Last Saturday in July

26.7.14

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’.

 

 

 

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First Saturday in July

12.07.14

We continued this afternoon with our reading of the Beowulf translation. To begin with Ian updated us on his review of the significance of the publication of the three latest Tolkien works: Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur and Beowulf. I then diverted us slightly back to our last meeting and Tim’s response to Pat’s question about the significance of ‘twisted gold’ in the text – Tim had suggested that it implied an added value. While reading for other reasons, I had come across a text that I thought shed some light on this:

Emilie Amt’s book on women in medieval Europe includes examples of the wills of Anglo-Saxon women and in one of these is a woman named Wynflæd (d. c. 950) who bequeathed to Eadwold (a man) ‘her gold adorned wooden cup in order that he may enlarge his armlet with the gold’.

Tim remarked that perhaps the increasing of a man’s ‘beag’ (armlet/arm-ring) in this way approximated the adding of ‘ribbons’ to medals – a sign of personal worth rewarded rather than mere monetary value.

Ian suggested that the gift implied added status for the man, while I thought it might also signal to others his place in an important relationship, since the woman was wealthy enough not just to bequeath the gold-covered cup, but had the status that allowed her the privilege of making a will – not something many women could achieve.

Laura thought there was an historic dimension implied in the making, and reworking, of jewellery, establishing a connection with ancestral skills in society.

Ian directed our attention to Tolkien’s long commentary on the place of Christianity within the Beowulf poem. I remarked that the whole section read rather as though Tolkien was ‘evangelising’. Ian responded by observing that Tolkien was arguing for the way his students should approach the text, and that the poem was originally educating its audience in the mixing of Christianity in the heroic age. We noted that the translation pre-dates Tolkien’s seminal essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.

Laura turned our attention then to the matter of the comparison between the 2 queens the virtuous Hygd and the cruel maiden Þryđ (Thryth) who then becomes the perfect queen when married to the right man. Angela suggested that this was the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ motif, and indeed Klaeber noted as much in his OE edition of the poem.

Laura noted that the Commentary reveals the problem of the ‘difficult bits’ of the poem – lines and sections which resist definitive translation and which are shown to admit various possible translations.

I mentioned that while reading and checking various bits of the translation against the Klaeber OE edition I had come across the term hysteron proteron. Investigating it revealed its classical Greek origin as a rhetorical device in which the natural order of chronological events is reversed. Ian suggested the example ‘put on your shoes and socks’ – logic tells us we can’t put socks on after putting on shoes. The Beowulf poem includes not only this rhetorical device, but further reading shows it to be full of others, some of which can be seen to influence Tolkien’s prose in LotR. Angela recalled an example of hysteron proteron in the chapter ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’ when Aragorn had ‘neither rested nor slept’. Ian, using his palantir, discovered the website Silva rhetorica which confirmed the definition of hysteron proteron.

Part of the difficulty of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation, where the syntax is indeed strangely contorted, must be due to his wish to retain the underlying significance implied by the original use of rhetorical devices. These are detailed in a Christian context in a work by Bede, although Tolkien probably knew them anyway from his early training as a classicist.

Ian observed that, as in the poem, Tolkien reuses various terms and, as in the poem, that reuse brings in additional significance from the external sources. If a translator oversimplifies a translation some of that is bound to be lost.

Laura then asked if we should not give some thought to the dragon? And quoted Tolkien’s assertion that ‘a dragon is a dragon’, but that the dragon might also be seen as old age – the one thing Beowulf the hero cannot overcome – the final defeat. Time wondered if the dragon fight was a metaphor for Beowulf battling himself and his reputation in old age, while Ian wondered if the dragon represented the Geats themselves.

Ian observed that in the final battle Wiglaf is the human hero in place of Beowulf the mythic hero who was also the totem of his kingdom, holding it together, but who can no longer exist in the newer world. Ian went on to note that Beowulf’s slaying of the dragon is not wholly welcome because he dies and leaves his people open to attack by the Swedes.

Laura commented that Wiglaf’s last speech of rebuke to the men of the household who could not face the dragon reminded her of the old retainer’s ‘mod scal þe mære…’ exhortation at the end of the Battle of Maldon – an injunction to stand and fight or face inevitable destruction. Beowulf’s Geats will be overrun by their Swedish enemies because Beowulf dies as the English will be overrun by Vikings (also mostly Swedes!) at Maldon.

Tim noted that after the dragon is killed many twisted armlets are discovered and Laura described the investigation of the barrow as like an Anglo-Saxon ‘Time Team’ as the Geats excavate many ancient objects from it. Ian added that there is then a realisation that this is a bad move as they finally rebury the treasure.

This led us to finding clear links with Tolkien’s stories when Tim remarked on the discovery of the ‘ancient blades’ in the Barrow-wight’s mound and Angela noted the discovery of the Elven swords in the troll cave in The Hobbit. Tim noted that Beowulf’s sword Nailing fails in his last conflict as Narsil fails Elendil in his confrontation with the great destructive force that was Sauron.

Laura remarked that the blade of the giant sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel’s mother melts away as does the blade of the Morgul knife used to stab Frodo, and Angela noted the same melting of the blade of Merry’s sword after he stabs the Lord of the Nazgûl. We considered the difference between the 2 instances of melting.

