Our meeting this afternoon was a little depleted, with Tim, Julie and Mike all busy elsewhere, as befits a hot summer Saturday! We needed windows open and fans at full power in the seminar room. Anne has also been out of action after a nasty encounter with a comfy chair, but Pat was with us again, having braved the uncertainties of the buses.
Our nominated reading was ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s imaginative re-creation of the original folk story underlying the Beowulf poem, but before we turned our attention to that, Ian updated us on the remarkable computer model he has created of ‘Thackley’, the house built for Joseph Wright in early 20th century Oxford, and thus the house in which Tolkien had tutorials with Wright while an undergraduate. We all congratulated Ian on his detailed work on the 3D walk-around model, and hope he will consider making it accessible to a wider audience at some point.
Angela then launched us into our chosen text with her observation that the prose ‘Sellic Spell’ and its shorter companion piece in verse ‘The Lay of Beowulf’ were both easier than the Beowulf translation itself.
Ian remarked that ‘Sellic Spell’ has a touch of Roverandom about it, reading like a useful version of the Beowulf story for children, as well as showing where the OE story comes from. Laura described ‘Sellic Spell’ as the afternoon version, suitable for a matinee! Ian commented that the change of names delivers a very different story.
Pat picked up the idea of names and expressed her delight in the names in ‘Sellic Spell’, in their translated form they can be seen to be very apt as Beowulf becomes Beewolf (i.e. ‘bear’), Unferth becomes Unfriend, and Hondscio becomes Handshoe (i.e. glove), and Grendel becomes Grinder. Each name defines the special ability or quality that defines the character, e.g. Handshoe has a special attribute in his gloves with which he can complete extraordinary tasks. Pat specifically noted how Beewolf’s strength was specifically that associated with a bear – strength of hand and arm.
Laura observed that although the 3 characters have special characteristics, it is Beewolf’s strength that lasts better in ‘Sellic Spell’.
Ian noted that this could not be the case in the OE Beowulf because that deals with the aging process.
Laura thought the names in ‘Sellic Spell’ were more Anglo-Saxon than in Beowulf.
Ian noted that this reminded him of Egil’s Saga and the bear-like strength of Skallagrim. Angela remarked that Beewolf reminded her of Beorn in The Hobbit.
Pat then noted the number of times distinctive trios of names are found in Tolkien’s works, as with Beewolf, Unfriend and Handshoe, but also many in LotR, of whom she named Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli, but we recognised many others.
Laura commented that she was interested in the invented detail that Beewolf was found as a child living with bears, and compared this to the present-day fascination with children said to have been found living among animals.
Chris then startled us with his question about the form of ‘Sellic Spell’ – does it constitute an example of Tolkien writing fan-fiction? This really made us sit up and think. There was some concern to define what we identified as fan-fiction. Ian thought there is a difference between a writer working a folk-tale mode and those just extrapolating from existing work, because a folk-tale is a composite by many different ‘authors’.
I wondered if we should not consider LotR a kind of fan-fiction if we were identifying that mode of writing as merely extrapolating from existing works because we can so easily identify the presence in LotR of many sources.
Chris added that where folk-tales show a need to develop a motif along similar lines, Tolkien was always writing his own version.
Pat noted an instance of Tolkien’s individual development when she drew attention to his insertion of Unfriend’s his length of rope in the episode of the Mere. Although this is completely absent from the Mere episode in Beowulf Chris noted that it does have echoes in LotR when Sam uses his rope on the Emyn Muil, and Angela noted the similarity between the waterfall described in Tolkien’s version of the Mere episode and the Window on the West in LotR.
Chris observed that there are many more similarities between LotR and ‘Sellic Spell’, right down to the level of shared phrases.
Pat noted that there are more extended use of runes in LotR than in ‘Sellic Spell’, where they are only used for names on swords. Ian was puzzled by references to Hrunting being given, cast aside, then returned, and this led on to Pat wondering who the old sword in the cave had belonged to.
Angela noted that there are references to the state of being ‘unfriend’ in The Silmarillion.
Pat was interested in the difference between possible examples of ‘magic’ in ‘Sellic Spell’, such as the melting of the ancient sword, and the construction of ‘wizardry’ in LotR. Sadly we did not develop this complicated topic, but we did give further thought to Pat’s observation that the baleful light in Grinder’s eyes goes out once he has been beheaded. This sequence is not the same as that in the OE poem, but Laura observed that the poetic ‘Lay of Beowulf’ shows Tolkien trying out a different version of Grendel/ Grinder’s eyes.
I then confessed to a late-breaking moment of enlightenment when reading Christopher Tolkien’s comments about the formation of the ‘Sellic Spell’ text. What I read was
“The manuscript C was closely followed by a careful typescript ‘D’ that in all probability I made at the same time as my typescript of the translation of Beowulf.”
For years CT’s dedication to editing and publishing what his father left has impressed me for the selfless effort involved. But suddenly I realised the extent to which CT has always had a vested interest in the editing and publishing process because he had been so constantly involved as his father’s informal amanuensis. In effect, it seemed to me, CT’s efforts to get his father’s remaining works published are also an acknowledgement of his own participation in the developmental process.
Ian observed that in these last books that he has edited CT has been less constrained about his involvement, and Angela wondered if CT’s preoccupation with his father’s work had contributed to the failure of his own first marriage.
Having finished the Beowulf book, we agreed that for our next meeting we will return to Unfinished Tales and pick up our reading with ‘The Line of Elros’ and ‘Galadriel and Celeborn’.