Saturday, July 19, 2014

Beowulf; and J. R. R. Tolkien, "Sellic Spell"


Opening Passage: From Beowulf:

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute -- a good king was he! (p. 13)

From "Sellic Spell":

Once upon a time there was a King in the North of the world who had an only daughter, and in his house there was a young lad who was not like the others. One day some huntsmen had come upon a great bear in the mountains. They tracked him to his lair and killed him, and in his den they found a man-child. They marvelled much, for it was a fine child, about three years old, and in good health, but it could speak no words. It seemed to the huntsmen that it must have been fostered by the bears, for it growled like a cub. (p. 360)

Summary: If we ask what Beowulf is about, it is easy to focus on the most vivid scenes, on, for instance, Beowulf and Grendel. But if we do that, it is difficult to grasp a unified thread in the story. I think that the poet, however, has told us what Beowulf is about in his very first sentence: Danish kings. This is a poem about kingship: about its nobility, its glory, its sorrows, its responsibilities, its demands. Beowulf is in this sense not so much the main character as the representative character. And once one realizes this, one discovers that the poem goes out of its way to make this clear. We begin not with Beowulf himself but with Danish kings, and slowly focus in on Hrothgar, a wise king with a seemingly insoluble problem. Only then do we find Beowulf. Slowly we learn about him, as the poet builds up the picture of a king-in-making -- and Hrothgar himself at one point highlights it, and gives advice on kingship. Then Beowulf becomes king, and eventually dies a kingly death and is given a kingly burial.

Even the monsters Beowulf fights reflect on this theme. Grendel and his mother, scions of wandering Cain, the most monstrous summation of what it is to be an outlaw, are as it were the negative counterparts of Beowulf-as-champion, Beowulf as having the potential of kingship, and Beowulf in fighting them returns the land to law and order. The dragon, on the other hand, is the negative counterpart of Beowulf-as-king. We tend to think of hoarding treasure as just a sort of random thing dragons do; but in this tale, hoarding is what a dragon is. A dragon is an ungenerous king. He hoards without giving benefit; he hoards in such a way that if he cannot have his treasure, he will guarantee that no one has it; his hoarding is so great that in return for the theft of a drinking cup he will destroy an entire kingdom. But the purpose of a king is not to hoard, but to give; generosity is the heart of kingship.

It is a stable characteristic of this Anglo-Saxon ideal, and shared by all Nordic storytelling, that greatness, and virtue, and nobility are all taken to be not abstractions but highly concrete and material. The poet endlessly talks about material wealth -- gold, treasures, rings, swords, cups, plates, gilded benches in golden halls. It is the language in which he speaks of kingship, of heroism, of excellence. To be great is to be worthy of gold and silver and fine things. But while it is a very material view, it is not a very materialistic view, because none of this wealth is seen as a private thing. One's possession of wealth, unless one is a thief, arises from the good one does to the whole people. One's excellence as a champion is not winning wealth for oneself but for all. One's glory as a king is pouring forth treasure to those who merit it. We see this in Beowulf's death. He asks to see the dragon's treasure, all the fine wealth he has won, to ease his death; but it is not the gold itself that matters to him. He thanks God for the treasure and commands, as his last command, that it be used for the needs of the people. That seems fitting enough to us; but we, I think, have difficulty seeing it for what it really is. This is not some extraordinary fit of generosity, but the practical work of the king, the ordinary, everyday, mundane, almost pedestrian activity of a sovereign ruler. What is notable is not that this is above and beyond the call of duty; it is that Beowulf does his duty as king to the very end. And after his end, his people express their devotion to him in the same material way -- but, again, their material expression of respect for a true king is infinitely removed from anything materialistic.

Tolkien's translation is very good, but reading a number of reviews of it, I can see that people don't grasp the point of it. It was not made to present the story of Beowulf, or to give a poetic representation analogous to its original; it was made to assist in understanding the original poem, designed to draw out things that could otherwise be easily overlooked. It is an instrument serving an end beyond itself. As such it is rather different from almost any other translation available. It thus fits very well with the extensive commentary from Tolkien's lectures on Beowulf and also the short story, "Sellic Spell".

