‘Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary’ has been hailed for making available the insights of a pre-eminent scholar who transformed study of the Old English epic poem in his lifetime. And rightly so. But there is more to it than that. After all, Tolkien was not only a scholar but the creator of a game-changing epic of his own – an epic with which Beowulf proves to be more intimately connected than anyone has realised.
What leapt out at me from Tolkien’s commentaries in this book is his use of the phrase ‘fairy-story’ interchangeably for ‘folk-tale’, and his perception that Beowulf is full of the stuff. ‘Beowulf the bear-man, the giant-killer comes from a different world: fairy-story.’ This is the world where a hero can have the strength of thirty men; where his special element might be the sea and his habitual enemies niceras, sea-monsters; where his chief challenger is a monster related to ‘ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell’, with a ‘wizard/troll-like’ imperviousness to weapons; and so forth. Again and again Tolkien exposes the roots of this material not in the histories of the royal houses of Sweden and Denmark – whence so many of the poem’s details certainly derive – but in ‘Fairy Story (or Folk-tale if you prefer that name)’.
I’ve long pondered Tolkien’s claim (in his famous paper ‘On Fairy-stories’) that for him ‘a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war’. It seems counter-intuitive that the First World War, such a force for disenchantment, should feed anyone’s interest in fairy-stories. However, Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary helps makes sense of his statement.
The facts are these. Tolkien really dived into philology when he started reading English at Oxford University in Trinity Term (April to June) 1913, truly on ‘the threshold of manhood’, having turned 21 that January. The First World War began in the summer of 1914 and Tolkien joined the army in the summer of 1915, straight after his English finals. In the interim, the text on which he worked most intensively was Beowulf, and what that meant to him may be summed up as philology and – as it is now abundantly clear – fairy-story. What Beowulf says about fear, evil, mortal danger and courage therefore helps to explain just why Tolkien’s taste for fairy-story would be ‘quickened to full life by war’. He harks back to it in ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, written in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s: ‘Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them.’
His story ‘Sellic Spell’ (also published in the new book) is a stripping-down of Beowulf to its fairy-tale core, as he saw it. In the unspecified ‘once upon a time’, a hero called Beewolf battles a monster called Grinder with the aid of his marvellous inborn strength, that of thirty men. ‘Sellic Spell’ exposes what Tolkien imagined was the ‘lost tale’ which can be no more than glimpsed in the recorded epic – the kind of story from pre-literate times which the scop sings in Heorot
many a strange tale, … things that the children of men knew not fully,
– pre-Christian stories, lost tales which only survived fragmentarily in the medieval literature written down by monks. In this respect ‘Sellic Spell’ parallels Tolkien’s own ‘Book of Lost Tales’, his grand attempt from 1916 to fill out and join up such fragmentary glimpses. But there’s a big difference. In stripping down Beowulf to create ‘Sellic Spell’, Tolkien ditches all the historical detail of dynasties and nations and politics. But Tolkien’s ‘Book of Lost Tales’, which became The Silmarillion, is packed with exactly that kind of material – ‘feigned history’, he called it. His legendarium is in fact much more akin to Beowulf than to ‘Sellic Spell’.
And his Beowulf commentaries show why he wove his ‘feigned histories’ in with his fairy-stories of elves and dragons and goblins: ‘how different is magic, faerie, and the like when it takes place in the court of Camelot in the time of Arthur, that are placed in history and geography, from a mere fairy-tale’, he writes. He loved the interface. He’s intrigued by the malicious courtier Unferth: ‘To which book does he belong? The Book of Kings, or Tales of Wonder?’ He’s enchanted and fascinated by how the forebear of the Danish royals, Scyld Scefing, ‘came out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history, which nonetheless left real historical effects’.
For Tolkien the First World War may well have seemed, like so much in Beowulf, an irruption into history bringing with it the peril, the terror and the need for courage which he found in fairy-story. Fairy-story, and especially Beowulf, chimed with a reality that was otherwise almost incomprehensible.
