Hobbitwulf

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.

beowulf coverThe recent publication of his version of the epic poem is hardly a mere tiber to his fans — that’s “gift” in the Anglo Saxon — and it’s far from being a curiosity piece, too.

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.

 

beowulf sailing

 

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.

***

 

beowulf opening

 

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.

 

GOLLUM

 

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.

***

RELATED:

About these ads

5 responses

  1. I’m with you to the end, Nick! He was definitely of another age. Maybe Tolkien didn’t want this published because he felt that his translation was solely about his own process. But I suppose, the stature of the writer makes the process that much more interesting, so one would want to publish this, right?

    We are reading The Hobbit to our son right now. Looking forward to reading LOR with him, too.

  2. I agree that the reasons all have to do with his process — you can see it in his notes/index, which feels so personal. It’s amazing to think of something producing a full-length work and then NOT deciding to have it published. What writer is courageous enough to do that?

    I hope your boy is enjoying The Hobbit. It sounds like terrific summer reading. I’m sure it will inspire him to create some great drawings!

  3. Hmmmm…it’s been some years since I last tackled Beowulf, perhaps St. John’s College was the last read. But it’s been one of those stories I have at various times tried (and mostly failed) to tackle. But your side by side with Tolkien helped me think about it again. Oh, my. The books stack up. One more? But having that correspondence between them helps enormously. And I’m wondering what you think of the correspondence between Grendel and Sauron? Grendel, a “fiend from hell… the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens” and Sauron ”whose “spirit arose out of the deep and passed as a shadow and a black wind over the sea, and came back to Middle-earth and to Mordor… and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.” Perhaps there’s more to Sauron too….. another hmmmmmm,

  4. I hadn’t thought of the Sauron connection, but now I see it thanks to the passage that you’ve selected. It makes me think that perhaps all the darkling creatures and tyrants of Middle-earth were spawned — or at least inspired — by Tolkien’s experiences of reading and translating Beowulf. Thanks for passing that along.

  5. Pingback: Don’t even publish your book: Tolkien’s option « Call of the Siren

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,145 other followers

%d bloggers like this: