Tolkien & the Anglo-Saxon Heritage of Beowulf


Tolkien & the Anglo-Saxon Heritage of Beowulf
by Pauline Park

Much ink has been spilled about J.R.R. Tolkien’s interest in and debt to “Beowulf,” but of this one can be certain: the 20th century philologist’s reading of the great Anglo-Saxon poem had a profound influence on his literary imagination and output.

In his authorized (1977) biography of the author of “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings,” Humphrey Carpenter writes that the young Tolkien first encountered Old English in the summer of 1913 when studying at Oxford University (chapter 6, “Reunion”). Tolkien was forcibly struck by a passage in the “Crist” of Cynewulf, “Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast; ofer middangeard, monnum sended” (Anglo-Saxon translated as “Hail Earendel, brightest of angels; above the middle-earth, sent unto men.”)  “I felt a curious thrill, Carpenter quotes Tolkien writing years later, “as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English” (Carpenter, p. 64). In fact, it was “the voyage of Earendel’s star-ship that had been the first element of the mythology to arise in Tolkien’s mind,” Carpenter declares (p. 107). But if the “Crist” of Cynewulf is only a fragment, it was Tolkien’s encounter with and study of the full-length poem “Beowulf” that would have a profound impact on the creation of his own Middle Earth. The greatest of all Anglo-Saxon  works of literature, “Beowulf” is universally regarded as the first great work in the English language, and its style would inspire Tolkien to attempt a power in rhyming couplets that he would call “The Gest of Beren and Luthien” (later renamed “The Lay of Leithian”).

Later when teaching at Leeds and then at Oxford, Tolkien would lecture on “Beowulf.” As Carpenter describes it, “He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of ‘Hwaet!’… which some undergraduates took to be ‘Quiet!'” (Carpenter, pp. 132-133). “It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that “Beowulf” was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of an examination but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry,” Carpenter continues.

Tolkien was invited to contribute an introduction to the Clark Hall translation of “Beowulf” published in 1940, of which Carpenter writes, “Consciously or unconsciously, he was really discussing “The Lord of the Rings,” which had at that time (the beginning of 1940) reached the middle of what was to become Book II” (Carpenter, p. 192).

Tolkien gave an enormously influential lecture on “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” on 25 November 1936. “Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on “The Beowulf”  has been due either to the belief that it was something that it was not — for example, primitive, pagan,Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at thediscovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better—for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic “Summa Theologica,” Tolkien said in delivering the 1936 Sir Israel Gollancz Lecture at Oxford.

Tolkien despised what he regarded as misdirected attention, arguing that “it is plainly only in the consideration of “Beowulf” as a poem, with an inherent poetic significance, that any view or conviction can be reached or steadily held. For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture,flitting from one tum-tum tree to another, “he wrote in characteristically colorful language.

“‘Beowulf’ is not an ‘epic’, not even a magnified ‘lay,'” Tolkien declared in his 1936 Gollancz Lecture. “If we must have a term, we should choose rather ‘elegy’. It is an heroic-elegiac poem,” the philologist insisted. One of the most potent elements in the fusion that “Beowulf” represents, Tolkien argued, was “Northern courage: the theory of courage,which is the great contribution of early Northern literature… the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North. With due reserve we may turn to thetradition of pagan imagination as it survived in Icelandic…” And when Tolkien says of “Beowulf” that it is “an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one,” one cannot help but think that he is also accurately describing both “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings” in saying of the Anglo-Saxon text that “it is a poem by alearned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical.”

Likewise, when speaking of the Old English poem’s antiquity, Tolkien could easily be speaking of “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings” when he said in the 1936 lecture, “When new ‘Beowulf’ was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of thingsalready old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon theheart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote.”

I am particularly struck by this observation on Tolkien’s part: “If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo.” There is an echo of this sentiment, it seems to me, in a passage from the chapter entitled “Lothlorien” in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” in which Tolkien writes, “As soon as he set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking into a world that was no more. In Rivendell, there was a memory of ancient things; in Lorien, the ancient things still lived on in the waking world” (p. 453, Ballantine 1965 paperback edition). Six paragraphs later, Tolkien continues the description of Lothlorien thusly: “Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes  seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever” (p. 454, 1965 Ballantine paperback edition).

It seems to me that Tolkien’s reading of “Beowulf” influenced his own mythopoeic writing in at least three distinct ways: first, in Tolkien’s sense of language and literary style; second, in terms of plot elements and character; and third, in terms of what might be called for lack of a better term his ‘neo-Medievalism — the creation of a world with elements strongly reminiscent of characteristics of the world of “Beowulf” and the early Middle Ages.