So much for what this book reveals of Tolkien’s overarching design and motives. What about detailed influence? The influence of the Danish hall Heorot on Rohan’s Edoras has been done to death. But we could talk about a multitude of other points, many of them illuminated by these commentaries of Tolkien’s: about Cain-descended Grendel and brother-slaying Gollum, or what Tolkien’s notes on the Old English word gríma reveal about Gríma Wormtongue, or what his comments on the word hell can tell us about his portrayal of the Unseen wraith-world in The Lord of the Rings. And much more. But let’s take one small passage and unpack what it did for Tolkien the storyteller. It’s the scene when Beowulf is rewarded for the slaying of Grendel, and it includes these lines:
He þa frætwe wæg,
eorclanstanas ofer yða ful
‘This fair thing of precious stones he bore now over the bowl of the seas…’
This is a reference to the circlet given to Beowulf by the Danish queen Wealhtheow, ‘the mightiest of torques that I have heard was ever upon the neck of man on earth’. But initially Tolkien was drawn to a small linguistic detail.
Undergraduate notes from 1914 – the roots of these commentaries, I suppose – show him enthusing about the phrase ‘ofer ??a ful’, which he translates as ‘over the cup of the ocean’ and ‘over the ocean’s goblet’: ‘magnificent expression’, he writes (cited in Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 45, 323). And he notes similar phrases about the ocean as ‘Homeric reminiscences in Beowulf’ (cited in Garth, Tolkien Studies 11, 23). Tolkien loved Homer. He’d read Classics for his first five terms as an undergraduate, and it had awoken his taste for poetry, epic and myth. But in 1914 he was looking for evidence that Germanic legend measured up to Greek and Latin literature.
This ‘Homeric’ phrase in Beowulf shaped the opening line of his first-ever Middle-earth poem, which happens to have been written almost exactly a century ago, ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’:
Éarendel sprang up from the ocean’s cup In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim.
In Tolkien’s September 1914 poem, Éarendel sails off the world’s edge and becomes the Evening Star. But at this stage Tolkien had no apparent idea of what makes him Éarendel shine so brightly. The answer lay in those same lines from Beowulf, in the reference to the eorclanstanas, the ‘precious (or holy) jewels’ being borne over the ocean’s cup. You’ll see the resemblance to the Arkenstone in The Hobbit, written in the 1930s. But Tolkien also used the word in Old English versions of passages from The Silmarillion as a translation for the Silmarils, the fateful jewels at the heart of his epic.
In later versions of the story of Eärendil the star mariner, it is the Silmaril which makes him bright – the holy jewel he has borne over the ocean’s cup. The Silmaril is set in the Necklace of the Dwarves – a Tolkienian artefact inspired by (and intended by the author as the originating reality behind) the Brisingamen, the necklace made by the fire-dwarfs in Norse myth. And that brings us back to this same passage of Beowulf again, because the jewelled circlet Wealhtheow gives the hero is likened to the Brisingamen. She also gives him to drink from the ceremonial mead cup. We see in Tolkien’s commentaries how he revered the simplicity of the ceremony, contrasting it with Middle English excess seen in the Alliterative Morte Arthure: ‘Sir Cay, the king’s chief butler, busy with Arthur’s goblets – sixty of them!’ And he freights the cup-sharing scenes in The Lord of the Rings with enormous significance.
In the first, the elven-queen Galadriel gives the cup to her lord and husband Celeborn, and then to each member of the Fellowship of the Ring; and then gives several vitally important gifts to them. All this follows the Wealhtheow pattern. Galadriel then sings her song of farewell. It’s a fair bet that most people will have skipped this, as it’s a poem and, what’s more, it’s in Elvish. But it relates again to Beowulf. She laments the passing of centuries ‘like swift draughts of the sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West’ and asks in a pivotal line ‘Who now shall refill the cup for me?’ She senses her time is passing. In the ceremony she is the one who gives the cup to others to drink from, but she yearns for her own due, her own draught.
