Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus of study from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document which frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it refers to and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research tends to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) only its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical tragedies they all did in Classics at school. For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic WP Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn: he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every study since as marking a sea change in attitudes. For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, unreason and unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – eg Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre – “Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents a lack of feeling for “the mythological mode of imagination”

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of  the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats. Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster. For Tolkien, writing in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classic tradition.

Hygelac's watchman greets Beowulf's boat

Hygelac’s watchman greets Beowulf’s boat

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics online

Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Full text of Beowulf with parallel translation

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by JRR Tolkien (1982)

Known to millions as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien earned his living as a philologist, a specialist in Anglo Saxon, Middle English, and medieval Norse and German at Oxford University. His core activity was establishing the meanings of Anglo Saxon and Norse words which often exist only in a handful of forms, in a handful or only one manuscript, identifying where scribes and copyists made mistakes (as they often did), establishing their cognate forms in other early medieval texts, languages and dialects, with the ultimate aim of establishing ‘good’ texts. For 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 60s,  he lectured and wrote about all aspects of Anglo Saxon (and its cousin, medieval Norse) literature.

The historic ‘interludes’ in Beowulf

The 3,000 line Old English ‘epic’ Beowulf contains quite a few references to the collective history of the north European Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages; the stories of various heroes of legend are told within the poem by the bards who populate the various kings’ halls (Hrothgar the Dane, Hyglac the Geat), but always quite allusively – the audience who heard these poems knew the stories extremely well; the pleasure was in the way the poet shaped and formed them.

Unfortunately, to us, 1,500 years later, these tellings are tantalisingly obscure, hinting at back stories which we can almost never verify or only painfully piece together from other fragments and damaged texts which happened to survive from Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’. This book is about one particular such legend which occurs around line 1,000 of Beowulf:

The Episode, Beowulf 1063-1160

After Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel in Heorot, the meadhall of King Hrothgar the Dane, the king’s bard sings in celebration a brief summary of the story of Finn, Hnaef and Hengest. The ‘Episode’ as it’s called, lasts only 100 lines before the plot moves swiftly on, leaving a number of unresolved queries in its wake: what happens at Finn’s hall? Why is there a fight at all? Who exactly is it between – Danes and Frisians are mentioned, so where do the Jutes come in? Why does Hengest replace Hnaef as leader of the Danes? Is Hengest even Danish or some kind of exile or mercenary? Has he got anything to do with the Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as leading the Jutes who invade and start to settle Kent in 449AD? Why does Hengest decide to stay, along with the Danish warband, under the hospitality of the Frisian King Finn for an entire winter after Finn and his men have treacherously attacked them?

The Fragment

As chance would have it, and it really is the randomest of lucky chances, in the 1700s a scholarly vicar, George Hickes, published a fragment of Anglo Saxon verse he had found on spare sheet of manuscript in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library. The sheet has since disappeared. All we have is his transcription, riddled with mistakes. But it is a fragment (starting and ending in mid-sentence) which seems to come from the story of Hnaef and Finn and seems to describe in hectic immediate style the start of the dramatic fight at Finn’s hall. This text has become known as the Fight at Finnsburg, also known as the ‘Fragment’.

Gathering Tolkien’s papers

When Tolkien died he left a vast amount of papers, published and unpublished, scholarly or part of his great imagined world of Middle Earth. His son, Christopher, has dedicated his life to establishing order and publishing definitive versions of these texts (hence, for example, the 12 volumes of the stories of Middle Earth). Over his career Tolkien lectured and speculated repeatedly about the relation between the Fragment and the Episode (which has also attracted a huge amount of attention from other scholars of the period).

Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode was compiled by the OE scholar Alan Bliss in an attempt to create a definitive version of Tolkien’s thoughts on this popular subject. It is divided into four parts:

1. Glossary of Names A very detailed consideration of the origin, meaning, other citings and interrelations of all the proper names used in both the Fragment and Episode: Hnaef, Healfdene, Scylding, Hengest, Finn. You get a good flavour of just how complicated it is trying to establish order and consistency from the wealth of fragments and references to names which differ in every citation and from language to language, in the Wikipedia article about Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, whose meadhall Beowulf visits and protects from the monster Grendel.

