Reinterpreting Beowulf

In May 2014 J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf hit the shelves, and I grabbed my copy soon after I graduated. I am still going through his notes. Yes, the 200 something pages of lecture notes on the translation that Tolkien had just lying around his house and his wonderful son Christopher compiled for the book. I got Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf in part because it’s my desire to read everything that Tolkien has ever written, but I also because I was curious to see how Tolkien interpreted the text. These two points go hand in hand, because in the act of translating Tolkien adds his own style to the original work. Namely, what I noticed about his translations of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Beowulf is that Tolkien tried as much as possible to capture the flow of the meter of the original poem. Seamus Heaney’s famous edition of Beowulf flows more like modern literature, but until I read Tolkien’s translation I did not realize how much of the soul Heaney had gutted from the text. Tolkien put the same ancient, magical soul into his translation as he did into Lord of the Rings, and thus lets the story transcend time. He made it accessible not through mere words, but through its gripping narrative. So if you have not read this translation, I would highly recommend that you do.

But why am I discussing an Anglo-Saxon poem you probably read in English class on a blog devoted to the Vikings?  And why, furthermore, am I discussing Tolkien? Well, for starters, Tolkien was obsessed with Norse Mythology and culture. This was, in fact, how he and CS Lewis became friends, since CS Lewis was also a Norse Mythology fan, though not as big as Tolkien. Tolkien could read Old Norse, along with Old Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and many others. If you know enough of these languages, you will see how they influenced the languages and world of Middle Earth. Elvish looks a lot like a cross between Old Irish, Welsh, and some others, and Dwarven Runes are just slightly modified Norse Runes. The Rohan peoples live in Edoras, and “edoras” in Anglo-Saxon means “outer fence,” which is how they referred to the world as well as the wall around the city. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 225) As it turns out, the more you research the cultures of early medieval Scandinavia and the British Isles the more you will see how “unoriginal” Tolkien was. Or rather, how extremely well read and inventive he was.

Secondly, Tolkien was an impressive linguist and Oxford professor, who taught Anglo-Saxon and in particular Beowulf. He wrote numerous articles and translations on interpreting “The Battle of Maldon,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and Beowulf, all early works in the English literary cannon. According to Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to his father’s translation, Tolkien completed his translation of Beowulf in 1926, when he was 34 years old!! Seamus Heaney, whose translation is probably more well known, was 60 when he completed his translation in 1999. To my knowledge, Tolkien is one of the first to translate the entire poem into modern English, and he did this soon after accepting a professorship at Oxford. He then went on to be a professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, and he tweaked parts of his translation while he taught the poem. (Tolkien Beowulf, vii-viii.)  So why is it that he is known among many circles more for his fiction than for his contributions to modern historical scholarship? Well, most people probably do not want to read incredibly dense and at times dull academic papers, and I can completely understand that. I have tried to read his academic work myself and it is sometimes a struggle to get through them. But why have historians in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, whose job it is to know the past scholarship on the topic, often neglect to mention Tolkien and his work on Anglo-Saxon literature?

I learned about Tolkien’s scholarship through an English class at my alma mater, which put his work context with the medieval literary scholarship of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While Tolkien has earned a place in the corpus of English literary scholarship, he has contributed a great deal to the history and linguistic community as well. For me, at least his work has profoundly affected how I understand and interpret the Beowulf text. In his translation I saw for the first time just now Norse the Beowulf story actually is, to the point that I am now inclined to call it a lost Norse Saga. Of course, Beowulf is almost always presented as an English text because it is written in Anglo-Saxon. Those who refute Tolkien’s interpretation, I would gather, would argue this point, and say that Tolkien injected Norse elements in his translation because he was already familiar with Norse culture. While it is undeniable that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem, I believe that it can be seen as well as a shadow of an older Norse story that was passed to the Anglo-Saxons and written down by that culture.

