Tolkien, Beowulf, and inspiration

It’s been almost two months since J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday, but I think that Tolkien’s influence and presence in the fantasy world merit giving the whole year over to him. So does Suparna Banerjee, writing for TheHindu.com. But why am I posting an article about Tolkien’s contributions to the world of modern fantasy on a blog that’s all about Beowulf?

Well, Tolkien’s connection to the poem is one reason. He wrote vehemently for its serious consideration as a work of meaningful art in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (which you cna read in full here). He also translated the poem from Old English, though this wasn’t published until only a few years ago. But, the other reason to mention him is that Beowulf was one of the major taproot texts that influenced his writing for himself and his children.

If you’ve never heard of the term “taproot text” before, it refers to stories that existed well before literature was divided into the various genres we see on bookstore shelves now, but that have major elements of those genres.

So, things like Beowulf, “The Squire’s Tale”, Orlando Furioso, and The Faerie Queene are all taproot texts for fantasy fiction. And, although these taproot texts aren’t required reading for people who write in a genre that grew out of them, they can still bring a great deal of insight. These stories also bring things back to basics, which I think is what happened with Beowulf and Tolkien.

There were fantasy stories before Tolkien and well after Beowulf, after all (Edward Plunkett’s are among my favourites, especially “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth”). In fact, Banerjee outlines how Tolkien brought these various elements of fantasy together in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But I don’t think that he would have managed what he did without being as familiar with Beowulf as he was.

Which is why I think Beowulf is so important to come back to as a reader and translator myself.

Beowulf is unlike anything that’s coming out these days, and though it’s a bit dated in some ways, it brings a distant time and society to life. And it does so in a way that combines the historic and the fantastic to make an unforgettable story with a fully realized world. The Beowulf poet took what was mundane when it was being written (political marriages, battling, hall etiquette, the social hierarchy and its attendant wealth distribution system) and adds the fantastic while still being believable.

Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the dragon in Beowulf proves that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, but I would say that Beowulf‘s dragon (and the whole story) never feels as lofty and idealized as, say, the courtly romances of King Arthur. Beowulf is no perfumed prince living apart from everyone but wife and children, he is pure physicality present in the goings on of hall society and the personal and national battlefield alike, and that’s what makes it the story that, I think, inspired Tolkien the most.

What do you think of the idea of Beowulf as an inspiritional story? Let me know in the comments!

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What a quiet moment in Beowulf means

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Introduction

I know that February is almost done, and so 2017 is already started. But, one of the things that I want to do over the course of this year is to trim back on the padding that I’ve built into my work in the past. I want to make 2017 Twenty-Seven-Lean. Both in that I trim the fat from what I do and in that I use the time I’m left with to lean more into the core of what I do.

I can’t say for sure yet, but I’m starting to consider using these shorter translation post formats from here forward. If you want to share your thoughts on this potential change, let me know in the comments.


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Synopsis

Beowulf parties before hitting the hay.


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The Original Old English

“Geat wæs glædmod, geong sona to
setles neosan, swa se snottra heht.
þa wæs eft swa ær ellenrofum
fletsittendum fægere gereorded
niowan stefne. Nihthelm geswearc
deorc ofer dryhtgumum. Duguð eal aras.
Wolde blondenfeax beddes neosan,
gamela Scylding. Geat unigmetes wel,
rofne randwigan, restan lyste;
sona him seleþegn siðes wergum,
feorrancundum, forð wisade,
se for andrysnum ealle beweotede
þegnes þearfe, swylce þy dogore
heaþoliðende habban scoldon.”
(Beowulf ll.1785-1798)


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My Translation

“The Geat was glad-hearted at that, he descended the dais,
sought out a seat, as the wise one had commanded.
Then was it as it had been before for the bold,
the sitters in the hall spoke fairly with voices renewed.
The mantle of night fell to darken the world
outside the warriors’ hall. All that company arose;
the grey-haired one then sought his bed,
leader of the Scyldings, the Geat, renowned shield warrior
was also eager for such rest. Soon to him,
the one wearied along the warrior’s way, a hall thane came,
one to guide the far-flung one on his way,
he who for etiquette’s sake waited on all
thane’s needs, such as should be had in those days
for far-flung seafaring warriors.”
(Beowulf ll.1785-1798)


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A Quick Question

The core of this passage is that Beowulf is shown as a warrior who observes good manners in waiting for his host to go to bed before heading there himself. Other than that, there’s not much here.

