Completed: Beowulf

BeowulfCover: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
England, between 8th-11th cent.
Translator, Seamus Heaney, 2000

Sitting down to write about Beowulf, I feel woefully ignorant of the context of the poem—and therefore completely unqualified to write more than some cursory thoughts. (I should point out that Cleo provides some great background info to the poem, which is very useful.) I know that is it old—somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. That it was written in Old English (which can also be called Anglo-Saxon, as I read…somewhere?). And based solely on my reading, the anonymous writer was clearly very religious, specifically Christian. But the literary context of the poem: how does it relate to other writings of the era/region? It is a poem, in the Germanic form, Cleo tells us, but I’ve not read anything else in the style. Used to end rhymes and syllable-based rhythms, it barely feels a poem to me. This is not the fault of the writer, nor the translator, it is me.

Looking in the other direction, on the other hand, I can clearly see Beowulf’s influence, specifically on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some time back, Tom at Wuthering Expectations commented that he wasn’t sure why more Tolkien fans didn’t read the Icelandic Sagas, given the relation between the two; this applies also to Beowulf. Even beyond Tolkien’s essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” (which I have still to read—I’d hoped to get to it this week, but instead paid the price of a week off work with extra hours), and his recently published translation of Beowulf, there seem to be clear lines of influence on his fictional works. I marked quite a few scenes in my notes, from noting in general the fondness for lays to descriptions that seemed reminiscent of scenes from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, to the powerful chain-mail that was perhaps the prototype for Bilbo’s–later Frodo’s–mithril shirt, and even a reference to an “Eomer.” But it was a passage towards the end that struck me most vividly:

…until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into a rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover. (2210-2220)

It was as if I was reading a poetic rendition of the dragon Smaug and the thief Bilbo, hired by the dwarves.

I also saw Beowulf in contrast to other more ancient works I am familiar with, some of the Greek plays and myths. Over and over, I noted that Beowulf seemed to boast of his prowess—and yet his boasting didn’t bring him low or or his end. Were this a Greek tale, I felt sure that the gods would punish him for his boasts. But the worldview is different here: it is a brutal world, and whatever is fated will be—and in the writer’s Christian worldview, it will be God who will decide that fate, a belief Beowulf acknowledges even as he claims the power to defeat Grendel.

‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no ides of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.’ (677-688).

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading the poem, and should very much like to read the Tolkien translation and commentary, hopefully soon. This was only my first reading, and really my first familiarity with Beowulf and its world, and I feel like I have only started to grasp what it is about. My way in was via the Tolkien writings, but I think there is probably still much more the glean from it. And perhaps this will prove my way in to other Old English works as well as a stepping stone towards reading some of the ancient sagas and mythologies of the northern countries.

Thank you so much, Cleo for hosting and prompting me to finally read Beowulf! As a bonus, it also counts as my second selection for Once Upon a Time IX (and I thought I’d only read one this spring) and as my seventh title completed for The Classics Club.

Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)


*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.

On Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (spoiler free)

Hobbit1The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012 – New Zealand
Peter Jackson, director

Seeing as I just posted my thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and seeing as I had finally gotten around to rereading it based upon part 1 of the film adaptation opening yesterday, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my thoughts about the film itself. Or at least part one: what no one’s saying in the critique of director Peter Jackson’s and the studio’s decision to divvy the movie up into three parts is that the worst part is not the length; the worst is that the fans must wait until the summer of 2014 to see the whole thing!

That said, I will admit that I was a little leery going into this movie based upon that three-movie decision: I could see two films (after all, Tolkien’s descriptions of the battle scenes audiences seem to love are a little, shall we say, scant), but three seemed a bit overkill. Then the early reviews started to come in, calling it lengthy, bloated, boring. Well. One of three things must have happened: 1) the critics and I saw different films or 2) the critics could only imagine the decision for three films based upon dollar signs and so had already decided the movie must be bloated or 3) those of us who have read and love the book have an inbuilt appreciation for every single part of the book and so cannot find the bloat in including it all. This isn’t too say there weren’t a couple scenes I wouldn’t have cut or shortened (I thought the prologue was trying just a little too hard to make the connection to the The Fellowship of the Ring adaptation, and I think that a later part of the storyline involving back-story could have been condensed), but nothing that would have substantially shortened the length of the film. Leaving the theater, I couldn’t believe myself, but I thought that three parts made sense! And I certainly didn’t find it long or boring.

