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.



Reading now: Tolkien's Beowulf

In the years since Hemingway's death, many books have been found among his papers and published so that it feels like he's never left us. The only other writer who impresses me more with his posthumous prolificity is Tolkien. Of course he's had some help from his son Christopher, who's served as an astounding guardian and editor of his father's work (I've got to devote some blog space to that), but that doesn't detract from the accomplishment.

Case in point: Beowulf. Yesterday's mail brought yet another work by Tolkien that's never been published before -- his own rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic that has tortured most high schoolers for eons. Visit here to read more from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt about the book's release.

I'm so excited about it, and I'm not the only one -- Slate offers an expected comparison in a new article (which is better, the version by Heaney or Tolkien?); while the Christian Science Monitor reserves judgment, simply noting its arrival and summarizing some of the reactions, which are surprising.

One scholar says Tolkien would have tossed it into a shredder if he'd known it would be published. (Really?) Christopher Tolkien is quoted in a way that oddly makes him sound like he's against the publication even though he's the one who made it possible.


Whether or not it ranks as Tolkien's "best" work, does it really matter? It's a contribution to scholarship, and to our curiosity -- maybe in the same vein as C.S. Lewis' "Aeneid" translation.

I'll give you a report soon, my friends. Reading now.

The Last Tolkien?

Trampled underfoot: The Saxons are overcome by Arthur and his forces. No, the above title doesn't refer to the bloodline of J.R.R. Tolkien's family -- it has to do with the most recent addition to the collection of Tolkien's writings, "The Fall of Arthur" edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

It's probably not a good idea to say "last" when it comes to a writer like Tolkien. There are too many fragmentary pieces lying around, and his son Christopher is far too skillful as a weaver and interpreter to deprive his father's hungry audience of more.

But "The Fall of Arthur" is hardly a minor fragment even if it's far from complete. Tolkien the Son provides us with not only the thrilling manuscript of Arthur's final wars against Mordred and Germanic invaders, rendered in alliterative half-lines

As wary as wolves     through the wood stalking to the marches rode there      Mordred's hunters, huge and hungry      hounds beside them the fewte followed      fiercely baying...

but also with several context-setting essays about the poem's relationship to Tolkien's evolving ideas about The Lord of the Rings. This is the kind of rich, fascinating material that will send you to eBay in search of a broadsword and shield (if Game of Thrones hasn't made you already).

225px-The_Fall_of_ArthurChristopher Tolkien is an ideal guide, poring over his father's notes and scribbles  -- Tolkien abandoned the poem in the 1930s -- and showing us his father's earliest ideas for The Silmarillion and how, for instance, that epic's "Lonely Isle" of the elves was first associated with Arthur's Avalon, or "Fortunate Isle."

Several times, in my reading, something odd happened to me. I forgot that Tolkien belonged to the 20th century. His alliterative style, meter, and word choice are thoroughly convincing. And I forgot that his son was an editor and I started treating him like a translator -- like the poet Simon Armitage, who recently gave us a version of the 15th century poem, The Death of King Arthur.

This isn't dry, academic reading, my friends. Not only is the poem convincing, it's frequently moving. There's an especially powerful moment near the fragment's end, as Arthur contemplates the wars ahead of him before he can restore his beloved country:

With woe and weariness    and war sated, kingship owning     crowned and righteous he would pass in peace     pardon granting, the hurt healing    and the whole guiding, to Britain the blessed     bliss recalling. Death lay between     dark before him ere the way were won     or the world conquered.

Such a sentiment could be Tolkien's own yearning for peace in his time. Or ours for that matter.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has done readers an immense service--with the Tolkien Estate and son Christopher--to bring this work to the public. Here you'll find one of those rare chances to closely examine the creative process -- all the selections, all the choices and changes, all the omissions -- of a great storyteller.

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.: early Saramago, plus Frank Herbert's 'Dune' meets poet Ted Hughes

raised-from-the-groundJOSE VS. THE MAN: Back in 1980, 18 years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jose Saramago was a newspaper deputy editor who got canned from his job (nobody treats deputy editors right, do they?). He penned a big, fat novel that lets us know exactly how he was feeling, "Raised from the Ground: A Novel" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Here we meet the Mau Tempo family -- poor peasants -- and follow them in their travails and misfortunes against the privileged> We hear that wry, mischievous narrator's voice that Saramago went on to perfect in a novel like "Baltasar and Blimunda"; and we relish the prose: "Ah, but life is a game too, a playful exercise, playing is a very serious, grave, even philosophical act..."

Classic Saramago, and to think: This was only the beginning for him.


poet-ted-hughesFRANK HERBERT'S "DUNE" MEETS TED HUGHES?: Someone pointed me in the direction of a long letter that's very uplifting and inspiring in spite of the circumstances surrounding it.

A recent post on Letters of Note, a worthy site maintained by Shaun Usher, offers in a letter the inspirational insights of Ted Hughes to his son, Nicholas.

You should check it out.

What unexpectedly resonated for me -- beyond the power and unique metaphors of Hughes' insights -- was something quite science fictiony and unexpected ...

Suddenly, I was thinking of Frank Herbert's novel "God Emperor of Dune" which I decided to reread this holiday season (I can't even explain what made me pick it up again - did Santa make me think of sandworms?).

Near the end of Hughes' letter, he alludes to an ancient bit of wisdom: "And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you."  That, I realized, is exactly what the man-turned-Worm Leto II experiences -- all the voices of House Atreides speaking through him.