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.