One of the challenges with book-to-movie adaptations is what to change, what to leave the same, what to leave out. Usually, someone is left unhappy: the fans are upset at a change or differing interpretation, or the professional critics think the film was too faithful to the source material, to its detriment. I can only speak as one fan, but I liked many of the changes. (My brother wasn’t happy with a change to one back-story, although he acknowledged that he could see the filmmakers’ reasoning for doing so. I couldn’t remember this particular back-story, which came from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings rather than from The Hobbit, so it didn’t bother me.) In my post on the book, I alluded to the fact that it was reading The Silmarillion that really gave me the appreciation for the reasons for the troubled relations between the dwarves and the elves—here, rather than relying on the audience to know this background, Jackson made sure to provide an explanation. (This, incidentally, could have been a bit of the film that some critics are calling “filler,” but I think the payoff is going to be in the second and third parts, where we will really see the importance of this knowledge.) Also, there was one part of the book that always felt a bit deus ex machina-ish to me, and here it was oh-so-slightly altered so as to avoid this. I really liked that change, small as it was.

There has been much discussion of the 48 fps vs. 24 fps, and as it happened I saw The Hobbit at the faster frame rate (in 3D). I’m…on the fence. The picture was beautifully clear, but at the same time it sometimes seemed distracting. It was almost as if there was a sharper contrast than ever between foreground and background, which I suppose is the hyper-reality some are talking about. But while at times this took me out of simply enjoying the movie, at other times it faded away, and so part of me wonders if the issue is some sort of combination of even the film makers getting used to adjusting lighting+3D+frame rate all to fit together. Or maybe Peter Jackson is right, it’s just something the audience needs to get used to. Given my experience with The Two Towers, which I had to watch twice before I liked it (I haven’t the faintest clue why I thought it was a good idea to pay to see a movie twice I didn’t like the first time—but it remains the only film I’ve seen twice in theaters), I think if I went to see The Hobbit at the higher frame rate a second time I might not even notice.

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. Of course, I knew he would be when I was rereading the book. I’ve seen Freeman in several films/TV series and I could picture him perfectly as Bilbo as I was rereading. The dwarves tend to blend together (not helped by the fact that my mental pronunciation of their names is different than the film’s), although Balin is just as I imagined. Many of the non-dwarvish characters were in the Lord of the Rings films also, so, interpretation as expected, but one made an appearance I hadn’t been expecting, even if hindsight tells me I should have. I unexpectedly liked the goblin king. Sure he’s a baddie. Go figure. But I think that relates to the slightly different tone between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. As a children’s book, The Hobbit is lighter than the later novel, which delves into darker territory—evil is more evil, danger is more real. The film chooses to straddle this divide, providing what I felt was the right balance in connecting to the tone and character of The Lord of the Rings films while still infusing a certain lightheartedness into the story.

Visually, the artists’ imagination yet again exceeds mine. The prologue scenes…wow. When I think back to Tolkien’s words, the artists’ interpretations make sense, but I’m afraid my little brain doesn’t picture such grandeur as I read. Or it didn’t… For that matter, I’m really happy the film-makers included two of Tolkien’s poems as songs, as my little brain could only ever hear them as sing-songy—which is fine for a children’s book, I suppose, but knowing the darker world that The Hobbit fits into (from the other books), I like to hear versions of the poems that sound like they actually could be sung by real, adult dwarves, and not nursery-tale buffoons. (OK, yes, saying “real dwarves” might place me on the edge of sanity. But they’re real, I tell ya! 😉 ) I also appreciated the way the music itself tied the new trilogy with the old, incorporating themes from The Lord of the Rings even while adding new motifs for The Hobbit. Listening to the opening strains over the film-studio logos, I was right back to ten years ago, watching the first trilogy in the theaters.

Is the film perfect? Well, no. If it were I wouldn’t have any quibbles. I don’t know that those who disliked The Lord of the Rings films would like this any better, but I don’t feel that it’s any worse, at least as far as enjoyment goes. And sometimes that’s all that matters. (How soon will it be available on DVD, please?)

Completed: The Hobbit

view of Birthday Tree from Bilbo's front door

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien

The HobbitThere are few books I’ve reread as often as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Anne of Green Gables is the only other that springs to mind), and I’d been meaning to return to the first published of Tolkien’s fantasy novels for some time. Although I’m quite certain I’ve read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings multiple times, the current reread felt foreign enough to me that I’m don’t think I reread it when I last picked up the longer Lord of the Rings, precisely ten years ago. (I distinctly recall having reread The Lord of the Rings just before the second of the films hit the theaters in 2002.) So it’s been perhaps been fifteen years since I’ve read this favorite, and I found myself approaching it almost with new eyes.