Investigating all the names which occur in both Fragment and Episode provides a foundation for…

2. Textual Commentary A detailed examination of key words and phrases in the text which shed light on the mystery. This is like the textual apparatus you get with any classic text, explaining in detail all the editorial choices and decisions. This passage gives a good flavour of the book. It is analysing lines 43-45 of the fragment which, in George Hickes’ transcription reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum hrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned,
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
active in his armour| and also his helm pierced…

about which Tolkien writes:

45 Hickes [ie George Hickes’ transcription has…] Here sceorpum hror. ‘Active in his armour’ makes no sense in this context, which clearly is a complaint that their weapons are no longer serviceable. Compare the exclamation of Hjalti (Hialto) in Saxo’s translation of Bjarkamal: “Already, grievously have sword and darts cut to pieces my shield… of the broken shield the arm thongs alone remain.” Compare also the situation in Olafr Trygvasson’s last fight:

“Ōlāfr konungr Tryggvason stōð ī lypting ā Orminum, ok skaut optast um daginn, stundum bogaskoti, en stundum gaflǫkum, ok jafnan tveim sęnn. Hann sā fram ā skipit, ok sā sīna męnn reiða sverðin ok hǫggva tītt, ok sā at illa bitu; mælti þā hātt: ‘hvārt reiði þēr svā slæliga sverðin, er ek sē at ekki bīta yðr?’ Maðr svarar: ‘sverð vār eru slæ ok brotin mjǫk.’

In that case read hreosceorp (pl.) unhror. Unhror does not else occur, and hror is usually applied to persons – its sense is ‘valiant, mighty’ (but etymologically ‘active, agile’). Neither of these is a fatal objection to weapons. Cf. fyrdsearo fuslic (B.2618) ‘gallant’. The classic example is cene ‘noble’ – ‘bold’ – ‘sharp’. The accentuation héresceorp un| hrór (Type E) is not unprecedented: cf. se þe unmurlice | madmas dæleþ (B.1756), þæt is undyrne | dryhten Higelac (B.2000). Technically as a “noun-compound”, un- should have the accent, but in spite of the additional logical reason for accenting the negative un- it was clearly often unaccented (like ne) – owing partly to the influence of the simplex and partly to sentence-rhythm. It is often in origin an IE unaccented form. Cf. “the ùnknown warrior”, “into the ùnknown”; cf. also ON ó– accented, ú– unaccented.

That is Tolkien’s reasoning for changing hrōr to unhrōr in the passage quoted above, so that his amended version now reads:

Þā gewāt him wund hæleð | on wæg gangan,
sǣde þæt his byrne | ābrocen wǣre,
here-sceorpum unhrōr, | and ēac wæs his helm þyrl…

Then a wounded hero | away turned
said that his byrnie | was a-broken
his armour inactive | and also his helm pierced…

If you’re looking for hobbits, forget it. The whole book is written like this.

3. Reconstruction A brief conclusion, based on the detailed evidence of the previous two sections of what the actual story was, what are the historical events behind the legend, namely:

Finn is king of the Frisians., a border people caught between the powerful Franks to the south, Danes to the north. He has married Hildeburh, sister of king Hnaef of the Halfdanes, probably in an attempt to patch up some feud between them. The Halfdanes are probably a family or tribe on the edges of Danish royal influence proper, types of colonists. The Frisians are an ancient tribe recorded by the Romans as far back as the first century. Hnaef Halfdane takes 60 thanes to visit Finn; this half Danish, mixed nature of his following explains why a number of his followers appear to be Jutes from the Jutland peninsula. Presumably he was visiting his sister; probably he was bringing back Finn’s son who he had been fostering as per northern Germanic custom. He planned to spend the winder with Finn, his brother-in-law.

It seems that Hnaef the half-Dane, with Jutes among his retinue, arrives at Finn’s hall/stronghold to find there are a number of exiled Jutes there who have fled some internal Jutish feud. There is very bad blood between the Jutish contingents. The atmosphere is tense. The half-Danish contingent, housed in the guests’ hall, that night notice shields and armour creeping up on them in the night. This is where the Fragment starts with the first assault on the hall: Hnaef despatches men to guard the two doors; Garulf among the attackers falls; they fight for five days, with the attackers suffering grievous casualties, when an attacker turns to his king (Finn?) to say his armour is packing up, the king replying, How are the two others (presumably the pair of defenders defending the door) doing…?

The Episode starts with queen Hildeburh surveying the carnage “when morning came”. King Hnaef of the defenders has been killled. So has Hildeburh’s son by Finn (the assumption is that he had been sent as a ward to the court of Hnaef, had therefore slept with the half-Danes, had for some reason been forward in the defence and so killed). But Finn has suffered more with most of his thanes killed in the assault. Therefore he is forced to make a peace treaty with Hengest, who has succeeded Hnaef as leader of the guests. In it Finn promises to call off the attack, lease them the hall for the winter, give them as much gold and rings as he usually gives his Frisians; so that they in every way become his subjects. The treaty agreed, many of the Frisians return to their homesteads leaving Hengest and the half-Danes to winter with Finn. Hengest broods all winter long on the conflict between his duty to avenge his dead leader Hnaef and the peace treaty he has agreed with Finn. In the spring the sea thaws and a number of the half-Danes sail away to Denmark, taking the tale of the treacherous attack on them and the murder of Hnaef. They return with reinforcements. One of the half-Danes places a well-known sword in Hengest’s lap and the next thing we know Finn is dead, his hall burnt down, and the half-Danes have taken queen Hildeburh and all Finn’s gold back to their native land.