To add a small twist to the analysis trouble here, Tolkien wrote in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that he does not believe Beowulf should be analyzed purely for its historical content, as many of his contemporaries were apparently doing. He instead preferred to think of Beowulf as an epic poem of great beauty, and that looking for historical truths in it should not distract the reader from appreciating its poetic artistry. (The Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien, 5-12). As I slowly have chewed through Tolkien’s 200+ lecture notes on his translation of Beowulf, I have found that, despite Tolkien’s above protest, he relied on a great deal of historical and cultural data to figure out how to interpret and translate the Beowulf text. Does this make Tolkien a hypocrite? To the contrary, I think the point he was trying to make in “The Monsters and the Critics” was that we should never see a medieval text as being 100% factual as we would a news article today. The Beowulf Poet meant for Beowulf to be an entertaining story. However, despite some of its fictional content it contains some historical truth about Norse prehistory which can be corroborated by other texts and archaeological evidence. As well, the text itself reflects the time in which it was written, which is why Tolkien needed to know a great deal about Anglo-Saxon culture to even understand what he was reading.  In today’s academic community, the view of Beowulf has swung much more towards Tolkien’s idea of it: as a work of art and literature rather than a historical text. And I think there can be a middle ground here. In particular, I feel that students of Old Norse literature and culture can gain as much from reading Beowulf as students of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. So here below is my reasoning for calling Beowulf a lost Norse Saga.

tolkien beowulf

1) The Setting

Despite being a text written in Anglo-Saxon in approximately  the eighth century, the poem’s tale is set in approximately fifth century Denmark and Sweden. According to Tolkien’s notes, the poem describes the land of the setting as “Scedeland,” which is the Old English origin for our term Scandinavia. It comes from the Old Norse “Skadinaujo or Skadinawi = ‘the isle or peninsular of Skađin’” (Tolkien’s Beowulf, 148). King Hrothgar is a king of one of the more powerful lands in Denmark, and Beowulf comes from a ruling family of Geats. “Geatas” is an Anglo-Saxon form of the Old Norse word “Gautar,” from which we get the word Gautland (207). This means that Beowulf was from Gautland, Sweden. Beowulf comes to Denmark because Hrothgar is being attacked by Grendel, which Tolkien describes as a ‘troll.’ All this, to me, sounds more like a Norse Story than an Anglo-Saxon one

2) The Two Trolls

The term “troll” in Old Norse meant any magical creature or any creature that is possessed by a magical spell, i.e. “troll-spell” – two terms which Tolkien uses in his translation. In the case of Beowulf, all that we know about Grendel and his mom is that they come from the moors, are roughly humanoid (since Grendel can be wrestled), and they are larger than humans. I struggled for years to figure out what Grendel looked like, since Seamus Heaney’s translation wasn’t that descriptive on this point. The minute I read Tolkien’s translation, which referred to Grendel as a “troll,” it all made sense. Now I see Grendel and his mother looking like every Norwegian troll I read about as a child. And if you don’t think there can be troll women, you haven’t read that many stories. Troll women, and even pretty good looking troll women, appear in Grettir’s Saga as well as Norse Mythology. (Fun fact, a troll woman can look just like a human woman. Check to see if she has a tail.) A lot of other trolls look like the ones in the movie Trollhunter, like this guy:

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So trolls are kinda a big deal.

As Christianity took hold in Scandinavia trolls became associated with magic, and thus were considered evil creatures which could smell the blood of a Christian man. In Beowulf, trolls are apparently decedents of Cain. However, a lot of other myths about trolls vary by region, with some trolls being nice and protective spirits and others being dangerous killers. Sometimes their humanoid, other times they are more animalistic. But I think the biggest point to gather here is that trolls are a Scandinavian specific creature, and to have them mentioned in Beowulf suggests that the story has Norse origins.

3) The Culture

This particular point I will admit is a little fuzzy, since it can be reasonably argued that Beowulf shows both Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture. To this I say that Anglo-Saxon culture, especially in the fifth century when they first traveled to Britain, had a very similar culture to the Norse. Norse Mythology, or basically belief in the Odin pantheon, was shared by a lot of Germanic groups, including the Angles of Denmark and the Saxons of Germany who came over to England and turned into the Anglo-Saxons. It is probably no surprise then that a Danish story found its way into the literature of the Anglo-Saxons. In Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons during the conversion process, they lived in longhouses and had small idol alters to the Norse gods in these communal living structures. That sounds a lot like how Scandinavians lived in that period. So was the Beowulf Poet referring to his culture as well as older Norse culture? Probably. But as I said before, the story is set in Scandinavia, so the elements of Anglo-Saxon culture which are present in the story could equally come from the Poet and from the mutual heritage that the two cultures share.

Nevertheless, many elements of the story reminded me more of Norse culture and saga literature than Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf is known as an impressive swimmer, as are several other saga heroes like Grettir the Strong. Hrothgar gives out costly gifts such as torcs to Beowulf and his men when they successfully defeat Grendel – a common practice known in early Norse as well as Anglo-Saxon culture. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 183). This practice is mentioned in “The Wanderer,” an early Anglo-Saxon poem, as well as in pretty much every Norse saga. Because Scandinavian societies were introduced to centralized government structures rather late, they continued the practice of “gift exchange” far into the eleventh century, which is why it is more often associated with Norse culture.  Many scenes in Beowulf also show feasting, which was a common pastime in Norse, and probably Anglo-Saxon culture. And those are just the few most prominent examples that I care to list here.

