them a “fellowship” would have been just too good to be true.
ELSEWHERE, THERE ARE PLENTY of intriguing connections to excite Tolkien’s admirers.
There’s a dragon with a golden hoard who guards it against thieves; there’s Grendel, who seems like some kind of frightful super-orc. In fact, the word “orc” is contained within several Anglo-Saxon words referring to monstrous creatures that Tolkien ponders in his etymological notes. These include geweorc (giants) and aergeweorc (trolls) and orcneas (which Tolkien renders as hellish, haunting shapes).
And along with shared words and scenarios, there’s something else that Tolkien’s epic shares with his Beowulf translation: the exalted rhetoric of another age.
Consider this, from The Silmarillion, on creation’s earliest days:
…the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet.
And now this, from Tolkien’s Beowulf, in which the monster Grendel is introduced:
Even thus did the men of that company live in mirth and happiness, until one began to work deeds of wrong, a fiend of hell. Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and , unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.
That archaic tone and very lofty (and frequently awkward) syntax tighten the similarities between them. One story doesn’t derive from the other: instead, they seem to have grown on the same tree. Beowulf’s Geatland and Tolkien’s Middle-earth might co-exist in the same universe, at the same time.
Heck, Frodo and Sam could have easily run into Beowulf and his knights on the road to Mordor.
TOLKIEN LIVED AND DIED during the 20th century, but his imagination and poetic vision belonged to a much more distant age (long before the invention of electricity or antibiotics!). When I close my eyes, I can imagine him as comfortably at home in a chieftain’s great hall as living in Bournemouth after his retirement.
In fact, it’s easy to imagine him as royal entertainer to that chieftain and his warriors — and Sellic Spell (“strange tale”) gives us a good idea what kind of story he would have told. That story is a folk-tale about Beowulf that Tolkien imagined as a frame of reference for the epic. He gives us a back story for the hero, including his childhood and the origins of his name. Not the kind of thing that the poem spends any time on.
Along with this, the edition includes a marvelous Tolkien poem, The Lay of Beowulf, that he recited to his son when Christopher was a child:
The demon’s head in the hall did hang
and grinned from the wall while minstrels sang,
till flames leapt forth and red swords rang,
and hushed were the harps of Heorot.
It’s clear from the poem and other commentary in the book that the idea of Grendel haunted him. Maybe it even planted the seed deep in his mind for Gollum. After all, both creatures do seem like kin — very close kin, in fact: similarly debased and corrupt, half-human and half-monstrous.
Which is why the publication of this translation is such an important event. Owning a copy of this book won’t simply add to your Tolkien library: It will complete it. To put it another way, this book is absolutely …. precious. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
And, if you’ve stayed with me for this longer-than-usual post, my friends, I appreciate it. I truly do. Reading this version gave me a scholarly itch, and I decided to use this post to give it a good scratching.