J.R.R. TOLKIEN  is certainly not the only person to ever translate  the word "middangeard" in Beowulf as "Middle-earth"  -- but his word choice, obviously, is more conspicuous (and interesting) to us than it is in other editions. beowulf coverThe recent publication of his version of the epic poem is hardly a mere tiber to his fans — that's "gift" in the Anglo Saxon — and it's far from being a curiosity piece, too.

In fact, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary: Together with Sellic Spell edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 425 pp., $28) is an exciting, complete work that stands fully on its own two legs. The publication of this book is truly an event.

And a revelation.

Thanks to the inclusion of Tolkien's fascinating notes on the etymology of key words and phrases, the book throws open a window on his lifelong relationship with the poem and what he thought of its tangled textual complexities.

That relationship, by the way, is not always reserved and restrained.

"[W]as the poet a dolt?" Tolkien asks himself at one point. "There are then only two possible alternatives. (i) The poet made a bad blunder …. (ii) The text has suffered alteration since it left his hands."

Tolkien worked on his "Beowulf" in the mid-1920s before embarking on a world-building saga of his own. For more background I'd point you to either Joan Acocella in The New Yorker or Michael Alexander in The Guardian who recently wrote about the circumstances surrounding the poem's translation.


CALL OF THE SIREN is interested in one of these circumstances: That this translation was supposed to remain Tolkien's private work.

To some critics, Tolkien's decision not to publish this translation is a sign of either his embarrassment or uncertainty.

Maybe, they suggest, the poem was just a side diversion from his mature scholarly efforts -- an indulgence, even a bad habit (the highest literary equivalent of junk food).

But that couldn't be farther from the truth. What Tolkien's Beowulf translation illustrates isn't a literary hobby of some kind —it's directly, vitally in line with his own massive creative enterprise.

And that alignment  goes far beyond the translation of a single word, middangeard. There are many other resonances between the poem and Tolkien's own work that this intriguing, valuable new book sheds light on.

As the poem opens, Beowulf and his men -- "Geatish knights," Tolkien calls them -- learn of the troubles of the Danish lord Hrothgar with a monster, Grendel, who sneaks into his mighty hall, Heoret, and kills his men while they sleep. This villainy enrages Beowulf, who sets sail with his men to petition Hrothgar for the right to defend him against the monster.


beowulf sailing


Resonance #1: Heoret, the grandiose hall, sits at the very center of the Danes' daily life -- like  Meduseld, the golden hall of Theodan, king of Rohan in LOTR. In both cases, in fact — Beowulf and Tolkien's epic — warriors must leave their weapons outside before entering and approaching the king. A minor similarity, but an interesting one.

Resonance #2: A small band of warriors is dispatched on a difficult mission—to kill Grendel, to accompany Frodo and dispose of the One Ring. In Michael Alexander's Beowulf translation, that small band of Geatish warriors is called a "fellowship" --Tolkien calls them "a proud company … dauntless company." Ah well.

I guess calling them a "fellowship" would have been just too good to be true.


ELSEWHERE, THERE ARE PLENTY of intriguing connections to excite Tolkien's admirers.

There's a dragon with a golden hoard who guards it against thieves;  there's Grendel, who seems like some kind of frightful super-orc. In fact, the word  "orc" is contained within several Anglo-Saxon words referring to monstrous creatures that Tolkien ponders in his etymological notes. These include geweorc (giants) and aergeweorc (trolls) and orcneas (which Tolkien renders as hellish, haunting shapes).

And along with shared words and scenarios, there's something else that Tolkien's epic shares with his Beowulf translation: the exalted rhetoric of another age.

Consider this, from The Silmarillion, on creation's earliest days:

 ...the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet.

And now this,  from Tolkien's Beowulf, in which the monster Grendel is introduced:

Even thus did the men of that company live in mirth and happiness, until one began to work deeds of wrong, a fiend of hell. Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and , unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind's home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.

That archaic tone and very lofty (and frequently awkward) syntax tighten the similarities between them. One story doesn't derive from the other: instead, they seem to have grown on the same tree. Beowulf's Geatland and Tolkien's Middle-earth might co-exist in the same universe, at the same time.

Heck, Frodo and Sam could have easily run into Beowulf and his knights on the road to Mordor.



beowulf opening


TOLKIEN LIVED AND DIED during the 20th century, but his imagination and poetic vision belonged to a much more distant age (long before the invention of electricity or antibiotics!). When I close my eyes, I can imagine him as comfortably at home in a chieftain's great hall as living in Bournemouth after his retirement.