4) The Story Itself

Here’s where it gets super interesting. I recently picked up a Norse saga book called the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. I mention it in this blog post. In the introduction to this text the translator remarks that the story of Hrolf Kraki has some striking similarities to Beowulf. While the story we have today dates to the fifteenth century, it is based on a manuscript from the thirteenth century which is now lost. The events of the narrative originate from fifth or sixth century, and tells the history of the dynastic house of the Skjöldungs, which ruled Denmark and parts of Sweden in that period. Does this sound familiar? The opening of Beowulf talks of Scyld Scefing, who, according to Jesse L Byock and Tolkien, is the originator of the Skjöldung/Scyldings dynasty.

The Beowulf text goes into some detail about the lineage of the Scyldings, which is Hrothgar’s lineage. Tolkien explains in his notes that Healfdene, one of Scyld Scefling’s decedents, is the English form of a common Norse name: Halfdanr. From there, Tolkien speculates that the Beowulf text is referring to “Healfdene the Old,” who according to the medieval historian Saxo Germanicus ruled in early Denmark and died of natural causes. Jesse Byock states in his introduction to Hrolf Kraki that another text, the Icelandic Saga of the Skjöldungs, traces twenty generations of that kingly line, ending with Gorm the Old, who died in 940 AD (Byock, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, xv). He goes into much greater length on this topic than I can here, but he makes a good claim that there is some historical basis to the lineage outlined in Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki.  However, Tolkien admits in his analysis that much of this is clouded in pseudo-historical Norse and English traditions. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 154-5).

Jesse Byock further states that several names in the Saga Hrolf Kraki also roughly match to Beowulf. Hrolf looks a bit like Hrothgar, and Healfdene like Halfdan, who we learn more about in  Hrolf Kraki’s saga.   Beowulf is a little harder to decipher, but Byock suggests that his character is similar to Bodvar Bjarki, Hrolf’s champion. The name “Beowulf” can be translation as “bee-wolf,” which could refer to a bear who likes honey, or as a compound of “beorn-ulf” = “bear-wolf” (xxv).  Bodvar Bjarki could change into a bear when he fought, so the connection there is tenuous. However, both characters are of Geatish decent and they travel to Denmark to fight for the Danish king, so there is some connection between the two characters there. Furthurmore, Bodvar defeats a dragon which was attacking Hrolf’s hall, just as Beowulf defeats Grendel when he attacks Hrothgar’s hall (and then later a dragon).

Another point of comparison which has a germ of historical basis is the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes. In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, Hrolf fights the antagonistic Swedish king Adils throughout the saga.  Tolkien discusses Hrolf/Hrothgar’s dynastic history and the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes at great great length in his translation notes. Beowulf is the nephew of the ruling king of Gautland, and his relatives are related to the great enemy of another king names Onlea, who is married to Hrothgar’s sister. By that notion Beowulf and Hrothgar should be enemies, but the story contrives a friendship between Beowulf’s father and Hrothgar that Hrothgar cites at his first meeting with Beowulf around line 300 in the poem. Furthermore, it is hinted in the text that Hrothgar’s nephew Unferth threatens Hrothgar’s son’s claim to the throne, and that his name symbolizes his treachery both to Beowulf and to Hrothgar’s throne (213-217). Beowulf’s presence in Hrothgar’s kingdom causes tensions in the court to heighten because he could also make a claim to Hrothgar’s throne, since he is of noble stock. Beowulf is held up as a paragon of virtue because he does not seek to claim Hrothgar’s throne, but instead wants to help Hrothgar and his sons keep their throne. (And you just thought it was about killing monsters, didn’t you? I certainly did the first two times I read it.)

Tolkien’s analysis of the dynastic struggles in Beowulf are eerily similar to the stories in Hrolf Kraki, which to me shows that the stories could have a common origin. Tolkien also suggests that there is some historical evidence to support the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes, meaning that both Beowulf and the Saga of Hrolf Kraki have a germ of historical truth. So while the stories are not identical, they seem to discuss the same dynastic history of the fifth century kings in Scandinavia.

