Monday, June 9, 2014

Savoring Beowulf

I'll admit first that I've loved all things Old English for some time now. Occasionally I pull out all the Old English books I have and slog away at learning the language, and then give up again. I love the way the language sounds when spoken, even if I don't understand what I'm saying. So I read it aloud and feel silly.
When this translation came into my possession at last I had the original text in my hands -- what joy! Seamus Heaney, Ireland's poet laureate, made a beautiful version, and we all ooohed and aaaahed as we should. If beauty is what you want, and a verse translation that applies the meter and uses alliteration well, Heaney is your guy! And for you who've not read it yet, please do! Beowulf is not a long story. You can easily read it in a day or two, in little snatches. And it divides well into three sections, three different "monsters" for Beowulf to kill. When you hold Heaney's book, remember that HALF of it is the Old English text, and you won't be reading that; your reading is only half the contents between the covers. Just go for it!
And we'd have all been happy forever with Mr. Heaney, had not Mr. Tolkien come along posthumously, and thrown his monkey wrench in. Who better than Ireland's poet laureate to give us a perfect Beowulf? I'll tell you who! An Oxford professor, a world-renowned writer of magical prose, whose specialty in his studies and teaching was the exact content of Beowulf -- Old Norse and Old English culture, language, literature, myth, religion, in fact the whole world these people swam in. I'm so sorry, Mr. Heaney, but you must move over. Mr. Tolkien has come and you are now second best.

Two things are lacking in Tolkien's translation, in my opinion: 1) a verse format, and 2) the Old English text. I do prefer Beowulf in poetry form, and I adore letting my eyes drift over to the left hand page and find there so readily the Old English words that my mouth loves to roll around from tooth to tongue. Ah well.

But Tolkien makes up for these two short-comings with something even better, perhaps. Of the 353 pages of Beowulf stuff here, only 93 are Beowulf itself. The other 260 pages are commentary -- almost all of it commentary straight from Professor Tolkien's own brain. It is exactly like taking a course in Beowulf from the master himself, but in the comfort and privacy of your armchair, at your own pace, conversing lightly with him, gleaning his wisdom. He destroys opposition to his views on the text with the power of Gandalf wielding his staff. One does not question Tolkien on the interpretation of Beowulf; this is child's play to him!

Here are a few interesting points I've chewed on thus far:
1. The historicity of the man. "I do not think that either of the Beowulfs are historical." (In addition to our hero, another man named Beowulf comes briefly into the genealogy, early in the text.) He is "only historical, if at all, in the sense and degree that King Arthur is: an historical germ, a real person perhaps, about which practically everything that is told is borrowed from myth, folklore, or sheer invention." And, "Beowulf the bear-man, the giant-killer comes from a different world: fairy-story." (p. 147) Later we read, "It is notable that though Beowulf is quite plainly in part a non-historical fairy-tale character, he is by the author given a father and other close kin." (p. 198)

I'm fascinated by Tolkien's assumption that Beowulf the man is about as real as Prince Charming. This is not how the tale is taught in the classroom in recent days. The assumption now is that our Old English text, which dates from about 1000 AD, relays events that occurred sometime in the 6th century. Certainly there are embellishments and exaggerations, but the historicity of the basic events, the people, the locations, are not in question. An enthusiastic friend even described to me how Grendel, the tall reptilian monster who walks on two legs, but whose forearm could be wrenched off by a warrior, sounds very like a creature we've all seen before -- the Tyrannosaurus: a brutal, carnivorous tyrant.

Somehow, in 80 years the predominant view has changed, and it did not change (as so much of the older views about Beowulf did) because of  Tolkien's teaching on the story.

2. Christianity in Beowulf. In teaching and studying Beowulf over the past 15+ years, I've noticed a scholarly shift regarding the obvious Christian aspects of the work; the trend now is to say that the Christian and pagan elements in the text are at obvious odds, and that the Christian parts were added later by scribes who simply wanted to superimpose their beliefs on a pre-Christian text. Tolkien, writing prior to such post-modern thinking, blows this concept out of the water. Of the poet, Tolkien says, he "was not a heathen, but he wrote in a time when the pagan past was still very near: so near that not only some facts were remembered, but moods and motives also." (p. 150)

Instead of a pagan ignorant of Biblical history, Tolkien notes of the poet specifically "that study of the Old Testament which is characteristic of him." (p. 160) "Where do the monsters come in? How can they be equated with the Scriptural account of antiquity? And [the poet] saw also the parallel between the legendary strife of men of old with these implacable misshapen enemies lurking in dark dens, and the strife of Christians with the fallen devils of hell." (p. 160) Tolkien presents the poet as a man much attached to his own northern heros, and deeply committed to his Christian faith. "What are we to think of the nobility and heroism of the heathen past? ... I think that [the poet] attempted to equate the noble figures of his own northern antiquity with the noble figures, sages, judges, and kings of Israel -- before Christ." (p. 160) Tolkien even says that "Anglo-Saxons made Scaef the son of Noah born in the Ark"-- Scaef, the founder of the Danish royal house whose baby came across the waves to the Danes to be their ruler. "It gave the northern kings a place in an unwritten chapter (as it were) of the Old Testament." (p. 161) It's clear that before post-modern Bible-bashing became the fad at university level, excellent scholars had no problem with the Christian/pagan elements that co-exist in the poem.

