Tolkien’s translation and commentary of Beowulf revolutionized how the text was viewed. His commentary explains parts of Anglo-Saxon culture relevant to difficult readings and demonstrates how the text is a blending of a wonder-story, actual history, and a Christian message. For example, Tolkien notes that the Geatish court gives it’s blessing to Beowulf’s announcement that he’s going to rescue Heorot: Beowulf seems to be a bit of a hothead and the older guys were a little tired of Beowulf and welcomed an opportunity for him to actually get battle-tested. Tolkien also notes that the Danes are actually enemies of the Geats, so Danish Hrothgar uses the opportunity that Beowulf provides to adopt Beowulf as a son and make peace between the two peoples.

The volume I read was put together by his son Christopher, and includes the original wonder-story as Tolkien thought it might have been; it resembles some of the shorter Icelandic sagas and has a similar quality of feeling fictional yet also probably somehow historical that the sagas do. In this version, Beewulf is adopted as a child by the king after being found being raised by bears. He became a man of little words and a fair temper, but with a bear’s strength and a bear’s immunity to the cold, and he was given the name Beewulf because of his tussles with bees due to his love of honey. This latter enabled him to survive days at sea after getting blown off course during a swimming match, and fighting sea monsters (probably like a grindylow, rather than a sea serpent). The combination of his overpowering strength and quick temper made people in the king’s court nervous, so they were relieved when he goes off to rescue Heorot. On his way to the shore he met Handshoe, a man with gloves that gave him strength to tear apart rocks. Upon landing he met Ashwood, a man with a spear to can pierce anything. The three journeyed to Heorot, and after ascertaining that the three do want to try to kill Grinder, Hrothgar feasted them. Neither Ashwood nor Handshoe thought much of Beewulf’s might, and Ashwood was eager to fight, with the other two trying subsequent nights if he was killed. As night approached the feast nervously ended and they were left alone in the hall. Ashwood fell asleep and when Grinder entered, the spear was against the wall he knocked it over groping for it, drawing Grinder’s attention to him. Grinder tore him apart and left to eat his kill. The next night Handshoe was eager to win the glory, and he slept with the gloves on to avoid the previous man’s problem, but the came off while he was sleeping as he tossed in disturbed dreams. Grinder tore him apart and left to eat his kill. One of the members of Hrothgar’s court, Unfriend, thought so little of Beewulf that he noised to those around him that Beewulf would be afraid to try. But Beewulf was still insistent on trying, telling Hrothgar that his two arms were sufficient, and if not, that at least Hrothgar would not have the considerable food expense of guesting someone with a bear’s strength. Grinder came again, but this time he lost his arm to Beewulf’s grip. In the morning the warriors of Hrothgar’s court saw Grinder’s scaly arm and nail-like claws and said that surely no weapon could have harmed him, but Unfriend found no words. Hrothgar said that he feared that Grinder was too strong to die simply from having his arm torn off, so Beowulf volunteered to finish the job if they could show him where he lived. So they took him to an evil-looking pool at the bottom of the cliff. Unfriend tied a rope around a rock and said he would wait for Beewulf to return and pull him up, but after Beowulf rappelled down and dove into the pool, he loosened the rope and left. At the cave in the bottom of the pool Beewulf found Grinder’s mother, and the battle between them was mostly a draw until he saw a giant’s sword among the treasure they had won. His strength was so great that normal weapons shattered when he delivered a blow, but the giant’s sword was just the thing. He killed Grinder’s mother, and then found Grinder on a couch in the back and cut off his head, which he took back up as proof to Hrothgar. The rope fell away in his hands, and Beewulf was very tired from swimming many miles to find a place to climb out. When he finally returned, Unfriend was telling his story. Beewulf was rather wroth with him and told his part of the story. Unfriend was revealed in his treachery and was quieter after that (and there was less discord in the hall). Grinder’s hot blood had melted the sword, but the hilt was so wonderfully wrought that Hrothgar had Unfriend smith a new blade, which he did skillfully and upon receiving it Beewulf forgave him. Beewulf stayed at Heorot for a while, but returned to his home, to the surprise of the king. He distinguished himself in battle, even sometimes sheathing his sword and dropping his shield and killing the enemy commander with just his bare arms. He married the king’s only daughter and became a great lord.

From this source material, which reads very much like one of the Icelandic sagas, albeit with a more legendary feel, the Christian author of the text we have combined it with historical material to give the story a deeper purpose. The original tenth-century audience would still have had some oral memory of the history between the Geats and the Danes, and would have known that the Geats were ultimately defeated. So the author sets the source story in this time period, but modifies it to say that although their pre-Christian ancestors had wonderful culture and deeds worth celebrating, the culture of honor by winning fights and taking treasure resulted in endless blood-feuds that produced a society that relied on a strong Man for its safety. While Beowulf was an ideal king, who did not start feuds but only battled to protect his people, nonetheless, he was overconfident attacking the dragon, his warriors were too afraid to help, and the help of the Geats perished, leaving them open to the destruction that ultimately happened. Thus the Christian author is both celebrating the past, but demonstrating that the Christian way is better, and doing so through the traditional medium of poetic tale. (Although Tolkien does not mention this, perhaps the author, who is clearly an excellent poet, has incorporated all five of the traditional skills of Norse storytelling. I cannot locate the list of all five, but three of them are incorporated: the oral history, the wonder tale, the elegy. Indeed, not only is there an elegy for Beowulf at the end, but the entire poem could be seen a sort of elegy for the pre-Christian value system.)

