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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reading Group meeting 12/2/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


This was a landmark day as we moved out of strictly Tolkien material and into investigating texts known to have been his sources. We also heard from Mike that he had begun his collation of all the blog reports and was ready to send them round for preliminary reading. It looks like being an exciting project.

Sadly, we will be missing Carol’s email comments here owing to the fact that I didn’t get the information about Beowulf to her in time for her to change books. Mea culpa.

We started rather tentatively with many different editions of Beowulf on the table, and began with some comments from Diane and Laura about the inclusion of Christian elements in the OE poem and the Christian colouring so often noted in Tolkien’s works.

Ian drew parallels between the presentation of Grendel and of Beowulf’s hoard, suggesting that both have a Christian colouring, and remarking that Beowulf’s hoard is his fame and honour.

Laura observed that Grendel may be ‘irritated’ by singing in Heorot if this is understood to be psalm-singing in the context of Grendel’s relationship to Cain and consequent exclusion from a ‘God-oriented’ community.

Ian noted that the poem represents many topics, such as a distinction between book knowledge and individual reputation and fame. It puts forward characters suitable for emulation such as Beowulf, and Christ. It also implies the losing of people to a marginal landscape.

Mike and Ian remarked that we are looking at a very sophisticated story, even before it was written down.

I mentioned that the characters had often been regarded as Jungian archetypes, Ian thought there was more of the mythic and fabulous about them, and cited the way Tolkien created the storm giants as a way of explaining natural phemomena.

Diane noted that in Beowulf there is no ‘wise old guide’, no Gandalf figure.

Laura remarked that Tolkien, like the Beowulf-poet, uses back-story myths, giving historical depth to the poem, but while the poem uses the names of real historical figures whose existence has been established, Tolkien does not name real people, and rarely uses real names.

Angela observed that this was because Tolkien is creating a secondary world, the Beowulf-poet is dealing with the real one, even if partly in mythic time.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Mike observed that Tolkien does borrow language forms, thus bridging into the real world. Diane noted examples of Tolkien ‘tweaking’ cliched sayings that merged the primary and secondary worlds linguistically. She quoted saying such as ‘all that glisters is not gold’ – a primary world proverb, and a quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Also mentioned were rewritings of nursery rhymes such as the Cat and the Fiddle as Tolkien suggests that the primary world forms are derived from these ‘earlier’ forms.

In relation to the many sea references in Beowulf, Ian noted that the view from the Rohan escarpment is very much like a green sea, even in texture as there is much reference to water, and water plants. I asked if it was at this point that the ‘windy wolds of Rohan’ are mentioned, but in fact that comes rather later after Gimli and Aragorn have been sleeping. The description of the dawn coming up over the ‘windy wolds’ reminded me of the beautiful description Beowulf gives of dawn coming up and revealing the windy cliffs during his swimming match with Brecca.: ‘Leoht eastan com …. Thaet ic saenaessas geseon mihte, / windige weallas.’

Diane picked up Grendel’s genealogy back to Cain and wondered if the reference to the giants who engaged in long wars with God had a connection with other stories of wars between gods such as Zeus and Odin and giants. We discussed possibilities but found no exact connections.

Among the possibilities for ‘real’ giants, Diane mentioned the ancient myth of giants in Russia, and Kathleen wondered if the idea of larger people stemmed from men on horseback.

Angela observed that tall people are a positive force in Tolkien’s works where the elves are tall, as are the Men of Numenor.

Julie then brought us up sharp with her insightful observation that Farmer Giles of Ham is a kind of vaudeville version of Beowulf, and indeed, the episodes match beautifully! Julie also noted a kind of cameo role for Caedmon the Anglo-Saxon cowherd poet in the poem through the finely made ‘creation’ sequence. Ian remarked on this in terms of the inclusion of Caedmon’s reputation and the extraordinary nature of his creative ability.

Mike then wondered if there was any connection in English legends with a being such as Grendel’s mother. I didn’t know of anything English, but there are a number of troll females in Icelandic mythology. Julie suggested from the English tradition the wonderfully named ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, while Diane suggested the possibility of a connection with the Irish ‘Morrigan’, goddess of war.

Ian observed in the context of Grendel and his mother, that heroes in northern myth and legend are always named as ‘son of …’, and the father’s name is always cited. Grendel’s relationship with his mother puts him outside this convention. I suggested that it is another way of stating his condition as marginalised from the patriarchal society that pertains in the story, and in the society for which it was created.

2:04 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Diane commented that there were no such mother – son relationships in LotR. Angela reminded us of Aragorn’s relationship with his mother, but this is not of the same kind.

Diane then went on to ask, in reference to the recent film adaptations of the Beowulf story, whether there is any evidence in the poem that Hrothgar could be Grendel’s father. We all agreed there was not and this was therefore just evidence of the film-makers trying to rationalise the elements of the story for modern audiences.

Ian went on to consider the extent to which either the poem, or the films, presents their audiences with images of things born of the society that are causing it problems.