I often see a fear among book bloggers about rereading old favorites–that the book somehow won’t be the same, or that the reader will have changed so much that even though the book remains, the magic they first experienced will somehow be gone. The counter argument to this becomes that the good books will still be there, that though we may change that simply means we will find something new in them, perhaps even something better. But I didn’t find this when I started The Hobbit. The magic seemed lost, replaced by an annoying and intrusive narrator. I grew up and the aspect of the book directed at children seemed to have become lost on me.

I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such…and have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way…. I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit.*

Interestingly, Tolkien apparently felt the same. As he grew as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, worked through his own scholarly analysis of what fairy-stories are or should be, Tolkien became dissatisfied with the tone of the novel, and apparently even considered a rewrite to better align its style with that of The Lord of the Rings, although he was later dissuaded from this idea. As it is, after he completed the lengthy Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made revisions to his earlier work in order to maintain plot-line consistency between the two. (Specifically regarding the story behind Bilbo’s acquisition of a certain famous ring.)

It is not a style-choice that I recall noticing before, and while I may have simply been too entranced by Middle-earth previously, I wonder if my awareness of the faults of The Hobbit this time isn’t in part due to my summer reading of The Silmarillion. Where The Hobbit is a children’s adventure story, The Silmarillion is a grand pseudo-mythical epic and often reminded me in style and theme of the Biblical Old Testament narratives. If I am to be objective, I believe that The Silmarillion is the superior book.


About halfway through The Hobbit, I fell in love with it all over again. I don’t know if it was a change in tone or a change in mood or if the book had simply had the time it needed to work its magic on me, but for the last section of the book I didn’t want to put it down, even knowing what would happen. Or at least knowing the general idea—I can’t believe how many of the details I’d actually forgotten! I don’t think I’d forgotten how wonderful Bilbo is, as I don’t think I had really recognized that previously. If my memory of my past impressions is correct, I had also misinterpreted both the elves and the dwarves and their motivations, simplifying them, rather than allowing them to have the dimensions Tolkien had granted. Perhaps here though I am influenced by The Silmarillion, which makes much more clear the complexity of the relations between the two groups. I believe I mentioned in my post on The Silmarillion the depth of the world Tolkien created, down to the linguistic variations of his invented languages over time. Although The Hobbit is an early work, I could make out hints of the deep background given Middle-earth as I read, from the names derived from the elven tongues to the casual references to events from The Silmarillion. This depth is part of the magic of Tolkien’s world—as was his ability to make us want to live there, scary monsters and all. (Truth? The life of a hobbit, at least of the non-adventurous sort, does sound pretty good. Actually, I think my dad already eats on a hobbit schedule, six times a day…)

So I find that my latest excursion to Middle-earth was not a disappointment of tainted memories after all. The pesky narrator was quite easily forgotten and I find myself with strands to explore on my next venture through, the ideas of themes that Tolkien seems to have returned to throughout his stories. They may not mean anything, but I find myself curious as to their recurrence. (I’m most curious about the presence of some sort of special—and trouble-making—stone or jewel in each of the books I’ve read to date—silmarils, arkenstone, palantirs. Or is it just a hit-us-over-the-head commentary on greed and desire?) Regardless of any significance of Tolkien’s works, I find myself ultimately unable to completely separate myself from my continued enchantment with his world. Perhaps I’m not grown up after all.

*Letters, 309-310, as quoted on pages 15-16, including ellipses, from Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Editors, 2008

Happy Hobbit Day!

view of Birthday Tree from Bilbo's front door

Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff

I have to confess, opening up WordPress today almost feels foreign, it’s been so long. It seems that I’ve been terribly busy of late (although I can’t help but feel that I’m losing time to my own inefficiencies, somewhere), so what little time I’ve had to spare has gone to reading of books rather than reading or writing of blogs. The state of my feed reader!

But, somewhere, perhaps on Twitter, I saw that it was Tolkien week this week past and that today is Hobbit Day (in celebration of the birthdays of hobbits Bilbo and Frodo), and as I’m currently in the midst of a reread of The Hobbit it seemed appropriate the ignore all those pressing “must-dos” and spend the day reading instead. Onward to Lonely Mountain!