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Beowulf Tehanu's Second Note

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Rest easy, lovers of Icelandic literature. A few people sprang to Njaal’s defence, and meanwhile I read ‘Beowulf’ and kept on thinking about the effort it takes to read things like that, which are Tolkien’s sources. For me in the twentieth century to look at Njaal’s world took a leap of the imagination far beyond what it takes to read most fantasy literature, of which ‘sensible’ people say, "Oh, it’s so unconnected with everyday life."

The world of Njaal and Beowulf is the real world, or was, and yet it seems further and stranger than half the fantasy novels I’ve read, whose main characters could come and live here and now, they’d adapt in no time. McDonald’s and a nine-to-five job, thank you very much.

Those characters in the sagas, they would never adapt, they would never compromise their suicidal honour, their crazy passionate ideals, their love of glory and of courage for courage’s sake. We would never understand them or they us, and they’d kill everyone for reasons that we couldn’t fathom. The only things I’ve read lately achieve the same sense of ‘otherness’ in a race of people are Paul Park’s ‘Soldiers of Paradise,’ (check out his antinomial berserkers as they go singing into battle!) and Mary Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow.’

Viking Helmet

In the sagas and ‘Beowulf’ you have to do the work of getting your mind into that world yourself…but then, the sagas were read or spoken aloud to a group, and the bard could do with his eyes and hands and voice and silences what it would take Stephen R. Donaldson 3 "Refulgent"s, 2 "Scintillating"s, 4 "Suppurating"s and an "Orotund" to achieve. Which is why sentences in "Njaal’s Saga can afford to be shorter. (Just my theory. Passionate defenses of SR Donaldson are not solicited by this page….)

I also imagined that in a saga which is read aloud, the listeners’ reponses save the writer from having to go on about fiery hearts like red-hot cauldrons of seething hatred etc. etc. Imagine a saga being read aloud:

"And so Thord fell dead," said the bard.

There was outrage amongst his listeners.

"No! Not Thord?! He was my favourite character!" cried one.

"Well that Thorgeir better watch out, the cowardly scum, he’ll get his comeuppance soon, I hope!" Everyone in Thorstead denounced Thorgeir bitterly until the bard was able to continue….

All of which is off the track from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but I wasn’t making any promises. I’ll leave it by saying, like LOTR the Icelandic sagas and ‘Beowulf’ are understated rather than overwrought, and also share with Tolkien a love of landscape (at least in ‘Hrafknel’s saga) which I think will also feature in Peter Jackson’s films.

I read ‘Beowulf’, of which Tolkien was a major scholar. Each left-hand page is in Old English, and it looks like gibberish. And then certain words start to spring out, "Wealle" becomes "wall," "Scild" becomes "Shield," and suddenly there are a raft of familiar words: the Eorlingas, Theoden (once I’d figured out the odd rune standing for ‘th’) and Thengel….not as names now, but titles and nouns: Prince, hero, warrior…(OE scholars’ll get mad, I’m being indiscriminate here!) Eomer turns up as an anglian prince, and so do the mearas, the horses of Rohan in elder days.

And then the lovely line,

"On him the mail-coat shone, an armour net woven by a smith’s ingenuity."

I think the word for "ingenuity’ is "orthancum." Orthanc is, flame me if I’m wrong, the tower of wizards ….or of skill, cunning…ingenuity. Orthanc. Suddenly ‘Beowulf’ seems very familiar: old heirlooms are "mathoms," the floor is "flet,"…There is a scene where Beowulf and his troop come to the golden hall of Heorot, and lay their arms outside as custom demands, and go in to offer their services to the king to cleanse the land of evil, and the attempt by the king’s advisor Unferth to discredit them…it was surely in Tolkien’s mind when he described the arrival of Aragorn and the others to Theoden’s hall.

Except that Tolkien’s characters are facing a different kind of evil (or are they?) and so they don’t offer to kill Sauron with their bare hands like Beowulf does Grendel. Though that is what the hobbits will do in the end, defeat evil unarmed.

Beowulf Manuscript

Beowulf’ is really beautiful. How those people loved the sea! "The swan’s road, the gannet’s bath, the whale’s way." And speaking of their ships, "floating foamy-necked over the waves like a bird." Maybe some things were common figures of speech back then that strike us with their novelty now, I don’t know. Things like:

"Then he anwered him, unlocked his word-hoard…."

Anyhow, looking round the Net for Beowulf was fun, you could spent a lifetime. To hear ‘Beowulf’ read aloud with text and translation, I found it on:


And there’s a site devoted to the study and re-enactment of the Anglo-Saxon past, check it out at Angelcynn, they’re on:


A good one for Norse myths and legends is:


They talk a bit in their introduction about the influence the Elder Edda had on Tolkien.

Thanks anyway to my correspondents who put me onto these, among others.


Off on a different track, another correspondent, Renee talked a bit about creating fantasy worlds: "I’m not quite to the point of thinking up important linguistic rules for my imaginary world…" and I thought, ‘Why should you have to? Was it the secret of Tolkien’s success’

Big question. Is ‘The Lord of the Rings’ such a compelling imaginary world because the languages make its cultures more diverse, detailed, plausible and self-consistent? What kind of world would Tolkien have created if he had not been a linguist? Could the races have been distinguished by their music or art or science? What world would he have invented if he had been a physicist, or a psychologist, or an architect?

Part of the answer is that I can’t answer it, I’m too biased towards words, and any fantasy world that has a richly detailed sense of a culture expressed by different languages is going to seem plausible to me.

But two of the most convincing worlds I’ve read about lately were written by linguists: CJ Cherryh’s ‘Pyanfar’ novels, and Mary Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow.’ The races and cultures in them seemed truly individual and ‘other’, i.e. non-human, and for me that was partly achieved by the different languages they spoke, and the real sense that their thought-processes weren’t anything like English, especially if they were k’nnn or whatever. And maybe good linguists have a command of detailed structures (necessary both for creating worlds and philology) and a vast word-hoard that get them off to a flying start when it comes to creating plausible fantasy worlds.

Or is that just my bias again? Who knows?

Greenhill - Nasmith, Ted

Next week, Norse myths and legends, and why you’d be better off going for a hike in the woods with Tolkien than with Tad Williams.


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