In fact, it's easy to imagine him as royal entertainer to that chieftain and his warriors -- and Sellic Spell ("strange tale") gives us a good idea what kind of story he would have told. That story is a folk-tale about Beowulf that Tolkien imagined as a frame of reference for the epic. He gives us a back story for the hero, including his childhood and the origins of his name. Not the kind of thing that the poem spends any time on.

Along with this, the edition includes a marvelous Tolkien poem, The Lay of Beowulf, that he recited to his son when Christopher was a child:

The demon's head in the hall did hang and grinned from the wall while minstrels sang, till flames leapt forth and red swords rang, and hushed were the harps of Heorot.

It's clear from the poem and other commentary in the book that the idea of Grendel haunted him. Maybe it even planted  the seed deep in his mind for Gollum. After all, both creatures do seem like kin -- very close kin, in fact: similarly debased and corrupt, half-human and half-monstrous.




Which is why the publication of this translation is such an important event. Owning a copy of this book won't simply add to your Tolkien library: It will complete it. To put it another way, this book is absolutely .... precious. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

And, if you've stayed with me for this longer-than-usual post, my friends, I appreciate it. I truly do. Reading this version gave me a scholarly itch, and I decided to use this post to give it a good scratching.



Etc.: Leonardo's apocalypse, Hobbit style, and something Sherlockian

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Leonardo and his era knew all about apocalypse. THE END OF THE WORLD, AGAIN: How many of your friends on Facebook posted "Well, I'm still here!" as their status update on Friday, Dec. 21? It was funny the first or second time, but the joke got old pretty quick, didn't it?

That joke would have been even less amusing to the people of 15th-century Italy. The opening of a recent book about Leonardo by Ross King, which I talked about earlier this week, begins with a passage that's incredibly apt for all the Mayan expectations this year:

"The astrologers and fortune-tellers were agreed: signs of the coming disasters were plain to see. In Puglia, down in the heel of Italy, three fiery suns rose into the sky. Farther north, in Tuscany, ghost riders on giant horses galloped through the air to the sound of drums and trumpets. In Florence, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola received visions of swords emerging from clouds and a black cross rising above Rome. All over Italy, statues sweated blood and women gave birth to monsters.

These strange and troubling events in the summer of 1494 foretold great changes..."

Every age, it seems, thinks that it's the final one.

hobbit-book-coverTOLKIEN'S METHOD: There's a moment in "The Hobbit" -- the novel, not the Peter Jackson movie -- when the band of adventurers seek shelter from a giant named Beorn. It's always struck me as being an unexpected insight into Tolkien as a storyteller of fantasy tales. The key to a tale's success, and its believability, seems contained in Gandalf's strategy for approaching Beorn and asking for his hospitality:

" 'You had better wait here,' said the wizard to the dwarves; 'and when I call or whistle begin to come after me--you will see the way I go--but only in pairs, mind, about five minutes between each pair of you. Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last. Come on Mr. Baggins!' "

A large group, Gandalf thinks, will overwhelm Beorn: It is far better to introduce the group gradually, piece by piece, so that he has time to absorb and accept them.

That does seem, to me at any rate, an ideal method for introducing a world of fantasy to readers.

great-pearl-heist-coverSHERLOCKIANA: The holiday season not only inspires people to pick up their novels of Dickens; it's also a time for old-fashioned English detection. That's the impulse behind "The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace" (Berkley) by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Caldwell tells an intriguing story of a master criminal, down to the details of life in Edwardian England, and a phenomenal heist that readers will savor alongside their collections of Conan Doyle adventures.  What's even more phenomenal is that it's all true.

What to bring with you when you join Bilbo & Company: new in bookstores

The dragon Smaug circles the Lonely Mountain; illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien Followers of J.R.R. Tolkien know what "The Hobbit" is: It's a prelude. A delicious dish, but not the main course. The adventures are wonderful, but the story plays out on a much smaller canvas than "The Lord of the Rings" -- though you wouldn't know it from watching the first installment of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy. (That, by the way, is not a complaint: Jackson's version is amazing -- it's just not the same story).

If Jackson's movie has inspired you to take down your old thumbed copy of the tale and get reacquainted, several new books will also serve as sturdy companions as you join up with Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf the wizard on the journey to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug's hoard.