In examining these areas of influence, I think it is worthwhile to examine just a few passages in “Beowulf.” Lines 710-719 contain one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire poem, the entrance of the monster Grendel”:

ða com of more         under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan,         godes yrre bær;
mynte se manscaða         manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan         in sele þam hean.
Wod under wolcnum         to þæs þe he winreced,
goldsele gumena,         gearwost wisse,
fættum fahne.         Ne wæs þæt forma sið
þæt he Hroþgares         ham gesohte;
næfre he on aldordagum         ær ne siþðan
heardran hæle,         healðegnas fand.

In Seamus Heaney’s masterful verse translation (published by W.W. Norton in 2000), this passage reads:
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
Grendel strikes
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep of fortified gold.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there are many monstrous creatures, though none that corresponds exactly to Grendel. But Shelob and her mother, Ungoliath, giant spiders, come to mind, as does the Balrog that does battle with Gandalf in “The Bridge of Khazad-dum” (in “The Fellowship of the Ring”); certainly, the atmosphere of the Balrog’s entrance as well as Shelob’s echoes that of this passage from “Beowulf.”

In 990-1002, there is a vivid description of Heorot and its destruction:

ða wæs haten hreþe         Heort innanweard
folmum gefrætwod.         Fela þæra wæs,
wera ond wifa,         þe þæt winreced,
gestsele gyredon.         Goldfag scinon
web æfter wagum,         wundorsiona fela
secga gehwylcum         þara þe on swylc starað.
Wæs þæt beorhte bold         tobrocen swiðe,
eal inneweard         irenbendum fæst,
heorras tohlidene.         Hrof ana genæs,
ealles ansund,         þe se aglæca,
fyrendædum fag,         on fleam gewand,
aldres orwena.

Then the order was given for all hands
to help to refurbish Heorot immediately:
men and women thronging the wine-hall,
getting it ready. Gold thread shone
in the wall-hangings, woven scenes
that attracted and held the eye’s attention.
But iron-braced as the inside of it had been,
that bright room lay in ruins now.
The very doors had been dragged from their hinges.
Only the roof remained unscathed
by the time the guilt-fouled fiend turned tail
in despair of his life.
Here one is struck by the parallel in the descriptions of Khazad-dum in its heyday and later in its ruin.

In lines 1442-1464, we have this vivid description of Beowulf’s chain mail, helmet and sword:

Gyrede hine Beowulf
eorlgewædum,         nalles for ealdre mearn.
Scolde herebyrne         hondum gebroden,
sid ond searofah,         sund cunnian,
seo ðe bancofan         beorgan cuþe,
þæt him hildegrap         hreþre ne mihte,
eorres inwitfeng,         aldre gesceþðan;
ac se hwita helm         hafelan werede,
se þe meregrundas         mengan scolde,
secan sundgebland         since geweorðad,
befongen freawrasnum,         swa hine fyrndagum
worhte wæpna smið,         wundrum teode,
besette swinlicum,         þæt hine syðþan no
brond ne beadomecas         bitan ne meahton.
Næs þæt þonne mætost         mægenfultuma
þæt him on ðearfe lah         ðyle Hroðgares;
wæs þæm hæftmece         Hrunting nama.
þæt wæs an foran         ealdgestreona;
ecg wæs iren,         atertanum fah,
ahyrded heaþoswate;         næfre hit æt hilde ne swac
manna ængum         þara þe hit mid mundum bewand,
se ðe gryresiðas         gegan dorste,
folcstede fara;         næs þæt forma sið
þæt hit ellenweorc         æfnan scolde.

Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;
his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail
would soon meet with the menace underwater.
It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe:
no enemy’s clasp could crush him in it,
no vicious armlock choke his life out.
To guard his head he had a glittering helmet
that was due to be muddied on the mere bottom
and blurred in the upswirl. It was of beaten gold,
princely headgear hooped and hasped
by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders
in days gone by and adorned it with boar-shapes;
since then it had resisted every sword.
And another item lent by Unferth
at that moment of need was of no small importance:
the brehon handed him a hilted weapon,
a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting.
The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns
had been tempered in blood. It had never failed
the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle,
anyone who had fought and faced the worst
in the gap of danger.
The reader of Tolkien cannot help but think of the coat of mithril that Bilbo Baggins bestows on his nephew, Frodo, as he prepares to leave Rivendell and which saves his life in the encounter with the troll in the Mines of Moria. And the description of the sword lent to Beowulf by Unferth has echoes in the elaborately detailed accounts of Anduril, the great sword wielded by Aragorn in his many battles at the close of the Third Age of Middle Earth.

In lines 1501-1505, the chain mail shirt that Beowulf wears saves him from the vicious talons of Grendel’s mother:

Grap þa togeanes,         guðrinc gefeng
atolan clommum.         No þy ær in gescod
halan lice;         hring utan ymbbearh,
þæt heo þone fyrdhom         ðurhfon ne mihte,
locene leoðosyrcan         laþan fingrum.