Conclusion

Of course, historians know very little of the history of fifth and sixth century Scandinavia. The two texts we have left, the Saga of Hrof Kraki and Beowulf, are heavily mythologized stories which are perhaps based on history, or at least a common myth about the historical Skjöldungs dynasty. Archeological evidence has found what we believe to be Hrothgar’s hall in Denmark, or at least evidence that rulers like the fictional Hrothgar did have a powerful hold on that part of Denmark. So that, combined with literary evidence, adds some validity to the claim that Beowulf contains historical truths.  More broadly, I think we can learn a great deal from these texts about early Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon culture, if not the actual history of fifth century Scandinavia.

Unlike previous eras, we now have Tolkine’s complete translation and commentary on the Beowulf text, which opens up a whole new line of scholarship to be pursued on this ages old poem.  Tolkien’s manuscript and notes have so much to offer historians, anthropologists, and linguists alike, and I hope that in the coming years more work will be written on interpreting Beowulf.  But for now, I have said my piece.

-The Valkyrie

If you want to learn more about this subject, I encourage you to pick up Tolkien’s Beowulf, as well as the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L. Byock. The other articles and poems I mentioned in this post are worth a read too, so happy reading!

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4 thoughts on “Reinterpreting Beowulf

  1. I can’t speak for historians, but from my experience Tolkien’s work – especially “The Monsters and the Critics” – isn’t ignored at all among philologists, on the contrary: more than once I’ve heard it mentioned as essential reading to get a first grip on Beowulf. But I agree with you on how fantastic the new volume is and bought it for the exact same reasons as you. 😉

    On the topic of Beowulf as a Norse saga – well. In mode and manner it’s very much English, I think, and not too dissimilar to other Old English heroic poetry. You’re right about the setting, of course, but that could be a conscious ‘design choice’ as well. The stories about the Skjöldung/Scylding dynasty are notoriously swampy and in Scandinavian sources, basically every single version has its own genealogy different from the others. That makes it kind of shaky as a historical source.

    I’ve written quite a lengthy series of blog posts about Böðvarr bjarki. If you’re interested (and if you excuse the shameless self-promotion), it’s on my blog in the “Bear’s Son in Lejre” category. 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for writing this informative comment! I found it very helpful, and I hope other readers do as well.
      Not being part of the philological community, I did not know Tolkien’s influence there. I am very glad to hear however that he has made an impact, and well deserved. I think perhaps why Beowulf is not mentioned in any of the historiography that I delved into as part of my history honors thesis is because Beowulf is seen more as a literary text than a historical one in many American academic circles. And you certainly make some very good points to support why they categorize the text as they do. I agree that most of what we know about the Scylding Dynasty is very swampy, but such is the bane of anyone who delves into early Medieval history. (Pity the scholars of Early Ireland, for instance). Beggars really can’t be choosers in this line of work. So I guess what I find valuable about Beowulf is not necessary its “facts and dates” historical accuracy, which is impossible to really prove, but its window into culture. Now perhaps that’s not how most historians would look at saga literature, but the way I see it, the people who wrote down these stories believed them to have some historical basis, otherwise why would the story be of value to them? So if nothing else the story shows what the author’s culture valued. But I believe too that the stories contain some aspects of the older culture which can inform modern scholars on life in that time and place. Now, in saying that, Beowulf is written in Anglo-Saxon and thus is colored by the author’s culture, I completely agree with you on that point. But isn’t it curious that an Anglo-Saxon author wrote about a Norse culture? Why wasn’t Beowulf an Anglo-Saxon, if the story was written purely for entertainment? Whatever the possible reasons for this narrative choice, it is an interesting topic that could shed light on the literary culture of Anglo-Saxon England. (Maybe people have already considered this and I need to read more.) And perhaps we can learn something about Norse culture by comparing Beowulf with other similar literature as well, like Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. Its certainly something to consider, right?
      Speaking of which, thank you for letting me know about your blog! I will be sure to read it in the near future! It looks fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, I saw your comment just now. Beowulf’s setting has actually been part of the ‘dating debate’ on the poem. It has been argued (controversially) that it was composed in the Danelaw area during the reign of Canute. If you want to look into this deeper (something I haven’t done so far – it can turn into a life’s work), this theory was brought forth by Kevin Kiernan.

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  2. That’s a fascinating idea! I don’t know why I did not discover this debate during any of my previous research, but thank for altering me too it. Dating the poem to Canute’s reign makes sense on one level, considering the cultural overlap, but I can see how it’s a controversial idea. But thank you very much for the reference. I’m excited to look into this further. Hmmm… do I see a blog post in the future?

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