In adapting the original story the poet left some vestiges of the things he left out. Thus while Ashwood becomes the captain of Hrothgar’s who meets Beowulf’s men when the boat lands on the Danish shore, Handshoe survives (in a manner of speaking) as the warrior of Beowulf’s that Grendel seizes and eats immediately upon entering, otherwise, why does one random man perish while the other fourteen are fine? Similarly, Unfriend becomes Unferth, who is the man entrusted with keeping the history for the king by incorporating it into the oral tradition. He undermines Beowulf with mistruths about who won the race in the ocean, but Unferth’s words also serve as a goad for Beowulf to step up and make his intentions official. Yet, similar to his unreliable help in the source, he gives Beowulf a magnificent weapon which ends up shattering the first time he uses it. In this case the help is unreliable but the intention was good, while in the original the intention was malicious. But this leaves the giant’s sword as merely a beautiful ruined treasure, instead of it’s restoration serving as a restoration of relationship after treachery, leading one to ask why Beowulf bothered to go to the effort of bringing it back. (Although since the audience would have known the original tale, then if Tolkien’s reconstruction is correct, perhaps the poet is intentionally using the missing piece of the story to compare the old value system to a magnificent giant’s sword which is now ruined.)

Much of Tolkien’s commentary addresses difficult pieces of the text, usually demonstrating a path for a word that fits perfectly to have become corrupted via scribal error or misunderstanding into what the text now contains. Examples of these would require knowledge of Old English which I do not. It is a testament to older generations of university that Oxford students were required to translate pieces of Beowulf as a matter of course. However, it is is a good example of source criticism, and it is refreshing to see it done by someone who respects the original writers and thinks they were intending to make valuable points, instead of deconstructing them.

Tolkien also has some detailed commentary on the meaning of wyrd, fate. Through analysis of multiple passages in the poem, he comes to the conclusion that wyrd is not preordained. In some cases, phrases like “doomed to die” simply mean that the person is nearing their death. Generally he thinks it means that the hero’s outcome is somewhat under their control. The hero may still die, but acting heroically tends to produce its own luck, as it were. These passages also engender some brief analysis of some overtly Christian statements that seem out of keeping with the poem in general, and the authentic pagan nature of the characters in specific. Some of these he attributes to additions by a later scribe, due to their much less skillful composition. Others, such as a statement affirming Hrothgar’s worship of God, Tolkien sees as being similar to how the New Testament attributes belief in Christ to Abraham, who lived more than a millenium before Christ.

Anglo-Saxon Old English poetry must not be translatable into modern English without losing its effect, because Tolkien attempted a translation that kept the meter and the alliteration of the original. He abandoned the attempt. This seems to be in large part due to the compressed nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which seems to have lines consisting of two pairs of alliterating words, which to modern English speakers would be more of a riddle to be deciphered than a story to be understood. Perhaps the problem is similar to writing a 5/7/5 syllable haiku in English instead of in a language where the one-syllable Chinese-reading of a kanji conveys an entire word. (Although, the short poems in the Icelandic sagas do seem to have an intentional riddle element to the construction of the kennings. While this seems to be lacking in Beowulf, perhaps well-crafted poems are expected to require some thought by the listener.) At any rate, the translation Tolkien settled on is even more prose-like than Seamus Heaney’s translation, although his son notes that Tolkien does pay attention to the rhythm of syllables within sentences.

I find it interesting that Heaney writes that the Christian elements and original pagan elements are indecipherably interwoven, yet decades before him Tolkien does exactly what Heaney finds impossible. I think this is partly because Tolkien was a devout Christian. Given the knowledge that blood-feud was a major problem for Norse societies (which Heaney notes), the basic Christian message seems fairly straightforward. Relying on Man, even a Beowulf, ends in death, because we were designed to rely on God. Furthermore, to a Christian, viewing a society with the ever-present risks of escalating blood-feuds and whose value system is that honor comes through winning fights and gaining worldly treasure, would naturally draw the conclusion that escalating blood-feuds were the consequence of the sin of personal gain at the expense of others, since Paul instructs people to building each other up in love and not to tear each other apart divisively.

This volume is not as readable as Heaney’s volume, due to Christopher Tolkien’s analysis of his father’s text (even as his father analyzes the older text), as well as the fact that the commentary is intended as academic commentary not an informative basic lecture to laypeople. It is, however, well worth the read, and presents a very different approach from Heaney’s approach. I particularly like the addition of “Sellic Spell” (literally, “wonder-tale”), not only because Tolkien has reconstructed a very plausible source tale in an authentic Norse style, but because it helps give context to the extant poem. It also informs a comment that I think Tolkien (but possibly something I read somewhere else) that the Bishop of Lindisfarne admonished the monks to read the Bible during meals, “for what does Christ have to do with <some name>?”: reading this tale I can easily imagine why Anglo-Saxon monks would enjoy hearing these culturally-indigenous tales. I like to imagine that it was a Lindisfarne monk who combined the Bishop’s admonition with the monk’s desire for thrilling enjoyment, and created a tale that combined both the tale and Christian education. Similarly, the addition of two of Tolkien’s modern English abbreviated poems that could be sung (Christopher remembers him singing one to him as a child) gives a view on what this tradition might look like in a modern setting.

Review: 10