In the second cup-bearing scene, Éowyn of Rohan, an extraordinarily resourceful woman who has been trapped in duty to a supine king, gives the cup to Aragorn. Éowyn sees the act as an opportunity, sees him as an escape route. Yet Aragorn is, we know, already taken (by Arwen). Éowyn’s intensity troubles him; he is forced to reject her; she despairs; and it all sets in motion the tremendous sequence of events that leaves the Witch-king dead on the field of Gondor.
In this, Éowyn takes on Beowulf’s role as monster-slayer, and the parallels (and differences) are striking. Grendel is under a spell of immunity from weapons, which Beowulf bypasses by using his bare hands, sign of his manhood. Prophecy states that the Witch-king may be harmed by ‘no living man’, but Éowyn bypasses this by virtue of her womanhood.
All this is illuminated in a general way by Tolkien’s commentaries as published here; more detailed illumination is perhaps to be found the lecture notes which did not make Christopher Tolkien’s cut. At any rate it all underlines the case that The Lord of the Rings is well worth reading as a text in dialogue with Beowulf.
So Tolkien’s engagement with Beowulf could not be contained within academic bounds. And many of his Oxford colleagues were less than impressed at the sight of the professor wasting time, as they no doubt saw it, in Middle-earth when he should have been publishing further scholarship. It’s certainly a pity that he didn’t publish more.
When he wrote some ‘Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf’ to stand at the start of a 1940 version by John R. Clark Hall, he did not exactly fall over himself to praise that version. ‘Competent’, he called it. In fact he hoped one day to publish his own. But it would not have been the translation we have here. First he would have given it the once-over, or more like the dozen times over. No one knows better than his son Christopher the consequences of this perfectionism. I savour Christopher’s marvellous understatement regarding ‘Sellic Spell’, that ‘the “imagined story” offered such a multitude of choices as to give great scope to his tendency to withdraw from too ready an appearance of finality’.
One final point on this flaw, which bedevilled not only his scholarship but also his life’s work, The Silmarillion. The stumbling block was not only perfectionism, but also the sheer range of his vision and expertise. We see that anew here in these commentaries. He wants to talk about fairy-story, about myth, about history. He uses expert philology and deeply sensitive literary analysis (he interprets Unferth’s exchange with Beowulf as if it were drama – he’d been a noted actor at school). He enters with astonishing empathic powers into the life of the Anglo-Saxon world.
Perhaps his biggest contribution, though, is to use his own experience as a creative writer, and particularly as a creative writer in the same epic and fairy-tale modes, to understand what the Beowulf poet was up to. He thinks himself into the head of the Anglo-Saxon poet. In looking at the fairy-tale, mythic and ‘historial’ aspects of the poem, he writes that ‘we have to consider more carefully the various threads out of which this poem is woven’. Tolkien, I think, was uniquely equipped to do so.
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (HarperCollins, 2003). John Garth, ‘”The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-earth in 1914′, in Tolkien Studies 11, ed. David Bratman, Michael DC Drout and Verlyn Flieger (West Virginia University Press, 2014).
This article is adapted from a paper presented at ‘Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Roundtable’, a Medieval English Research Seminar with the Faculty of English at Oxford University, on 22 October 2014.
For further information and selected writings, see www.johngarth.co.uk
John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War, winner of the Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship and published in six languages; and of Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford undergraduate created Middle-earth. He contributed to the Blackwell Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien and the Routledge J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, and has written on Tolkien and related authors in the UK and US national press. He co-ran and co-taught the Oxford Tolkien Summer School 2014 and speaks regularly on Tolkien and other matters to general and specialist audiences, live and on air, in Britain and abroad. He blogs at johngarth.wordpress.com, and works as a freelance writer and editor (including web editor of Oxford Today, for alumni of the university where he read English). www.johngarth.co.uk