Although, the absence of action or conflict or major dramatic events speaks to how quiet this moment in the poem is. This isn’t just a break between beating up monsters, but for Beowulf the character this is the end of his labours in Daneland. He has slept in Heorot before, but this is the first night where he can sleep without worrying about staying awake for Grendel or without the shadow of Grendel’s mother looming over him. Daneland has been saved from monsters, and so his work is done.

But this moment also fits in between the major events in the social drama of Beowulf. Hrothgar has said his piece about kingship, and the big ceremonial giving of gifts happens in the morning. Right now the poet is singing where normally he’d be taking a break. And that’s what makes this part of the poem significant in my mind.

In particular, since it’s about the need for rest, I see this part of the poem as a very human moment in a poem that is otherwise all about the supernatural and non-human.

But what do you think? Should the poet have just said “And after Hrothgar spoke, they all went to bed to rest up for the gift-giving. And what a gift giving!” to get on with it? Or is there some reason for this curious quiet moment? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s thoughts turn to home, and Unferth’s sword returns to him.

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Authority in Beowulf and scriptures

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic/Greek Orthodox Christian. But, I still find a lot of Christianity’s source material interesting. So, when I went searching for Beowulf news and found this post from patheos.com entitled “The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Part One”, I read right through it.

In this article Henry Karlson writes about how a literal reading of scripture either as a source of history or of laws is missing the point. Instead, he argues, the contradictions and various situations concerning similar events that come up in scripture need to be read together and taken as a whole rather than merely as parts. Ultimately, to back up his take on reading scripture, Karlson refers to Beowulf. In particular, he refers to the changes that Beowulf underwent between its origins and the version we have today.

Karlson then uses this analogy to say that the changes made to the scriptures didn’t undermine its authority in the same way that the transformations that the modern Beowulf underwent haven’t undermined its authority. What kept me from just saying “pshaw, whatever” when I read this, though, was that Karlson cements this point with the idea that the Church was just practicing good storytelling when it took all of the various stories and writings that became the scriptures and joined them into a single book.

Those same story-telling principles were guiding those who tinkered with Beowulf over the centuries. After all, Beowulf was restored to a mostly complete version from a single bound copy in a book of monsters and wonders that survived being worm-eaten, burned, and generally ignored as it changed hands over and over again.

Specifically, lines of the poem were clarified, different interpretations of the scribes’ handwriting were argued about, and references to other stories, history, and contemporary culture were worked out. All you need to do to see this sort of work on Beowulf in motion is to pick up an edition from the middle of the 20th century or earlier and flip through the notes. You’ll find them full of arguments about things ranging from Beowulf’s descent into and return from the Grendels’ lair paralleling the crucifixion of Christ, to the lack of clarity about what is really going on in the Finnburh episode, to the discovery that “lindbord” in reference to shields indicated that they were made of linden wood.

And yet, the debate around which version of Beowulf is the most correct isn’t based on any historical level. Most of the changes that were made to the text are largely forgotten now. Which makes sense, since claims of authority are usually based on a version’s poetic merit. The Bible, on the other hand, is only rarely judged on its literary merits. Plus, only academics, poetry, and history fans are really interested in Beowulf, whereas more religions than I could count are constantly arguing about the authority of their version of the Christian scriptures.

In fact, as a poem and not a religious text, preferences for Beowulf just come down to which one is your personal favourite.

I really enjoy Seamus Heaney’s translation, but I’m sure that once I read more editions I’ll find another that I like even more.

