Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tolkien and Beowulf

What else does one do when one is sitting in a hospital, watching the sick one sleep, but read Beowulfian criticism? On Friday it was Tolkien, "The Monsters and The Critics" as well as "On Translating Beowulf". Both are fascinating but then I am a nerd.
In the first essay, Tolkien was arguing that Beowulf should not just be mined for historical facts and philology but should be judged as poetry. It is probably the most influential essay on Beowulf. In it, he declared that the poet's theme was "man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time." This makes it essentially a pagan poem, even with the Christian veneer because the man of faith can triumph over death and win everlasting life. Tolkien cited the Northern gods who know that, in the final confrontation between them, their human allies and the monsters, they will lose but they go out to meet their foes with courage anyway. There is something poignant and beautiful about it: going out with your head held high even if there is no one left to sing a song about it after.
It bears the mark of the words of Byrhtwold at the Battle of Maldon, which Tolkien also cited, "Thought shall be firmer, heart shall be the keener, mind shall be more resolute as our strength grows less."
The second essay is also interesting. I am aware that there are many words in Beowulf that exist only in Beowulf and so are not completely understood. Anybody who has undertaken to translate a written piece from one language to another knows there are implied meanings in words that translation often loses and this is the case with Beowulf. I am enjoying reading it but I get the sense that, although I am reading it in the Anglo Saxon, that my understanding of what the poet is saying is rather incomplete.
Tolkien did not write essays for publication in academic journals, the mainstay of any career in the universities today. His 'essays' tended to be lectures or lecture notes. What a shame. He seemed to be more in tune with the heart of the Beowulf poet than any other critic and probably understood him better.

Monday, February 20, 2012


When I was a child, I read and loved a book called 'TheWeirdstone of Brisingamen' by Alan Garner. I read it to my kids.
Brisingamen was treated as a proper noun in the book title but only Brisinga is. The Brisingar are the dwarfs who made Freyja's famous necklace. 'Men' is Old Norse for 'necklace'. I wonder if Garner knew that when he picked it for a title. There is no necklace in the story but there is a stone. It has little or no connection with wyrd either, which was the Old English word for 'fate' or 'Fortuna' but then Garner chose the later spelling of 'weird'. So we are probably to take it as 'odd' or 'strange' but it looks odd and strange to me.

Friday, February 17, 2012


I wonder what is the true source for Shakespeare's Hamlet. While reading Finn and Hengest by Alan Bliss and J.R.R. Tolkien and especially Appendix C which deals with the nationality of Hengest, I noticed that Bliss argues that Withlæg, who is Eomer's great-grandfather in the Anglo Saxon genealogies is the same man as Vigletus in Saxo Grammaticus. Vigletus killed a Jutish king called Amlethus, who is the historical Hamlet.
The two stories are similar, i.e. Hamlet kills his uncle, who has murdered his father, married his mother and taken the throne but few details after that are as Shakespeare made them. Amlethus took the throne, married and had a son. It is viewed as unlikely that Shakespeare read Saxo, probably on the basis of Jonson's comments that Shakespeare knew little Latin. I read a book called Shakespeare and Ovid, by Jonathan Bate, where he argued (and rather convincingly to me) that Shakespeare knew more Latin than he was given credit for. However, Shakespeare was not concerned with historical accuracy but art and satire in his plays.
Bliss' argument was for Eomer to be Hengest's real name, making his great-grandfather Hamlet's killer. Only thing is that, in Beowulf, there is a digression on Eomer as well as the Finnsburg Episode so why would the poet talk about them as separate persons if they were one and the same? I have ordered Saxo's book. It looks like a good read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bodvar in Saxo Grammaticus

I was reading through Saxo Grammaticus's History of the Danes and I spotted my friend, Boðvar Bjarki. In Saxo, Hrothgar's nephew Hrothulf is called Rolf. He is also the Hrolf in Hrolf's Saga Kraki.
In Saxo, the scene, in which Boðvar finds Hottr hiding in a pile of bones, takes place in Heorot but, instead of killing a dragon and letting Hottr drink the blood for courage, Boðvar kills a bear. Boðvar´s brother is king of Gautland (Geats). This might make you wonder if Boðvar is an alternative view of Beowulf´s adventures in Denmark and you would not be far off.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Words

The two words in question are the Modern High German recke, which means 'knight, hero, warrior'. The other word is its modern English cognate wretch, which means 'one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow misfortune or poverty; a miserable, unhappy or unfortunate person". It was striking to me how different the modern equivalents are and to whoever wrote the entry for the Oxford English Dictionary, since the entry on the etymology of the word says 'the contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.' Indeed, they are light years apart. There was an Old Norse word rekkr, meaning 'man' which disappeared from modern Icelandic.
The Old English version of wretch was wrecca or wræcca from the Old Germanic wrakja (n). Old Saxon was wrekkio and was applied to the Magi in the Heliand as "foreigners". Sigemund, in Beowulf, is called the most famous of wreccena, as he is a wandering hero. Hengest is called a wrecca, a mercenary, but Beowulf makes a point of making sure Hrothgar does not take him for a wrecca. The woman in the OE 'Wife's Lament' calls herself a friendless exile and the man in 'The Seafarer' calls himself a wræcca, an exile, as well. Wrecca is pronounced 'wretch' as the double 'cc' has that 'tch' sound. Like wicca, which is pronounced 'witch'. It is interesting to note that English chose to emphasize the negatives aspects of the word, where the German chose the glorious. Might be a good topic for a paper.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Nice Turn of Phrase in Beowulf

"hleorbolster onfeng eorles andwlitan" l. 688b-689a in the Klaeber edition. It means 'the cheek-bolster (pillow) received the hero's face(head)". Wonderful isn't it? This is an example of why Beowulf is such a work of art. It isn't the hero laying himself down, the pillow is the subject. It is active in taking, receiving the hero.