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.