A few years ago, John D. Rateliff brought out an extraordinary edition of "The History of 'The Hobbit' " (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) -- which features "The Hobbit" along with two annotated volumes of early drafts in a beautiful slipcase. At a price of $95, it is well worth every penny -- I especially love Rateliff's discussions of the Necromancer (Sauron) and Bladorthin/Gandalf, who evolves from a little firework-wielding old man into "one of the five Istari, bearer of the Ring of Fire..."

A pleasurable, insightful collection that easily steals an hour (or six) if you're not careful.

More agreeable with the wallet might be  "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' " by Corey Olson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an English professor at Washington College in Maryland who provides a flowing, accessible presentation of the narrative that will please newcomers and old visitors to Middle-earth in equal measure.

For me, however, the real treat this Hobbity season is "The Art of 'The Hobbit' " edited by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Tolkien was a gifted amateur artist who expressed his mighty vision in paintings and sketches, and this book collects these images (some of these have never been seen before). He gives us, for instance, a quaint, bucolic portrait of life in the Shire in the painting of "Hobbiton-across-the-water"; he also creates detailed paintings of Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, and Smaug in his hall.

One of my favorites is this map of Mirkwood, which is a haunted, tainted place:

An imagined world that seems real: Tolkien's Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain.

Tolkien's efforts to bring this story into being took so many forms -- invented languages, paintings, maps, songs and poems. I appreciate how this collection of art demonstrates the lengths to which a great artist will go in order to give his world tangibility -- and heft -- in ours.

Etc.: Tolkien's names, Pullman's grimly good

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark WHAT'S IN A NAME: Just some trivia for the end of the weekend about J.R.R. Tolkien's interest in the late, great storyteller Snorri Sturluson.

Nancy Marie Brown's new book on the Viking chronicler (featured in a previous post at Call of the Siren) who gave us stories of Odin, Thor & Company also recalled her shock as she flipped through the pages of Snorri's Prose Edda.

Brown couldn't believe her eyes: There, on the page, was a listing of the names of Gandalf as well as that courageous, merry band of dwarves that traveled far and wide in order to battle the dragon Smaug. The list was written more than seven centuries before Tolkien penned "The Hobbit."

Here's that passage from Snorri:

Then all the powerful gods went

to their thrones of fate,

the most sacred gods, and

decided among themselves

that a troop of dwarves

should be created...

Nyi, Nidi,

Nordri, Sudri,

Austri, Vestri,

Althjolf, Dvalin,

Nar, Nain,

Niping, Dain,

Bifur, Bafur,

Bombor, Nori,

Ori, Onar,

Oin, Modvitnir,

Vig and Gandalf,

Vindalf, Thorin,

Fili, Kili....

(taken from Penguin Classics' edition of the Prose Edda, translated by Jesse Byock)

So, the great Tolkien wasn't smart enough to invent names on his own?

If you've read any of the great Tolkien scholars, like Tom Shippey, you know the answer: The great inventor of Middle Earth (Midgard, in Snorri's epic) wanted to root his saga in older Western traditions. It increased his cycle's mythic reality. Instead of being an isolated, separate invention, his tales would belong to the great web of historical legend ... and live forever. He wasn't unoriginal -- he was aiming for immortality.

GRIMLY GOOD: Philip Pullman, the epic storyteller behind "The Golden Compass" and the rest of the "His Dark Materials" stories, has retold the stories of the Brothers Grimm in a new edition. A friend, Mindy Farabee, has written a review of the book for the Los Angeles Times that's definitely worth checking out.

P.S.: On hobbit heroism

The epics of old weren't just good fireside entertainment: They were instructive. The stories of the Bible, the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, the ring of the Nibelung, the British warrior-king Arthur presented listeners with stories of the origins of the world, the history of their people, or just examples of heroism, of how to act nobly and true. (Think of all those sweaty, bloodthirsty knights who learned to calm down and act chivalrous because of Arthurian legend.)

Which is what Noble Smith's book about the Shire and the halflings who live there (described in my previous post) manages to do, in its own way. That's something I forgot to mention before, and that I felt deserved a post-script item. Smith's book draws on the courage of characters like Frodo Baggins to teach us all how to be.  (Of course, if I were sitting by a fire right now, I'd probably want to hear Tolkien's original stories instead of an explanation of them.) He does an expert job of balancing accessibility with details that any serious Tolkien fan will appreciate.