"Sellic Spell" is worth reading on its own; he presents a Beowulfian fairy tale or folk-story. But it, too, was an instrument, something written with a purpose beyond itself: by means of it, Tolkien provides a contrast by which certain features of Beowulf can be better understood. The poem is an intersection of fairy tale and historical legend, and "Sellic Spell" is Tolkien's attempt to draw out, in a coherent way, something like the purely fairy tale aspect of it, to show what kind of thing you might get if you looked beyond the historic/heroic aspect of the tale to the folktale-structures that were adapted to historical events (or to which historical tales were adapted). It holds up well enough on its own -- it deserves to take its place among classic fairy tales -- but it, too, is an instrument for understanding Beowulf.

Thus both the translation and the fairy tale adaptation foil attempts to stop at themselves. They interfere with the temptation to think that in reading a translation, or an adaptation, we in some sense have the original. They point beyond themselves, and by the very way they work, by their very purpose, they insist that you look beyond them, and see the wonder of Beowulf itself, even if you do so in the translation, or the adaptation, as in mirror darkly.

Favorite Passage:

Then was the keeper of the barrow swollen with wrath, purposing, fell beast, with fire to avenge his precious drinking-vessel. Now was the day faded to the serpent's joy. No longer would he tarry on the mountain-side, but went blazing forth, sped with fire. Terrible for the people in that land was the beginning (of that war), even as swift and bitter came its end upon their lord and patron. Now the invader did begin to spew forth glowing fires and set ablaze the shining halls -- the light of the burning leapt forth to the woe of the men. No creature there did that fell winger of the air purpose to leave alive. Wide might it be seen how the serpent went to war, the malice of that fall oppressor, from near and far be seen how that destroyer in battle pursued and humbled the people of the Geats. Back to his Hoard he sped to his dark hall ere the time of day. He had wrapped the dwellers in the land in flame, in fire and burning; he trusted in his barrow, in its wall and his own warlike might, and his trust cheated him. (pp. 80-81)

Recommendation: Highly recommended all, Beowulf and Tolkien's translation of it and "Sellic Spell"; but it is important to remember that the latter two aren't intended to stand on their own, but to contribute to the understanding of how the original works.


  1. I more look forward to reading "Beowulf." It is close at hand in my reading list. Classical medieval literature does reveal that our modern perceptions of "the good," especially in the political realm, are often lacking roots and fruit.

  2. branemrys6:20 PM

    Definitely worth reading; there's more to it than at first meets the eye.

  3. MrsDarwin8:31 AM

    I'just found this at the library yesterday, so I'm looking forward to reading it in the light of your commentary. From a quick flip-through, it looks like Tolkien originally wrote Sellic Spell in Old English and then translated it?

    Here's my Old English story: Several years ago, when my oldest two were babies, I studied Old English via an online class -- a high-school course, really, but it was an experimental thing run by someone we knew. I enjoyed it greatly, and I thought the class was awesome, and I was awesome for keeping up with scholarly pursuits even though I was living in baby-land. One day I went to a playgroup with a bunch of moms I knew, and when we were all catching up on what was going in our lives I announced that I was studying Old English. Old English! There was a moment of silence, and then one of my friends said, "Why would you want to do *that*?"

    I think we started blogging not long afterward.

  4. branemrys10:35 AM

    Christopher Tolkien notes that the earliest draft he has seems to predate the Old English draft he has, so it's unclear whether it started out in Old English or in modern English. Old English was definitely a step in there at some point, though. But, of course, regardless of exactly how it originally took shape, it grew out of Tolkien's intensive study of Beowulf.

    I like your Old English story; one of the good things about blogging is certainly that you can find people who would never say, "Why would you want to do that?"


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