Popularity

The tale, and references to Finn, seem to be so widespread in the ancient literature because:

a) historically, it captures an important moment in the troubled tribal wars of the North Sea and Baltic, one which seems to have crystallised certain shifts of power towards the Danes, against the Frisians and which, importantly for the later English tribes, prompted Hengest’s mission to Britain.

b) culturally, it deals with the classic dilemma explored again and again in the Icelandic sagas: Hengest’s conflict between the prime duty to avenge a murdered lord and some other duty either of marriage or, as here, a sworn treaty.

c) of its psychological complexity: almost certainly Finn didn’t initiate the attack on the half-Danes, his Jutish guests did and he found himself dragged in to fight against his wife’s kin; he sees his own son killed; he himself dies and loses everything. It is a very Northern, bleak outcome. But also the wrecca or adventurer Hengest didn’t expect a fight, and probably finds leadership of the survivors thrust upon him. His ethical dilemma (described above) is at the centre of the Episode. And queen Hildeburh is a victim like Hecuba or Andromache; through no fault at all of her own seeing first her son then her husband killed, her marriage hall going up in flames and herself taken like booty back to her homeland with ashes in her mouth. She is a character worthy of Greek tragedy.

Three Appendices One of the appendices is a tentative chronology of the events outlined above: I was electrified to discover Tolkien thought that Beowulf must have been born around 500AD; and that, with his breadth of knowledge and command of the sources, he thinks the powerful wrecca (exile, adventurer) Hengest, whose brooding character dominates both Fragment and Episode, is the same Hengest who the Venerable Bede records as invading Kent with his partner Horsa in 453! Tolkien’s full chronology is:

410 Romans leave Britain
425 Hengest born
430 Healfdene born
Fight at Finnsburh occurs about 452. Hnaef aged about 30 dies. Hengest the king’s thegn is 25. Hildeburh, Hnaef’s sister, older than him, 33, so as to have a son old enough to fight (and die) 15?
453 Hengest, victorious in the fight at Finnsburh, but with all sorts of enemies, leads a war band along with Horsa in the invasion of Kent. He has an infant son Oesc. Horsa is killed in battle soon after.
460 Hrothgar, second son of Healfdene born
470 Oesc becomes a warrior. 473 last mention of Hengest, in a chronicle. He probably lives to old age.
480 Hygelac of the Geats born.
490 Kingdom of Kent established with Oesc as head of the new royal line.
495-505 death of Healfdene Scylding; accession of his second son Hrothgar aged 35 or so.
495-500 Beowulf born.
512 death of Oesc, recorded in Chronicle.
520 Beowulf, aged about 20, travels from the court of King Hygelac of the Geats to visit Heorot, hall of King Hrothgar of the Healfdenes. Fights Grendel and her mother.
525-30 death of King Hygelac in a battle with the Franks, as recorded in Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum.
570 the aged Beowulf sets out to battle the dragon who is terrorising his people. Dies and is buried beneath a great mound by the sea.

Criticism

I am not scholar enough to criticise the contents of this book in detail. The editor, Bliss, keeps up a steady stream of footnotes pointing out where Tolkien’s theories are out of date or wrong. And the book was published in 1982 – who knows what further discoveries and insights have been published in the past 30 years?

It is a big effort to read this book, but working through all 150 pages of Tolkien’s densely argued notes really takes you into the guts of the text with all its possible variant readings and interpretations. Even an amateur like myself comes away with a much more vivid feel for the complexity of the texts, for the power and beauty of the poetry, for the pathos of the central characters, and excited by the tantalising crossovers with actual recorded historical events.

The only criticism I can confidently make is that the book should have included the text of the poem Widsith. This 140-line Anglo Saxon poem is a lament by a wandering minstrel for the courts and kings he has known and performed for: some are clearly fantasy (Caesar, the king of the Egyptians) but others are highly factual references to real kings of Germanic tribes. Early in the poem he refers to Hnaef and Finn, lines Tolkien includes in his list of four sources of evidence which he will consider. It would have been easy and very convenient for the reader trying to follow the repeated references to Widsith if the book had included the full text and a decent prose translation of it.

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Book jacket for Finn and Hengist, copyright John Howe and Random Books

Sagas

The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.

Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

%d bloggers like this: