Middle Earth has swallowed up our understanding of the Middle Agesby Josephine Livingstone / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
There’s a drawing of a smug-faced dragon on the front cover of JRR Tolkien’s newly-published translation of “Beowulf.” Its green, scaly body loops and knots into a pretzel-esque shape that medieval historians call the “interlace” pattern. You might recognise these loops from Swedish runestones, crumbling Anglo-Saxon crosses or bad tattoos.
The drawing of the dragon, however, is not actually medieval—early medieval dragons’ snouts are usually rounded, not pointy. As the copyright page explains, it is a drawing by Tolkien himself. The very dust-jacket of this new book sums up why an 88-year-old translation of an extremely old poem will sell. We don’t want to read medieval poetry, but we do want to read JRR Tolkien. “Beowulf” is only about 3,000 lines long, but it is here fatly supplemented both by Tolkien’s commentary essays and two of his works of fan-fiction, “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf.” These are both his original creations, inspired by—but sadly not as good as—the literature of medieval northern Europe.
Ever since The Hobbit appeared in 1937, Tolkien’s oeuvre has become a cipher for the look and feel of “medievalness.” From Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Game of Thrones, most modern depictions of the 5th to the 15th centuries in European history bear Tolkien’s distinctive mark. Today, the phrase “Middle Earth” conjures hobbit-holes, not the beautiful Old English word middangeard—the middle space between heaven and hell, where humans live out their short lives. The Lord of the Rings has grown so monumental that medieval culture shivers in its shadow.
Tolkien himself was a philologist, and one of the virtues of this translation is his respect for the source material. From sloppy journalistic articles to preposterous movie adaptations starring Ray Winstone, “Beowulf” has invited a lot of nonsense from modern people. This is not surprising, given how little we know for certain about the poem.
These are the facts: It was written down in the 10th or 11th century, but could be hundreds of years older. The manuscript is fairly hefty—about 25cm by 19cm—but looks straightforwardly like a book. Other texts in it are illustrated, but not “Beowulf.” It was singed in the fire that devastated Robert Cotton’s manuscript collection at Ashburnham House in 1731, although the text miraculously escaped destruction, aside from a few lost words. It now resides in the British Library.
“Beowulf” tells of events that take place in the deep past, not in Britain but somewhere in Scandinavia. They concern a hero named Beowulf who arrives to save a community from a monster named Grendel. He kills Grendel and then he kills Grendel’s vengeful mother. The hero becomes a king. Many years later, his kingdom is terrorised by a dragon, which he kills, but which also kills him. He dies heirless.
Tolkien finished his translation in 1926, although he decided not to publish it during his lifetime. In the introduction, his son Christopher explains that his father wrote it before his long scholarly career in Old English poetry had really begun. Perhaps Tolkien didn’t think it was complete, or even adequate. But now that it has been published, his translation must be judged on its merits. The translator of a poem in a dead language shoulders the duty to safekeep, interpret and deliver that otherwise-lost text into our possession. Tolkien was an extraordinarily talented philologist, but should we trust him with our tongue’s earliest vernacular literature?
Tolkien approached Old English poems with an almost pathological level of identification with the people who wrote them. In his scholarly work, he often defended the integrity of Old English poems against the corruption of the actual manuscripts that contained them. In the same way that this “Beowulf” translation has been pieced together and published, in 1981 a former student of Tolkien’s pieced together and published his notes and partial translation of the Old English poem which tells the biblical story of Exodus. Tolkien’s notes reveal his disdain for the anonymous medieval scribe who wrote the text down. He praises the original poet, but believes that “our preserved version misrepresents him.” He accuses the scribe of “preserving the unintelligible” by unimaginatively copying from a corrupted text and introducing errors of his own. He calls the manuscript copy a “dislocated and mutilated form.”
