In 1988, I read parts of Beowulf for the first time, some 1,000 years after the only version of it that has survived was written. I read it in translation, of course: to us modern English speakers, the Old English (Aenglic, Anglisc, Englisc, or Anglo-Saxon) of Beowulf’s sole surviving manuscript is a foreign language. Here are the first four lines transcribed in Old English:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
I don’t recall which translation I read, and I didn’t read the whole thing at first, just some excerpts in an English Literature sampler for my community college class: the introduction, Beowulf’s struggle with the monster Grendel, and the climactic encounter with the dragon that results in Beowulf’s death.
I was already aware of the poem, having learned at some point in high school of its place in English literature and having read John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel on my own as a high school senior in 1985, on the recommendation of a college friend of a high school friend. But I had never read a word of the poem itself until my second year in college.
And the word that got my attention was “rings:”
The belovèd leader laid they down there,
Giver of rings, on the breast of the vessel …
The notes explained (and here I am going on memory) that “giver of rings” could also mean “breaker of rings,” as in circlets of gold worn by a lord on his arms, which were then broken into smaller pieces and given as favors to loyal retainers.
Giver of rings. Breaker of rings.
And that, to me, meant only one thing: J.R.R. Tolkien.
Now, Tolkien holds a special place for me as a reader. In September or October 1981, my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. O’Hare, gave me Tolkien’s The Hobbit to read as part of my bilingual curriculum. At that point I had been easing my way into English for about a year and a half, having arrived in the US from Cuba in May, 1980. I read the book in a few weeks with the aid of a dictionary, and so The Hobbit became the first book I ever read in English.
Encouraged by my progress, Mr. O’Hare gave me a hardcover set of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and encouraged me to give it a chance. “It starts out slow,” I remember him telling me, “but it’s an amazing story.” And so I went at it in late 1981 and finished it sometime early the next year. The wanderings of Frodo, a small stranger in a strange land, resonated with my own story of exile and displacement. I have read the books at least fifteen times since (for most of the 1990’s, I religiously read them once a year in an attempt to keep my first encounter with them alive as my 20’s took unexpected journeys of their own).
But back to Beowulf. Intrigued by the giving and breaking of rings, I took out a copy of the entire poem from the college library and read the whole thing in three days. And everywhere in it, it seemed, I found Tolkien had been there before me.
There was, of course, the giving of rings to retainers, a motif that is repeated throughout the poem. The master gives rings to his underlings. The gift underscores the power relationship: what I give, I can take away.
There was the description of several shirts of chain mail given as gifts, lovingly rendered, that echoed Bilbo’s mithril shirt eventually gifted to Frodo: armor as a second skin, a totemic protection against the perils of life — if not safety, at least as close as we get to it in battle.
There was the naming of swords crafted in times much older than the main story. Powers had risen by those sword; powers had fallen by them. The weapons remained; the cycle repeats itself. You don’t tame the implements of violence — you use them, yes, but they use you too (there’s something of Borges in this, but that’s a different thread).
There were the Old English names that echo those of characters in Tolkien, at least one (Eomer) borrowed directly from Beowulf. Like the armor and swords, the names repeat themselves: history is a circle, like a ring, that is endless though it occupies a finite space.
And there was, of course, the dragon asleep on his treasure hoard until awakened by a trespasser, a thief who enters the lair and makes out with a cup, causing the dragon to come forth bringing destruction until it is slayed by Beowulf at the cost of his own life. We disturb the past, we bring forth change, we act in the stage of history, at our own risk. And always there is a price to pay.
It didn’t take me long to learn Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar. In fact, he wrote the essay that changed how Beowulf was perceived in academia. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is actually the text of a lecture Tolkien gave in 1936 where he argued scholars (the “critics”) had gotten the poem all wrong.
Up to that point, Beowulf was treated as a historical/social artifact, something akin to say, the Icelandic Sagas, useful only for the details it revealed about its culture and society. Beowulf’s monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon) were dismissed as fantasy, details added to glorify the hero who ultimately triumphs over them, but otherwise of no importance.
Tolkien argued the opposite. For him, Beowulf was above all a work of art and its monsters carried the symbolic heft of the piece. They represented the violent, chaotic, unpredictable world of the poem, a world that went on after the poem ends, a world were monsters had been vanquished at great cost but in which others like them waited out there, menacing, threatening, deadly.
Though the events in Beowulf (its “world “) take place in what are present-day Denmark and Sweeden, and probably started as stories told by those peoples as early as the 6th Century, the poem took its final form in England, where it likely arrived with Scandinavian and Danish raiders and settlers in the late 8th or early 9th Century. The poem survives in a single manuscript from the early 11th Century in the West Saxon dialect of Anglo-Saxon (Old English), with some Anglian thrown in (another Old English family of dialects), both by then “English” languages.
Even though its origins are much older, that “final draft” of Beowulf in West Saxon reflects England and English society sometime around the 9th and 10th Centuries in a way only a work of art can. Perhaps the most “English” aspect to the poem is its Christian moralizing — the earlier versions, told and retold by pagan Scandinavians, would not have contained this key element of what we have come to know as Beowulf. “England, as we understand it today,” at least according to Peter Ackroyd, “was created by the Christian Church.”
Beowulf, the hero, belongs to the Geats, a small tribe in what is present-day Sweden, ever at war against larger, more powerful enemies, both human and supernatural. All Beowulf can do is buy time. The poem ends with the wailing of a Geat woman: she foresees enemies overcoming her land, her people, her very household and children. The greatest hero her world has known has perished defeating a monster. There will be no other heroes such as him. But the monsters will keep coming.
It is this “realist” (if pessimistic) worldview that is perhaps the most important thing Tolkien borrowed for The Lord of the Rings. Victory comes at great cost, and even in victory, the seeds of future strife are planted. Victory is bittersweet at best. At worst, it is only a stay of ultimate defeat. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, keep a story going long enough and the hero always dies. For me, that sensibility is what lifts Tolkien’s work from fantasy to an epic work of art.
By far my favorite translation of Beowulf is by Seamus Heaney, who uses the work to reflect on his Irish “tribe” and its troubles with a much more powerful one just across a very narrow body of water.
Here’s more on the Heaney translation.