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Epic treatment

November 1st, 2014

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

Beowulf, A Translation and Commentary
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Lo! The glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard told, how those princes did deeds of valor.
— first line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf

The beloved author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was by profession a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford University. In the 1920s, while a young don, he rendered Beowulf, orginally written in England during the eighth century in a Northumbrian variant of Anglo-Saxon, into modern English. But he never tried to publish it, feeling that it didn’t meet his exacting standards. In addition, he was preoccupied with his studies and scholarly publications, and later, with the lectures he delivered to his doctoral candidates on the poem and other surviving texts of Old English literature, lectures which presupposed his students’ working knowledge of Anglo-Saxon.

But he continued to tinker with the translation off and on throughout his life, seeking a version which best approximated the compressed force of the epic poem. Beowulf was written in unrhymed, strongly-stressed alliterative verse whose lines were divided into two sections of dactylic trimeter, like all Anglo-Saxon poems, but Tolkien decided from the first not to replicate that poetic form exactly in his modern version, feeling that in contemporary English it ran the risk of sounding monotonous. Instead, he wrote his translation in prose, but kept the interior stresses. The result, when read aloud — and of course Beowulf was orginally declaimed from memory at the feast-table of a king, by a bard, or scop — preserves the power of the original while impelling the reader to keep up with its swiftness and fluidity. Things happen fast in the tale, and as the commentary included in the current translation suggests, the scop probably recited all of it in the course of a single long, bibulous evening in his monarch’s mead hall.

Although the poem was first written down in Northumbria, it concerns a fifth-century Scandinavian legend about a gigantic, man-shaped ogre named Grendel. According to the pagan tale’s Christian veneer, Grendel is descended from the Biblical Cain, and is thus one of a race of eternal outcasts who hate the rest of humanity. Over the centuries, these creatures’ rancorous enmity has turned them into cannibalistic monsters of superhuman strength. In a way, then, Grendel is only fulfilling a terrible destiny he can’t escape, when he pays nightly visits to Heorot, the hall of the Danish King Hrothgar, to carry off his warriors one by one and devour them. Beowulf isn’t a free agent either; his doom, like the ogre’s, is foreordained. This is a Norse story, after all, and in Norse mythology, even the gods are fated to go down to destruction in the final cataclysm of Ragnarok. In the fifth century, the Norse, or Northmen (meaning, back then, primarily the inhabitants of present-day Denmark and Sweden), had only very recently adopted Christianity and still clung to their pagan roots.

Word of the monster’s depredations eventually reaches the court of King Hygelac of Geatland, a realm located in the southwest of modern Sweden, which in the fifth century was allied with Denmark against the Swedes. The poem folds in the geneology of the Scylding, or Danish, royal dynasty. Its legendary progenitor was Scyld Scefig, a foundling baby who fetched up on the shore of the peninsula in a mysterious, unmanned boat (Scefig roughly means “ship-borne”) that was laden with golden treasure; the gold, as always in Norse myth, proved both a blessing and a bane. Some of the Danes accepted the child as their king; others resisted, and war broke out. The Scyldings eventually prevailed over their enemies and were converted to Christianity (which didn’t make them much less warlike). Hrothgar, Scyld Scefig’s great-grandson, became undisputed master of Denmark, until Grendel began to drop in for a nightly snack.

Hygelac’s second cousin, a brash, brawny young fellow named Beowulf, sails with some picked warriors to do battle with Grendel, partly to accrue honor and fame, but also because he expects rich gifts in return for his services as monster-exterminator. At the time of the grim old epic, the age of selfless knightly chivalry (if it ever existed outside poetic convention) lay several centuries in the future.

Beowulf refuses to use a sword or a spear, for Grendel has no weapons, and the hero feels it would be beneath his pride to wield them against the monster. Instead, he trusts in the might of his arms and hands, developed, as he grew up, in part by swimming long distances, in the course of which he had to fight sea monsters Tolkien calls nixes.

He tells the King to leave the hall and take all his surviving thanes with him, dismisses his own companions, and takes up a position near the door, feigning sleep. Grendel enters and seizes him, but Beowulf grapples with the ogre and there’s a furious struggle, during which the hall suffers considerable damage. But the hero finally tears off one of Grendel’s arms at the shoulder. Sorely wounded, the monster flees across the moors. Beowulf hangs the grisly arm with its iron-clawed fingers from a rafter in Hrothgar’s hall, and a great feast celebrating his victory takes place.
But one of the king’s men, a braggart named Unferth (translated as “Unfriend”), is envious of the praise lavished on the young Geat and the costly gifts given him by the king. These include a sword with a jeweled hilt, a helmet chased with gold and silver, and an impenetrable mail corselet forged by the legendary Weland the Smith. Hrothgar’s Queen, Wealtheow, also rewards Beowulf with several golden rings, which in the world of the poem were a form of currency but also had magical significance.