"Beowulf is a work, as we have it, of a single hand and mind -- comparable to a play (say King Lear) by Shakespeare." (p. 170) This makes me smile -- in modern scholarship it's become de rigueur  to question any single writer, whether it's the Beowulf poet or the bard himself. But back to the Christian elements. Tolkien states, "The leading idea [in the work] is that noble pagans of the past who had not heard the Gospel, knew of the existence of Almighty God, recognized him as 'good' and the giver of all good things; but were (by the Fall) still cut off from Him so that in time of woe they became filled with despair and doubt -- that was the hour when they were specially open to the snares of the Devil: they prayed to idols and false gods for help." (p. 171) Tolkien notes that the Old Testament Hebrews stumbled in the same fashion. Now begins his blistering rebuttal. "The old idea that the author of Beowulf was just confused in his head, and that all he had was a few bits of Old Testament story which he had remembered while actual Christian teaching was beyond him, is of course patently absurd. The poem belongs to the time of that great outburst of missionary enterprise which fired all England, when the English were busy with the conversion of Frisia and Germany, and the reorganization of disordered Gaul; to the days in fact of St. Wynfrith (or Boniface), the apostle of Germany, and martyr in Frisia, the Englishman who has been held to have had a greater influence on Europe's history than any later Englishman.... Beowulf ... comes from a time when the noble pagan and his heroic ancestors (enshrined in verse) were a burning contemporary topic and problem, at home and abroad." (p. 171)

So we see Tolkien's poet:  a learned man, a man of his own ardently Christian culture, a man writing of a pagan past and of heros he admired. Thus the combination of pagan and Christian elements merely reflect the poet himself, giving a true account of his ancestors as he saw them. "Points of contact between pagan beliefs and Scripture ... particularly interested him.... But he cut out the names of the heathen deities. Why? Because he believed they were lies; and because he believed that people like Hrothgar knew it...." (p. 172)

Tolkien has told us, "a reading of the whole of Beowulf, and a scrutiny of every line and expression of theological import, shows in general that this clear rational theory was consistently carried out" -- the theory of a Christian poet who respects and reveres his pagan ancestor heros. One passage, however, is a clear contradiction of this otherwise holistic view, the passage where the text states flatly that the people in Hrothgar's day did not know nor comprehend the Author/Almighty/Judge, that they had not even heard of the Lord God. These are lines 181-188 in the original OE text. They utterly contradict all that the poet otherwise says. Tolkien goes into many pages of great detail regarding text, grammar, diction, and logic to prove his final view on this bizarre passage. He believes there was a deliberate corruption of the text. "The later 'Christian' did not find this comment long enough or strong enough." (p. 180) Some later writer, seeing the poet's gentleness with these pagan idol-worshipers, decided to insert a sterner comment regarding them, but one at odds with the rest of the text. That's Tolkien's view.

Otherwise our beloved Oxford don sees the poem not as a pagan document worked over by Christian scribes later, but as a fairy-tale piece written by a Christian man of education evaluating his past according to his own faith. It is an appealing view.

3. The interesting litotes. Apparently one Old English idiom is the use of severe understatement, a rhetorical device to express the opposite of what one says -- ancient irony. Tolkien notes quite a few of these in Beowulf. Evidently Mr. Heaney did not always recognize this idiom when he came across it. Sometimes he correctly translates the poet's intended irony, and sometimes (unfortunately) he translates its opposite. Tolkien faithfully points out these spots in the original and dutifully discusses them with his students in the commentary. His commentary, of course, was written decades before Heaney made his translation. It's a shame Heaney could not have benefitted from Tolkien's instruction. Heaney taught poetry at Oxford, but I don't think he had access to this commentary. It would be interesting to know for sure. Perhaps the two disagreed regarding the use of litotes in Beowulf.

Thus far I'm only on line 230 of Tolkien's translation because the corresponding commentary is lengthy. I want to read the two together and slog through it with the beloved teacher. There's quite a bit yet to go. If I find more thrilling parts, I'll be sure to let you know!


  1. I think I would find this fascinating. Just "listening" to Tolkien talk would be worth it! :) It's on my Wish List on Amazon. I'll order it someday when I'm feeling bold! Thanks for your insights and for sharing.

  2. Amazing. Not everyone loves Old and/or Middle English, and you've made it all so appealing here. I was especially interested in the Tolkien version --- I may just have to have a copy. (It's so cool that this literary geek has found a kindred spirit! What fun!)

  3. M.K., I am going to print this post so I can read it at leisure....I wish I could get Tolkien's Beowulf in really doesn't seem like something I want to read on a Kindle. :-)

  4. Sheesh, MK, you put me to shame. I am such a LAZY American reader!! (Then again, I could spend hours reading medical research. I'm saying that to make myself feel better...)

    Thanks for challenging my head today. Keep us posted.

    PS Off topic - Thank you for your kind words following our loss. It meant a lot. =)


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