The elasticity of such opinions leaves me thinking that all the various branches of Christianity are just practicing the same favouritism but on a massive scale, like people who pour their free time into a particular fandom and then build a world of fanfic around themselves and friends.

But those are just my idle thoughts. What do you think about how the authority of Beowulf versions is measured? Is it even fair to compare the authority of a poem to the authority of scripture? Let me know in the comments!

Hrothgar starts to step out of the story

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Introduction

It’s been a busy week, so here’s a short translation post.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar sums up his rule, and promises Beowulf great gifts.


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The Original Old English

“‘Swa ic Hringdena hund missera
weold under wolcnum ond hig wigge beleac
manigum mægþa geond þysne middangeard,
æscum ond ecgum, þæt ic me ænigne
under swegles begong gesacan ne tealde.
Hwæt, me þæs on eþle edwenden cwom,
gyrn æfter gomene, seoþðan Grendel wearð,
ealdgewinna, ingenga min;
ic þære socne singales wæg
modceare micle. þæs sig metode þanc,
ecean dryhtne, þæs ðe ic on aldre gebad
þæt ic on þone hafelan heorodreorigne
ofer ealdgewin eagum starige!
Ga nu to setle, symbelwynne dreoh
wigge weorþad; unc sceal worn fela
maþma gemænra, siþðan morgen bið.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


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My Translation

‘”Just so I have ruled the Ring-Danes under the sky
for one hundred half-years, and have protected
them against war with many nations from across this world,
from both spears and swords, such that I have not considered any other beneath the sky’s expanse as an adversary.
But lo! A hard reversal came to my native land,
grief following joy, once Grendel appeared,
that ancient adversary, that invader of my peace;
at that arrival I continually bore persecution
and great sorrow of mind. Thus I now thank God,
the eternal Lord, that I might experience in my life,
after the struggle, the chance to gaze upon with my eyes
the beast’s head blood-stained from battle.
Go now to the bench, joyously join the
mirth of feasting; we two shall share
a great many treasures when the morning comes.'”
(Beowulf ll.1769-1784)


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A Quick Question

Hrothgar’s quick summary of the poem leads into a section where Beowulf’s adventures in Daneland come to an end. And there’s a lot of talk of celebration, but it seems very under-hyped to me. Hrothgar mentions that Beowulf will get “a great many treasures” (“maþma gemænra” (l.1784)) for all of his work here, but that’s about it.

Instead, most of the end of Hrothgar’s speech is about his rule. I guess the implication here is that happiness has returned to Heorot, and Hrothgar’s rule will continue as it did before. There’s definitely a strong sense that not only are things returning to normal in Daneland, but all of the characters living there are stepping out of the mythic realm that Beowulf brings with him and returning to history.

What do you get out of Hrothgar’s talking about his rule in Daneland? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf and Hrothgar party on.

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A quick update

Hi, everyone! Unfortunately between work and Valentine’s day/weekend plans, I don’t have enough time to put together two posts for this week. So instead of a news post today and a translation post Thursday, I’ll only be putting up a short translation post on Thursday. I should have enough time for both posts again starting next week.

Since the end goal of this blog is to be an archive of my translation of Beowulf before I bring it all together into a book format of some kind (that’s still being figured out), I figure that translation posts are more important to keep putting out.

So, apologies for not being able to get a post about Beowulf news/Beowulf in pop culture this week, but watch for a short translation post Thursday at 6pm EST.

Is Hrothgar motivating Beowulf with death?

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Introduction

Unfortunately this week’s been a little too hectic for me to make time for a full translation post. Instead of skipping a week though, here is my translation of the next part of Beowulf.


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Synopsis

Hrothgar makes the moral of his story loud and clear for Beowulf.