Unferth tries to belittle Beowulf’s prowess and brings up a swimming contest the Geat had with Breca, one of his boyhood friends. Beowulf keeps his customary cool, responding that indeed over the five days the swimming race took, Breca was the first to reach the farther shore. But a storm blew up on the third day; the two were separated, and as Beowulf breasted the raging waves, he was attacked by the nixes (the term, usually rendered nixies, refers in later fairy tales to relatively harmless sea-sprites; Beowulf, however, is hardly a fairy tale, though it has some of the elements of one) and slew nine of them with the sword he was wearing, bearing their ugly heads to shore as proof of his exploit.
Point to Beowulf, but the following night, more havoc is unleashed upon Heorot. The mortally-wounded Grendel has fled to the lair he shares with his mother, a monstrous hag almost as fearsome as he is, and she returns to Hrothgar’s mead hall seeking revenge. She carries off another Scylding, Aeschere, and consternation reigns again. But Beowulf immediately volunteers to finish the job. Unferth knows where the hellish pair’s cave is, for legends about it have long circulated in Denmark, but he sneers that Beowulf, for all his swimming skills, will never be able to enter it and finish off Grendel and his dam, for its entrance lies beneath the surface of a lake of perpetually boiling water.

However, Unferth has annoyed King Hrothgar by trying to insult Beowulf with a false allegation. The King, it comes out, has always thought Unferth was a serpent-tongued flatterer bent only on advancing himself at court, and no true warrior. He rounds on Unferth, and the chastened courtier gives Beowulf his own sword, a fine blade called Hrunting. With a mixed force of Geats and Scyldings, Beowulf sets off for the boiling mere (a clear allusion to the lake of fire and brimstone in Hell).

As usual, Beowulf insists on fighting alone. He dives into the roiling, superheated water, but Weyland’s corselet keeps him from being boiled to death. Grendel’s mother grabs him while he’s still underwater and drags him into her lair, where her son lies dead. She attacks him with a dagger, but Weyland’s armor turns its point aside, and Beowulf delivers a swinging blow to her neck with Hrunting. But the edge glances off her thick hide, and she prepares to put an end to him. Just in time, Beowulf sees a sword mounted on the wall of the cave. He snatches the glaive, which proves a better tool for the job than Hrunting, and swipes off the ogress’s head. The poem doesn’t say where or how she obtained the weapon, but the moral couldn’t be clearer: out of complacency and pride, Grendel’s dam had kept the instrument of her destruction in her own lair.

The doughty hero dives back into the mere, carrying the ogress’s head, With her death, the water has stopped boiling, to the astonishment of the men waiting on the promentory above, and when Beowulf emerges unscathed, carrying the ghastly head, their astonishment changes to rejoicing. Beowulf is feted and rewarded again; the chagrined Unferth slinks off, never to be seen again; and the first section of the epic ends happily.

Beowulf stays at Hrothgar’s court for some time, but he’s a man of action, and he begins to weary of the endless round of feasts and drinking bouts. He misses his homeland, and with regret mixed with relief (feeding Beowulf and his shield-companions every night is exhausting Heorot’s stores), Hrothgar sends him and his retainers home. He loads their ship with all the gifts he has given Beowulf in gratitude for ridding the realm of the wicked spawn of Cain, and when Beowulf arrives in Geatland he is lauded to the skies by his compatriots.

His kinsman Hygelac dies, and after more savage fighting with rivals to the throne, Beowulf emerges King of Geatland. His reign is peaceful, until, as he enters old age, a bondsman, escaping from a lord he has betrayed, and lying under sentence of death for his treason, stumbles across the entrance to a cave wherein a dragon sleeps, guarding an ancient horde of treasure he has amassed over three centuries. He is of Fafnir’s kind, the dragon whose battle with a later Germanic hero, Siegfried, inspired one of Wagner’s operas. The wretch steals a golden cup, intending to show it as a sample of the vast treasure he has found, and hoping thereby to pay his way back into his lord’s good graces.

But the theft wakes the dragon and rouses his fury. He emerges from his lair each night, spreads his vast leathery wings, and flies over the countryside, scorching crops in the field and burning villages with his flaming breath.

Beowulf, no longer young, but still stronger than most men, sets off with eleven companions. Being acutely attuned to his WYRD, or fate, he senses that this final fight will prove his death, but that does not deter him, for as a Norse warrior, he believes dying in battle is the most glorious way to end one’s life. As noted above, that belief, which promises posthumous feasting in Valhalla with the gods until Ragnarok brings about the final destruction of the world, is another pagan element in the saga; its Christian elements are rather clumsy digressions, as if the poet had to keep reminding himself that Christ and the saints had recently supplanted the Aesir.

