First Saturday in June


We had to decide whether to have fresh air or (relative) peace and quiet for our discussions this afternoon as there was a good deal of loud noise pollution going on in the vicinity of the Library seminar room. It was decided that closed windows and fans were advisable.

We were missing Julie and Mike, and Carol has only just started reading the book so will catch up with us at the next meeting when she and Rosemary come for their annual visit.

Before we began, Angela and Chris shared some of their holiday photos with us – the statue of Gandalf carved from a tree was particularly effective, and the views of the lava field on the volcanic mountain were impressive. It was nice to know I’m not the only member who walks around different places with an eye to their relationship to scenes in Middle-earth!

Our reading for this week was the first part of the new Beowulf book up to the maiming of Grendel and his escape from Heorot. There were many aspects to consider and some of us had come well furnished with additional texts. Tim brought C.L. Wrenn’s translation, as well as the beautifully illustrated translation by Magnus Magnusson and Julian Glover. Laura also came with other translations, as did Angela, whose 1991 translation opened its Introduction with ‘In 1938, J. R. R. Tolkien …’ – a useful illustration of a point I had been making about the fact that most translations we are likely to come across will be those done after the one edited now by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s translation and lecture notes from 1926. And all translations after 1936 have been done in the knowledge of Tolkien’s Monsters and Critics essay which ‘stopped the clocks’ as far as Beowulf research was concerned for some 20 years.

I had brought along my treasured Beowulf, 3rd edition, edited by F. Klaeber – the version of the Old English text Tolkien used (but not, of course the actual book he worked from), and it came in useful for checking what Ian identified as a typo in the Tolkien translation. Ian directed our attention to lines 479-83:

 ‘I tell thee for a truth, son of Ecglaf, that never would Grendel have achieved so many a deed of horror, fierce slayer and dire, in thy lord’s despite, humbling him in Heorot, if they heart and soul were thus fell in war as thou thyself accountest.’

Ian challenged the ‘they’ before ‘heart’, which does not make grammatical sense, and Klaeber confirmed the OE has ‘gif þin hige wære sefa swa searogrim…’ ‘if thy heart were thus fierce in battle…’

I remarked that for me the most significant thing about the Tolkien edition is the way Christopher’s Introduction explains the power of Tolkien’s prose style. This is something we have often remarked when reading LotR and to a lesser extent The Silmarillion, and at last the metrical basis of his prose has been revealed. It is clear enough in Tom Bombadil’s prose, which reflects the metrical rhythms of his songs, but the metrical patterning of other episodes – based as it seems on OE metrics – is, at Ian noted, a sign of Tolkien’s attention to the craft of writing prose which he seems not to distinguish – in terms of artistry – from the writing of poetry. Ian expanded this idea to suggest that Tolkien wrote LotR prose ‘as if’ he were actually translating it from an original poetic form!

The aspect of the translation that seems out of place is Tolkien’s preference for apparent later medieval chivalric vocabulary at times in his choice of ‘knight’ in place of the more usual ‘warrior’. Laura noted that Tolkien actually prefers ‘knight’ to ‘þegn’ (thane). And Angela observed that in LotR ‘knights’ are referred to in the chapters ‘Minas Tirith’ and ‘The Field of Cormallen’.

Laura drew our attention to an unexpected element in the lecture notes/commentary when she noted influences from Arthurian legends including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which, as Laura pointed out, also includes a monster (the Green Knight) who invades a hall and its society, and has to be confronted by a hero other than the lord of the hall.

[I note after further consideration that there is a significant contrast between SGGK and Beowulf because the Green Knight, although ‘unnatural’ in his invulnerability, is closely akin to medieval figures of ‘misrule’ associated with Christmas, and he operates from within the chivalric world in order to challenge it. Grendel, on the other hand, operates entirely outside the structures of the society represented in Beowulf and for which the poem was created. (This thought was late in coming to me!)]

Tim pointed out that Tolkien may have been using Arthurian language to create a sense of coherence because the original legend of Arthur (as a Romano-British warrior who took on the Saxons) dates from around the same time as the origins of the Beowulf story – the 6th/7th centuries.

Ian thought the Arthurian tradition included the tradition of the unexpected hero and the need for him to prove himself – which is how Beowulf first appears.

I found it hard account for Tolkien’s reference to the Round Table as a way of describing Hroðgar’s chosen warriors, and I wondered if Tolkien was including Arthurian references in his lecture notes either as a familiar context for his students, or under the influence of his Pembroke colleague from 1926 onward, R.G. Collingwood.

Tim brought us back to the matter of poetic prose when he remarked on the pace of language at line 81 in the translation:

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.

Tim observed that this maintains a ‘mead-hall beat’ – a characteristic rhythm, and he proposed that this might be regarded here as an experimental style.

Chris asked if the Tolkien translation had added anything new the understanding of the OE poem. I commented that the translation successfully conveyed the well-known sequence describing Grendel’s isolation and the threat of what lay beyond the bright society of the meadhall. Fear of the intense darkness of a world that humans could not control.

This connected with Laura’s observations regarding Tolkien’s avoidance of translating ‘ylfe’ as ‘elf’, preferring ‘goblins’, as the Anglo-Saxon wariness regarding elves belonged with a general sense of unseen threats to human society. This theme is, I thought, well expressed in the translation as Grendel cannot be dealt with in any recognised human manner. As Ian noted, the way this is expressed makes plain the attempts by the Heorot community to make a truce, or buy the troll off with treasure, but this is a creature existing beyond the structures known to the community of Heorot and the Anglo-Saxon audience.

Laura had brought along a map showing the relationship between the lands of the Danes, Swedes, Geats, and the Jutes – a matter of local interest for us as one of our local tribes – the Ytene of the New Forest – were originally Jutes. And there has been some debate concerning the identification of Jutes and Giants in Beowulf. Christopher Tolkien in his notes refers readers to the Glossary of Names in Alan Bliss’s edition of Finn and Hengist. I found this less than helpful, but comparison between word forms in the Klaeber glossary shows how confusion might arise. Happily, editors capitalise the tribal name!

Following my arcane wanderings around eotenas and Eotenas, Tim picked up the idea of the ancient fear of what inhabits the dark and threatens human life, referring us to the recent film The Grey, which uses exactly these fears to great effect, including the red eyes in the dark – not only a signal of the wolves in the film, but of Grendel’s eyes like flame in the dark.

Laura then picked up the matter of the water monsters that Beowulf encounters as she had come across a reference to a ‘nix’ as a kind of water monster, and she queried whether there was any connection with the ‘nicors’ that attack Beowulf. Klaeber again came in useful, showing that there is indeed an etymological link – ‘nix’ seems to be a Germanic form.

Ian kept our attention on the mere – the home of Grendel – infested with ‘nicors’. But Ian’s focus was on the relative geography of Denmark now and then. He had discovered that there are indeed collapsed caves on the island of Bornholm giving rise to ‘sink holes’. Ian also commented that Bornholm lies between Denmark and modern Sweden, but was always an ‘in-between’ island, a liminal space suited to marginal creatures.

The afternoon went even more quickly than usual and then we had the tricky decision of what and how much to read for our next meeting. It was finally agreed that we should read as much of the translation and/or the commentary as we can manage.