Chris observed that the treatment of swords in LotR and TH suggests the societies represented in those stories are ‘deskilled’, because there is a constant reliance on old swords and ancestral artefacts.

Ian thought this implied the need for special attributes in order to be able to wield those special items.

Chris added that there is plenty of ‘new weaponry’ such as catapults and ‘dynamite’ (Saruman’s blasting fire), but these weapons do not have ‘status’.

Laura observed that for the Anglo-Saxons any marvellous sword of ancient ancestry ‘might’ have been forged by the mythic Germanic smith Weland.

I had drawn attention to a Bilbo and Frodo moment in the translation where a corslet, sword and ring are passed by an old warrior to a younger one, and Ian remarked that when weapons are given as gifts the relationship between the donor and recipient is protected by the giving.

Ian noted that dire consequences were associated with dragon treasure in the poem so it was returned to the earth and stories were made about it instead.

Angela also noted that the dragon is said to have burned itself, and Laura remarked that Beowulf gets hot under his masked helmet, which reminded her of the Sutton Hoo helmet with its mask (OE grima), which may have belonged to Rædwald.

Tim then thought he spotted a ‘fox’ moment – in the translation/poem when the raven is mentioned. I noted that the raven is in association with the eagle and the wolf and together they are the Anglo-Saxon ‘beasts of battle’.

Chris observed that the pessimistic tone of the Beowulf poem and translation fits perfectly with Tolkien’s other work which does not specialise in happy endings. Ian remarked that this pessimism represented northern acceptance of ‘how things are’ – there is no salvation in the pagan northern tradition [something Tolkien picks up and deals with in Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics], and Laura noted that there is no sense that Beowulf is going to heaven in spite of all the biblical references.

After an afternoon’s wide-ranging and quite intense discussion (at times), we agreed that for our next meeting we would finish reading the Commentary and the ‘Sellic Spell’.

Last Saturday in June

28.6.14

This afternoon was what has become our annual special gathering because Carol and Rosemary joined us, and after her long absence so did Pat. Our reading for the meeting was as much of Beowulf as we could individually manage, so we were able to move around in the text.

Ian began the discussion with his observation that the Commentary is outstanding in the amount of insight and information it provides, and the quality of these.

Pat, who has not had time to read very much of the poem remarked that she encountered problems with all the names, especially the sons and relatives of Hrothgar whose names also begin with ‘h’. Pat also noted the many Christian references and asked if they were an addition. I explained that their exact place in relation to the development of the poem remains the subject of scholarly debate, but they are a feature of the poem in its existing manuscript form and so belong to the Anglo-Saxon period, but have been considered evidence of scribal insertion, and also as evidence of accretion as the conversion process took place – patchy and insecure as it was.

Carol remarked that the end of the Preface reads like Christopher Tolkien’s swansong for his father’s work, and Ian added that he was recalling here his father’s work of academic scholarship in contrast to all his creativity.

Pat then asked why there was a specific reference to Beowulf being rewarded with ‘twisted gold’? Tim responded that if it was twisted then it has been worked by craftsmen and this gave it added value. There is surely a point to be considered about the Anglo-Saxon value placed on aesthetics and craftsmanship here, and Tim reminded us of the brilliance of much Anglo-Saxon goldwork such as the Sutton Hoo treasures.

Laura picked up the matter of wealth and found it poignant in the context of what the original audience knows will happen in the end.

Pat questioned what we are told of Grendel’s descent from Cain, and wondered if it implied his destiny. Laura noted that Grendel is denied any prospect of redemption.

Ian pointed out that there is no redemption for Beowulf either, but he is an ‘outsider’ who is acceptable to the society of Heorot. Carol remarked that Grendel is excluded.

Rosemary wondered why Tolkien adopted such an archaic style for his translation, and Laura thought the style of the translation was more ‘Round Table’ than ‘mead hall’, and felt that the Christian bits seemed to be ‘shoe-horned’ into the older pagan text.

Carol thought perhaps Tolkien would have cringed in later life at this work of his younger academic career.

Rosemary observed that the translation style slows down the reading process and Julie noted the frequent inversions of word order.

Laura noted with approval Tolkien’s retention of the many famous ‘kennings’ on the original, and Tim picked up their complexity in terms of the semiotics of language.

I addressed the problem levelled at both LotR and Beowulf that there are ‘no women’, or that women are treated as merely types. While we all agreed that this was a outdated assessment on relation to LotR, I argued that there is much to be learned about the lives and treatment of aristocratic women in Anglo-Saxon society and poetry. I particularly contested the notion of women as ‘peace-weavers’ because although the term is used, its reality is subverted by the example of Hildeburh, whose peace-making marriage ends in slaughter as the ‘in-laws’ revive their old feud.

Pat wondered at the status of royal women who, she suggested, were being treated as nothing more than servants as they carried the mead to the warriors. I commented that in doing so they were in fact honouring their guests.

Our discussion was so wide-ranging and detailed that I made fewer notes than usual and so this completes the report for this meeting.

For our next meeting we will finish what we haven’t yet read of the poem and the remainder of the Commentary.