Consequently, Tolkien simply emends the text as he goes. The words Drihten and Waldend are both synonyms for “Lord” in Old English. At one point in the “Exodus” manuscript, Tolkien substitutes “Waldend” for “Drihten,” on the basis that good poets “seldom keep to one level… passages where inspiration leaves them are apt to be bad from all points of view at once.” He doesn’t note that he’s made the change in the commentary section. He just fixes it. Tolkien loved medieval poetry so much that he swallowed it up. And he wrote with such casual authority about it that passing comments of his have, unsubstantiated, passed into accepted wisdom among scholars. Medievalist Philip Knox has recently pointed out that a theory of Tolkien’s—that the Reeve of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speaks with a Norfolk dialect—has been “met with no resistance,” even though it is not exactly correct. Despite his intimate knowledge of Old English, Tolkien’s scholarship is not wholly trustworthy.
His “Beowulf” is, nonetheless, a great work of translation, which allows us to see qualities in the poem that less faithful translations miss. Tolkien chose to render the work in prose, rather than verse, in order to stay lovingly close to the Old English. The dragon on the book’s cover is Tolkien’s drawing of the creature described on line 2,561 of “Beowulf.” Here is the original, with Tolkien’s rendering:
“…ða wæs hringbogan heorte gefysed
sæcce to seceanne sweord aer gebræd
god guðcyning gomele lafe
ecgum ungleaw aeghwæðrum wæs”
“Now was the heart of the coiled beast stirred to come out to fight. His sword had already the good king drawn for battle, his ancient heirloom, quick of edge. Each with fell purpose in their hearts knew dread of [the] other.”
Tolkien reproduces the syntax of the Old English poetry almost exactly. The word order of “His sword had already the good king drawn” is garbled, but in just the way that the Old English sounds when translated word for word. Square brackets mark where present day English has forced Tolkien’s reluctant hand to emend the original.
Reading Tolkien’s translation is a reminder that the violence in “Beowulf” feels real. The pain of hurt bodies is observed in agonisingly physical detail. Grendel attacks the vulnerable meadhall at night. Early in the poem, the carnage is not directly described: instead, the poem cuts to reveal the next morning’s sun dawning over “eal bencþelu blode bestymed”—all the benches smeared with blood.
He returns another night, but is surprised to find Beowulf waiting for him. When they grapple, the poem focuses on their hands clenching each another. “Fingras burston”—fingers burst. Grendel fears for his life as he realises the strength of Beowulf’s hand-grip (“mundgripe”). His arm is torn off. The human beings nail the arm up in the hall itself, proof that Grendel’s grip is loosened forever. No swordfight, no thudding punches to the face—just a single, excruciating, hand-to-hand fight.
In a recent New Yorker article about this translation, the critic Joan Acocella argued that Beowulf has “no real psychology” because he is “alone in the world; he was an orphan, and he never acquires a wife or children” and thus “no one to behave toward in an intimate way.” Acocella misses the way in which the poem is an exquisite meditation on loneliness. It is not Beowulf who embodies this theme, but Grendel. He doesn’t just crawl out of his “mere” (underwater home) to wreak havoc. Grendel is painfully alone, forced to listen to the humans’ happy feasting in the meadhall while he lurks, by himself, outside. He lives in a pond with only his mother for company. After he is killed, his mother—never troublesome before—goes berserk with vengeful grief. Her retaliation feels deeply justified by the wretchedness of Grendel’s death.
In the midst of his defeat, Grendel screams. The sound is a “sigeleasne sang”—a victoryless song. Grendel’s last action is to force the assembled humans to hear his wordless, shrieking parody of their bard’s happy ballads.
Later, when Beowulf’s corpse burns on the funeral pyre, it doesn’t gently disappear. He is cooked until the “banhus gebrocen”—the bonehouse was broken. A great hero is reduced to a bunch of bones snapping in a bonfire. A solitary woman sings over his burning body, her lament mixing with the smoke (just as Grendel’s screams had drifted up on the air, “sweg up astag”) as it is swallowed by heaven—“heofon rece swealg.”
This is the final scene of the poem. There is no hopeful look to the future, no inheritor of Beowulf’s throne, no moralistic conclusion. This ending makes the entire poem feel, in retrospect, like an elegy for a beautiful but long-lost time.
This translation, too, is a work of deep longing. The force of Tolkien’s passion for medieval art occasionally overwhelmed his scholarship, but its sheer strength also explains the lasting power of his work. For better or worse, Tolkien’s “Beowulf” embodies what it means for a work of art to be medieval, today.