Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Anglo-Saxon Period, Archaeology, Beowulf, Britain, Culture, Dark Age, Dark Ages, Documents, England, Germanic, Historical documents, History, Identity, Kingship, Literature, Medieval Period, Middle Ages, Migration Period, Mythology, North Sea Region, Old English, Pagan, Scandinavia, the Dark Ages, Tolkien
So last week saw the posthumous publication of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, which may go down as one of the most controversial editions ever printed. Before we go into that, though, I’d like to tell you a story.
At the tender age of 19 I was faced with a decision that, in hindsight, would go on to shape my future in quite a massive way. I was approaching the end of my first year of a history degree and given the option of defecting to the archaeology department. Whilst my inner Indiana Jones roared in fervent acceptance, my brain rather sensibly considered the downsides of a life of low paid labour and dodgy tan lines. Perhaps as penance for a fiendish previous life, I chose archaeology.
I recall this story as a sort of preface to my relationship with documentary sources. Understanding and untangling the intricacies of objects has always been more interesting to me that figuring out what old documents were trying to say. This is not to say that I am scared of documentary sources, but I am certainly much more comfortable with artefacts.
This isn’t really a massive problem for an archaeologist, but it is always better to bring together different types of evidence to arrive at a fuller understanding of something. I haven’t really written much about the incredible writings of the Anglo-Saxons and I intend to change this. I need to balance out my knowledge of the period and I am determined to ‘conquer’ the sources.
Returning now to our consideration of the new edition of Beowulf it seems appropriate to begin with a brief overview of the story, if only to purge our minds of that god awful 2007 film adaptation:
- The titular protagonist Beowulf is a hero of the Geatish people and comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose hall has been plagued by the monster Grendel.
- After spending an alcohol-fueled night at Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, Beowulf kills the invading Grendel with his bare hands.
- Grendel’s mother, a similarly monstrous creature, attacks Heorot the next night. Beowulf and his men follow her back to her lair where Beowulf proceeds to kill her.
- Fifty years later, when Beowulf is himself a king, a dragon attacks and although he manages to kill it, he dies himself in the process.
This is not to say that I am in any way a Beowulf scholar. In fact, I don’t even own a copy of it – I stole this rather nice looking 1970 edition from my Dad.
Tolkien is best known for his fantasy epic, Lord of the Rings, but he was also an accomplished Anglo-Saxon scholar. He translated Beowulf from Old English into modern English in 1926 but didn’t like it and put the manuscript into storage. He would go on to revisit it at times, but it was always his firm intention that it never be published.
So last week it got published by his son, complete with a fictional reimagining of the Icelandic text Hrólfs saga kraka.
The ethics here are difficult. On the one hand it is an important work of scholarship that, in all honesty, deserves to be circulated for the enjoyment of scholars and non-specialists around the world. On the other hand it kind of goes against a dead man’s wishes. Unsurprisingly there has been a mixed reaction amongst critics. The Guardian’s coverage of the news quoted author John Garth as saying that it is ‘long-awaited, and hugely exciting for Tolkien readers’ while history news website Medievalists.net reported on the lamentations of professor Kevin Kiernan of the University of Kentucky: ‘If Tolkien knew that was going to happen, he would have invented the shredder’.
It isn’t really my place to cast judgement here but it is certainly interesting that Old English literature still resonates with us today. Such is the power of the Anglo-Saxon literary achievement that a new book about an old book has the power to stir debate and create controversy. If that doesn’t make studying the past worthwhile then I don’t know what does.