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The Original Old English

“‘Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið, Beowulf leofa,
secg betsta, ond þe þæt selre geceos,
ece rædas; oferhyda ne gym,
mære cempa. Nu is þines mægnes blæd
ane hwile. Eft sona bið
þæt þec adl oððe ecg eafoþes getwæfeð,
oððe fyres feng, oððe flodes wylm,
oððe gripe meces, oððe gares fliht,
oððe atol yldo; oððe eagena bearhtm
forsiteð ond forsworceð; semninga bið
þæt ðec, dryhtguma, deað oferswyðeð.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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My Translation

“‘Guard against such evil hostility, dear Beowulf,
best of men, and be sure to make the better choice:
eternal gain; be not intent on pride,
oh renowned warrior! Now is your power prospering
for but a short while; soon will either
illness or the blade deprive you of that strength,
or the grip of flames, or the surging waters,
or an attack by sword, or the flight of spears,
or terrible old age, or the light of your eyes
will fail and grow dim; presently such will come
upon you, oh lord of battle, and death will overpower you.'”
(Beowulf ll.1758-1768)


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A Quick Question

A lot of people take the inevitability of their own death as a major inspiration to get on with what they want to do with their lives. Steve Jobs, for example, used his mortality as a way to figure out if what he was doing was what he truly wanted to (he suggests was “meant” to do) on what sounds like a daily basis. At least that’s the impression I get from the speech quoted in this article.

Although Hrothgar’s list of all the ways Beowulf could eventually die is a little gloomy and seems very melancholic do you think he’s doing the same thing here? Is he trying to motivate Beowulf to live each day to the fullest? Or is he just trying to remind Beowulf that he won’t live forever?

Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week Hrothgar gives a recap of the whole poem so far — from his perspective.

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A post that’s briefly about Beowulf’s historical figures

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry, artifact from history,  showing Anglo-Saxon warfare.

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – gssq.blogspot.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Throughout this blog, I’ve often written about history and Beowulf and how the two are woven together (like here and here). The post that I’m sharing this week pulls what I’ve weaved together in a tight, quick way.

This week’s post is a short piece by Jan Purnis (who appears to currently be a professor of English at the University of Regina) all about the historical figures in Beowulf. In this piece, Jan groups these figures together according to their kin group, and then explains how they are or aren’t accounted for in the historical records that we have of the early medieval period.

If you’ve read a bit about the history of the poem itself, you’ll know that there’s some controversy over when exactly Beowulf was first put together. Purnis doesn’t go into to much detail with it, but she does note that the Offa referred to in the poem could be either Offa I, fourth century king of the continental Angles, or Offa II, late eighth century ruler of Mercia (a kingdom in Britain). There was nearly 400 years between them, and in the story that runs from lines 1944-1962 the poet didn’t add an “I” or “II”. So this reference, like some others, doesn’t reveal much about when Beowulf was first thought up.

Nonetheless, Purnis’ conclusion that the poet uses their historical knowledge and references to bring an air of historicity to the wondrous Beowulf himself is a neat point. It’s the same sort of thing that historical fiction writers do today. They know the period and place that they’re writing about as best they can and then they add in their own characters or elaborate on actual figures to build a story. In my mind, this similarity just goes to show how much work has always gone into crafting stories.

Which makes me wonder why the poet wanted to write about a kind of superman whose world, as Purnis points out, was straddling the old Pagan/continental and the new Christian/British ones.

Maybe it was to legitimize the story. I mean, authority drawn from strong relation to the past was an important concept in the medieval world. In fact, that kind of legitimacy through relation to the past is a major reason why people like Offa II referred to Offa I as their ancestor (despite the 400 year and several hundred mile gap between them), and so maybe that was the theme that the poet had set out to tackle. Why then are there monsters in Beowulf? Well, who doesn’t like a good monster story?

If you want to learn more about the historical figures behind a lot of the cast of Beowulf, check out Purnis’ write up. Since it’s a bit on the academic side it comes with a list of sources for further reading, too.

If you could write a historical fiction story about any figure from history who would it be and why? Let me know in the comments! (Chaucer would be at the top of my list!)