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In the Grokking of the Beowulf

Having had some time to read through Tolkien’s Beowulf in the wake of the Tolkien Society’s launch party, I can see where in my unfamiliarity with the book I confused some points. It didn’t help me that Christopher’s comments were sometimes mixed in with his father’s footnotes but I take full responsibility for mixing up names and attributions liberally in the excitement of discussing the book.

That said, I am glad to see that I didn’t get everything wrong. In fact, I suspect there will be some disagreement on the dating of references because many reviewers seemed (in my opinion) to assume that the commentaries were written sometime close to the composition of “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. If I can find any major faults with this book they are so far only two: that there is no index and that Christopher did not provide any dates for when his father’s notes were or may have been composed.

J.R.R. Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 to 1945. According to Christopher’s introduction to the translation of “Beowulf” this work was completed by the end of 1926. He composed his “Monsters and the Critics” lecture in 1936. But based on a hand-full of references scattered across the commentaries I infer that much of this material was either not written down until or may have been annotated in 1940 or afterward. Why there should be such a gap, I don’t know. But in Tolkien’s discussion of the ship-burial at the beginning of the poem he makes a clear reference to archaeological work at Sutton Hoo, which did not commence until 1939. And there are at least two footnotes that refer to books published in 1940. So while we cannot say this proves everything in the commentaries is post 1939-work, it shows that at least some of it is.

I should also note that in 1939 Allen & Unwin asked J.R.R. Tolkien to write a foreword for a revision of C.L. Wrenn and Clark Hall’s translation of “Beowulf”, a foreword which he had not yet turned in by March 26, 1940.

For Tolkien/Middle-earth scholars that will prove to be significant in several ways. First, I think there are a few places where Tolkien changed his thinking. In fact, in one passage Christopher notes that his father contradicts a translation given earlier in the book (I apologize but I am writing this by near-candlelight and finding specific passages is no simple task). Second, there are some obvious (to me) borrowings from “Beowulf” that influenced Tolkien’s “Silmarillion”, and 1940 is a dividing point in his work on those texts. It was around this time that he began to transform the Children of the Valar into the Maiar, for example. So we need to be careful about how we evaluate borrowings (such as the name “Hador”) for “Silmarillion” characters. Tolkien worked mostly through annotation when he revised the “Silmarillion” in the 1950s, and so anything that is found in a post-1940 text would indicate that “Beowulf” influenced Tolkien’s literature beyond 1940.

One place where we may see such influences could be in Tolkien’s work on the Lord of the Rings appendices, which began around 1949 or 1950 and extended up to 1954. I did come across one passage that made me think of the appendices but I want to withhold any suggestion of a connection until I have had more time to study the book.

One thing that strikes me very profoundly is the sheer amount of historical analysis that J.R.R. Tolkien put into the poem. Other scholars do that, too, because “Beowulf” is a kind of literary glue that ties together names and events found in other Old English literature that survives to this day. The story itself we regard to be fictional, but it is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of, say, a 19th century historical novel like Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy were not real but the society in which they are said to have lived was very real. Tolkien himself compares the poem to Shakespeare’s history-inspired plays (such as “King Lear”). However, Beowulf and his fellow characters were not as distant to the poet(s) as Lear/Leir was to Shakespeare.

Without getting into the question of who wrote what (Tolkien assumes that most of the poem was the work of an earlier author), we can see that the very complicated history of the tribes named or alluded to in the poem had significant meaning for the people who were familiar with the story of Beowulf. They probably knew whether Beowulf himself was real or fictional; I suspect they would not have cared any more than a modern movie audience cares about whether Godzilla is real. Beowulf was Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Iron Man. He lived in his fictional corner of our real world, in an imaginary past.

The imaginary past is, of course, very significant to the study of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Whether you look at The Book of Lost Tales or The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien is telling stories that are set in an imaginary past of our very real “round and inescapable” (Middle-)Earth. The very motif of “Beowulf” permeates nearly all of Tolkien’s fiction (I exclude “Leaf by Niggle” and possibly “Smith of Wootton Major”). Even Mister Bliss is a simple story set in an imaginary time of the real world. The Father Christmas letters were set in an imaginary location of the contemporary real world; so my point is that Tolkien tried to keep his fiction grounded on Earth, much unlike C.S. Lewis who was prone to explore other worlds of the imagination.

A few scholars have challenged Tolkien’s translation in a vague way (at least for the lay person), suggesting that new research has brought about different interpretations of “Beowulf” than what Tolkien proposed. I think the point has been made well enough that he didn’t intend his translation to be published (although I am glad it was) but I would say that — had he been given the opportunity — he might have wanted to see “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf” published (perhaps only if asked as when his aunt Jane Neave asked him for more Bombadil material). Christopher dates “Sellic Spell” to the early 1940s, and it is thus either contemporary with or just post his father’s lecture notes for “Beowulf”.

Perhaps these texts explain in part why J.R.R. Tolkien stopped working on The Lord of the Rings in 1939 (as Christopher suggests in The Return of the Shadow) or 1940. I would not immediately begin scouring Tolkien’s LoTR texts for references to “Sellic Spell” or even to “Beowulf” that date from the period 1941-7 because we already know that they exist: he had yet, in late 1940, to compose the chapters on the Rohiroth/Rohirrim. We have too few dated references to know when Tolkien began working on the Rohan chapters, but we know that much of the work was complete by October 1944 (Christopher cites a letter his father wrote to him) and that he was in a “Beowulf” state of mind in Letter No. 61, which he sent to Christopher in April 1944. In Letter No. 66 (May 1944) Tolkien mentions a “new character” named Faramir, so we can say that he was done with the first pass of the Rohan material by this time.

There is enough detail in these facts to claim coincidence and too little to argue for anything else, but we’ll all probably be winking and nudging each other knowingly for years to come because coincidence is sometimes just too powerful to ignore. In December 1944, in Letter No. 92, Tolkien again mentioned “Beowulf” to his son:

This morning …. I saw C.S.L. for a while. His fourth (or fifth?) novel is brewing, and seems likely to clash with mine (my dimly projected third). I have been getting a lot of new ideas about Prehistory lately (via Beowulf and other sources of which I may have written) and want to work them into the long shelved time-travel story I began. C.S.L. is planning a story about the descendants of Seth and Cain. We also begin to consider writing a book in collaboration on ‘Language’ (Nature, Origins, Functions). Would there were time for all these projects!

I don’t think there is much else I can say at this point but maybe now we have an inkling of something to look for in this time frame in terms of interesting connections that have not yet been brought to light.

About the Author: Michael Martinez