So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him
in her brutal grip; but his body, for all that,
remained unscathed: the mesh of the chain-mail
saved him on the outside. Her savage talons
failed to rip the web of his warshirt.

In lines 1545-59, the chain mail shirt again saves Beowulf from Grendel’s mother, this time wielding a knife:

Ofsæt þa þone selegyst         ond hyre seax geteah,
brad ond brunecg,         wolde hire bearn wrecan,
angan eaferan.         Him on eaxle læg
breostnet broden;         þæt gebearh feore,
wið ord ond wið ecge         ingang forstod.

So she pounced upon him and pulled out
a broad, whetted knife: now she would avenge
her only child. But the mesh of chain-mail
on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life,
turned the edge and tip of the blade.

Lines 1687-1698 contain a further description of the sword that Beowulf wields:

Hroðgar maðelode,         hylt sceawode,
ealde lafe,         on ðæm wæs or writen
fyrngewinnes,         syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende,         giganta cyn
(frecne geferdon);         þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean dryhtne;         him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm         waldend sealde.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum         sciran goldes
þurh runstafas         rihte gemearcod,
geseted ond gesæd         hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst,         ærest wære,
wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah.

Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
that relic of old times. It was engraved all over
and showed how war first came into the world
and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
the Almighty made the waters rise,
drowned them in the deluge for retribution.
In pure gold inlay on the sword-guards
there were rune-markings correctly incised,
stating and recording for whom the sword
had been first made and ornamented
with its scrollworked hilt.

Here, the reference to rune markings on the hilt of the sword have a parallel with the inscription in the ‘black tongue’ of Mordor on the ring of power forged by Sauron that plays a central role in Tolkien’s epic; one is also struck by the reference to “how war came into the world” in the second sentence in this passage. And there is yet another parallel here between “Beowulf” and Tolkien: the reference to the ‘deluge’ has echoes in Tolkien’s re-telling of the myth of Atlantis in “The Alkallabeth,” published as part of “The Silmarillion.”

Lines 1001-1008 contain one of the most intriguing passages in “Beowulf”:
No þæt yðe byð
to befleonne,         fremme se þe wille,
ac gesecan sceal         sawlberendra,
nyde genydde,         niþða bearna,
grundbuendra         gearwe stowe,
þær his lichoma         legerbedde fæst
swefeþ æfter symle.
But death is not easily
escaped from by anyone:
all of us with souls, earth-dwellers
and children of men, must make our way
to a destination already ordained
where the body, after the banqueting,
sleeps on its deathbed.

There are many references in both “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings” to the afterlife, for example, in “Of Beren and Luthien” (the 19th chapter of “The Silmarillion”), where Tolkien refers to death as “the gift of Iluvatar to Men.” Tolkien is a bit cagey in his theology, but whereas Elves are in most circumstances granted a form of immortality, Men are most decidedly mortal in body, if not in reputation. But it is precisely on the theme of immortality through a reputation for heroism with which the author of “Beowulf” concludes the poem (lines 3178-3182):

Swa begnornodon         Geata leode
hlafordes hryre,         heorðgeneatas,
3180cwædon þæt he wære         wyruldcyninga
manna mildust         ond monðwærust,
leodum liðost         ond lofgeornost.

So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
There are echoes here in descriptions of Aragorn, the heir to Elendil who ascends the throne as king of Gondor near the end of “The Return of the King.” There are also echoes in the heroic death in battle of Theoden, king of Rohan. Finally, while there are no exact parallels in “The Lord of the Rings,” the funeral mound built for Beowulf finds a very inexact parallel in the pyre that Denethor, the high steward of Gondor, constructs for his son, Faramir, and which Denethor finally makes his own funeral pyre.
Hence in “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings” as well as Tolkien’s other works, one finds characters and plot elements that parallel and echo those in “Beowulf” as well as what can only be called a neo-Medieval world view and cultural reconstruction. One also finds a cosmology embedded in the vast narrative of the three ages of Middle Earth and articulated through that narrative.

“It is just because the main foes in ‘Beowulf’ are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant than this imaginary poem of a great king’s fall,” Tolkien opined in the 1936 Oxford lecture. “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes, and surpasses the dates and limits of historical periods, however important. At the beginning, and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world.” This description of “Beowulf” could easily describe Tolkien’s own works as they encompass the history of the fantasy world that he created and called ‘Middle Earth.’

Pauline Park presenting on Tolkien & “Beowulf” at the NYC Area Friends of Tolkien & Fantasy Meetup Group (8.19.12)



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