First Saturday in July


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’.

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.