The old chieftain’s destiny plays out. Ten of his followers lose their nerve and flee, and only one, Wiglaf, proves loyal to his liege lord. Mindful of Beowulf’s many rich gifts to him, he enters the dragon’s cave. Beowulf’s first stroke with his sword Naegling bounces off the dragon’s bony body, rousing the dragon to further wrath. The flames of his breath fill the cave, burning the king’s shield to ashes. But Beowulf manages to stab him in the head, and although Naegling’s blade breaks, the blow is telling. Pain adding to his rage, the dragon clamps his teeth around Beowulf’s neck, and the hero’s life-blood wells out. Wiglaf steps in and drives the point of his own sword into the dragon’s throat, and the fires from his mouth abate.

Rallying, Beowulf draws a dagger, and drawing on the last of his strength, rips open the fell serpent’s belly, finishing him off. But the wound he has sustained in the fight cannot be stanched. He manages to leave the cave, and the cowards who fled to the woods return, abashed and remorseful. With their help, he returns to his hall, and in the presence of his grieving people he states his final wishes. Dragon-gold is unlucky, and the kingdom is already rich enough. He directs his subjects to build a tall barrow on a headland overlooking the sea and lay his body there, with the dragon’s hoard, never to be disturbed. The Anglo-Saxon poet ends the saga by saying that the barrow still stands, but no one has ever dared to enter it, fearing the curse on the the gold, and out of respect for the good king’s last wishes.

It’s a grand, terrible, tragic tale, and there’s no wonder it inspired many later medieval epics, the most notable of which is the twelfth-century French poem by Chrétien de Troyes about the Arthurian legend (rendered toward the end of the fifteenth century into Middle English by Thomas Malory as Le Morte d’Arthur). In the twentieth century, there are several excellent modern English translations, the most recent being E. Talbot Donaldson’s version (1966), followed in 1999 by Seamus Heaney’s treatment. I’ve read the Donaldson rendering, and I’ve listened to a recording of Heaney reading his; both are in alliterative verse, but to my mind, Heaney’s is more gripping, because he was a great poet. However, he did not know Old English and relied on earlier translations.

Tolkien’s translation only came to light after his death, when his son Christopher, the executor of his estate, found it among his papers. Christopher Tolkien’s notes point out that preparing it for publication was challenging, because most of it was written in his father’s scrawling longhand, and even the typed portions Tolkien set down after he finally acquired a typewriter are on paper that is beginning to deteriorate. His Oxford lecture notes, from which his commentary on the text are derived, were also difficult to decipher. But Christopher Tolkien and his editors at HarperCollins in Britain have done a masterful job, and the current book is a treasure.

Of course the moment it came out, reviewers and readers started quibbling about it, some carping because the poem isn’t in alliterative verse, others grumbling that it’s pedantic and the notes and commentary are intrusive. I agree that the book’s a bit of a challenge, for Tolkien, Sr. wrote two early versions of the epic, portions of which his son has included by way of comparison with the final one, which his father completed shortly before he died. But to me, these details are fascinating, for they show J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind in action as he worries away at the problem of coming up with a modern English translation that best brings across the power of the original.

I think he succeeded brilliantly. And as a devoté of his epic fantasy series, I was fascinated to see how many of the themes and characters in the ancient poem show up in it. There’s the gold ring motif, a token of immense power, but also a curse. Unferth (Unfriend), King Hrothgar’s serpent-tongued courtier, becomes Grìma Wormtongue, the traitor at the court of King Théodan of Rohan; his given name means “spectre” and is a cognate of “ugly” in Old English. Grìma was in thrall to Saruman, the corrupt wizard who in turn served Sauron, the epitome of evil; Sauron is, of course, Satan himself. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and The Lord of the Rings is in part an allegory of the final battle between good and evil for the possession of humanity’s souls. The gold-hoarding dragon in the second part of Beowulf becomes Smaug in The Hobbit. Finally, the barrow that the dying Beowulf orders built for his remains, in which the dragon’s tainted gold must be buried with him, never to be disturbed so as not to bring a new curse upon Geatland, emerges as the Barrow-Wight episode in the Rings trilogy, when Frodo unwisely takes shelter in one and arouses the wrath of its guardian.

Tolkien’s Beowulf is a triumph of translation, it seems to me. Read Heaney’s version for its soaring beauty, but consult Tolkien’s rendition to find out how and why it became the first great epic in English literature. And for an added treat, Christopher Tolkien has appended Sellic Spell, which his father composed in Old English and later translated. It reimagines Beowulf as a fairy-tale, with its hero called “Bee-wolf” for his childhood fondness for raiding hives to steal honey. Bee-wolf is a classic fairy-tale figure, whom Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm brothers might have created. He’s uncouth, clumsy, and despised by his father and his two older brothers, until he comes into his full strength and answers the Danish king’s call for help against the hell-born demon ravaging his land. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Books and Authors, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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