Only four of us met this afternoon because everyone else was in Birmingham for the major Tolkien conference, but we had our own small ‘moot’, characterized by its difference from the primary reading in which the whole group engages when all together. Laura named our meeting the Hart Hall Moot, because our chosen text for the afternoon was Beowulf – perfectly apt reading and discussion in the context of The Hobbit, and because Eileen doesn’t know the Old English poem and is new to reading The Hobbit.
We began with observations concerning the relationship between pagan and Christian elements in the poem. Laura had brought one of her beaded recreations as an example of the inter-relation between the two belief systems that had been co-existing during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was a little amulet pouch beaded in the colours associated with the Sutton Hoo hoard and hung with a small Thor’s hammer (the proper sort, not the Avenger’s kind!), and she pointed out that the pouch would also have contained a Christian cross.
We considered the development of the poem from its oral origins and the place of oratory in the oral society it represented. Laura noted that Beowulf is not characterized by the humility that defines the virtuous individual in Christian society. We discussed psychological benefits of the warrior’s vaunt and the humiliation incurred when warriors cannot live up to their vaunts – something we see in Hrothgar’s complaint that his men boast of the deeds they will accomplish against the troll – but they fail to live up to their words. Beowulf, on the other hand, completes what he boasts of doing. Laura offered a comparison between Beowulf and General George Patton, whose own hubris was legendary.
We do not see vaunts to the same extent in Tolkien’s work, although where they occur they serve to highlight the virtues of humbler characters, or the folly of hubris.
We went on to consider the importance of swords, and the unexpected preference for old ones over shiny new ones. Tim remarked on the difference it would have made if Aragorn had chosen a new sword rather than the reforged ancestral sword. But the primary benefit of an old sword, as Ian pointed out during a previous reading, and as Tim reminded us, was that apart from the significance of its historical lineage and associations, if it remained intact after many battles it was a strong weapon.
Laura commented on the fate of Unferth’s sword, which melted when it wounded Grendel’s mother. As she pointed out to Eileen, Tolkien echoes this in the fate of the Morgul blade, which melts away. I added that Merry’s Carn Dum sword similarly melts when it wounds the Lord of the Nazgul, and that Beowulf needs to use the giant sword to kill Grendel’s mother and cut of Grendel’s head.
I moved on to consider a comparison between the dragon sequence in Beowulf and Tolkien’s handling of the onset of a dragon. It seems to me that Tolkien’s vocation of the Desolation of Smaug is more powerful than the fiery retribution of the dragon after the slave taken the cup in Beowulf. Eileen thought that the Desolation would have been horrifying to Tolkien, who was ecologically sensitive.
Laura remarked on Tolkien’s echoing of the description of Heorot with its golden roof and walls hung with tapestry in his depiction of Meduseld. She also noted the similarity between the greeting of the ‘Coastguard’ and the reaction of the Doorwardens at Meduseld where there are clear echoes in the leaving of weapons, and the judgement of virtue.
Laura also compared the role of the Coastguard in Beowulf with the arrival of the Vikings in Dorset in 787, and the riding of the shire reeve to meet them, with fatal consequences in that case.
When Laura noted that the structure of politics in Beowulf revolved around the making of alliances, Tim compared this to the alliance between Gondor and Rohan.
Tim went on to note the role of early medieval Irish monasteries in the saving of literature and culture after the Romans left, by gathering and copying all kinds of important texts.
Laura then likened Beowulf’s companions to the Fellowship. She allowed that Beowulf’s companions are largely undifferentiated, but linked by their loyalty to him, and to their king, as the members of the Fellowship are bound together by the concept of loyalty, and that this was something Tolkien certainly knew from the Pals companies of WW1. Tim noted that the idea of small group who had a mission together and a primary loyalty to one another was a familiar theme in mythology such as the Odyssey and the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Laura remarked that Beowulf includes many pre-echoes of disaster.
As we began to run out of time, I observed that OE poetry characteristically uses kennings and I asked if we thought Tolkien could be said to include kennings in his work. I couldn’t think of any. Tim, however, wondered if the ‘Straight Road’, in reference to the road to the West after the Fall of Numenor could be considered a kenning? We did not arrive at a definitive answer as we ran out of time, in fact we had over-run our time quite significantly!
After an afternoon of quite intense discussion we continued our ‘moot’ over a nice cup of tea and a snack, eschewing our usual alcoholic refreshment and dinner on account of the bad weather. We will no doubt make up for this deprivation on another occasion!