There followed a discussion prompted by Chris and Mike about the manuscript and its 2 scribes. Diane proposed that the scribe who originally recorded the poem was a monk to whom the story was already known. Mike observed that monks of the early Middle Ages were likely to be from wealthy, probably noble, families. Julie remembered the story of the monks who listened to stories rather than readings from the Bible in refrectory, and Alcuin of York’s stern rebuke Quid Inieldus cum Christo? (What has Ingeld to do with Christ), because Ingeld was a northern European hero, and is actually mentioned in Beowulf.

Mike then wondered if any aspects of the poem’s structure, rhyme, etc. were reflected by Tolkien in his works. Sadly, we had to leave this topic for our next meeting because we had run well over our time! So that may be a good place to start next time.
We might also go on looking at how Tolkien represents relationships between older females and their younger kin, but this is just my suggestion because we didn’t set up an agreed topic.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

"Monsters" and their mothers. The Kray Twins anyone?

And not wishing to be offensive, but on the positive side, i.e. a Hero rather than a Monster, we have Jesus Christ and his big-hitter mother the Virgin Mary.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Posting here on behalf of Diane, the comments she sent for Beowulf, in several parts as usual:

Notes on Beowulf and comparisons with Tolkien (mostly LoTR)

THE SEA is prominent in Beowulf, full of hope and promise evidenced in the general migration of people around Scandinavia and Northern Europe at this time.

In Tolkien's works, the sea is dangerous, or a dream, or the threat of ends, owing more to the Flood than the adventurous and heroic spirit.

HEROIC POSTURING AND SOCIAL CODE - On Beowulf's arrival at Heorot there is a lot of posturing, what sounds like boasting, between Beowulf and Hrothgar, of themselves and their ancestors, like alpha males posturing. Looked at against the arrival of the company at Meduseld, it strikes me that there may be some kind of social code involved in this. There were certain codes surrounding hosts and guests in the real world at the time that Beowulf was circulating and of course the tale of Beowulf is going to be exaggerating.

It all seems terribly complicated as social codes tend to be. However, I will try to explain what it is that strikes me here and attempt to make the comparisons between Beowulf's arrival at Heorot and the company's arrival at Meduseld.

When Beowulf enters Heorot it is Beowulf who speaks first, greeting his host and proceeding to introduce himself in what seems to us a boastful manner. I wonder if what is being expressed here can be interpreted another way. Rather than being simply "I am Beowulf, aren't I great!" what he is doing is expressing something like "Here I am. This is me. These are my lineage, loyalties and deeds. You may have heard of them. I offer this introduction of myself for your consideration. Will you accept me as a guest worthy of your house?" It's a kind of visitor's CV. Hrothgar accepts Beowulf gladly and has indeed heard of the doings at least of Beowulf's father. Unferth, however, refers to something he understands as detrimental to the dignitas of Beowulf.

Gandalf begins with the guest's greeting but Theoden cuts across his opening courtesies and goes straight into the Unferth routine of insulting his guests, most of whom he doesn't even know. We find out that he has been warped by ill-counsel. Eowyn's intervention could be viewed as discomfort at her uncle's discourtesy and the bad impression on their guests, as much as her natural concern for her uncle's welfare.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

However, Gandalf's companions are not observing the social code either, taking Beowulf as our example of good manners. They all complain against the leaving of their weapons. It is left for Gandalf to show them how to behave by offering up his sword. While this requirement may not be part of dawrfish or elvish social practice, it might be expected that Aragorn would be conversant with it. It is his reluctance that seems to influence Legolas and Gimli. Only when Gandalf has offered up Glamdring does Aragorn follow suit, followed then by the others. However, in the context of the story, Aragorn has had a long, hard life away from normal social usage and may perhaps be forgiven his short-temper and inadvertent bad manners. It is for Gandalf to teach him to become a king; he does not leave Aragorn to fend for himself until he is well-established in his royal duties.

Against the above it may be argued that Gandalf does display some discourtesy by not leaving his staff. As Hama says, a staff in the hands of a wizard may prove to be more than a simple stick to lean on. However, Gandalf turns this around and accuses Theoden, and his entire household by implication, of discourtesy by denying an old man the use of his staff to lean on. He says he will sit outside and Theoden may come out to him. Hama points out that a staff in the hands of a wizard may be more than just a stick to lean on but he passes the guests, possibly to illustrate to these guests that he wishes to be separated from the reigning discourtesy of an unhappy household. In doing so, he is disobeying the command of his king. Things must be bad!

Wealtheow is Eowyn in the hall. She is the cup-bearer and deeply unhappy. She remains so but once outside Meduseld she grows beyond the type of Wealtheow.

RELIGIOUS COMMENT: As I said previously, it seems to me that many of the references to God and the Christian religion appear to be thrown in at random. Much is made of the mark of Cain on Grendel; and the erratic placement of religious reference seems to be more marked towards the end of the story than at the beginning (two scribes). The point is that these references are being made, or inserted into an otherwise pagan ripping yarn.

Tolkien quite markedly omits religion of any kind from his works. He does the usual mythological Beginning of everything and comparisons can be readily drawn between God and Eru, the Valar, Maiar and the ranks of the angels, or of a pagan pantheon. However, apart from Elvish references to Elbereth, there are no religious practices in Middle Earth. There are no churches or other houses of worship. No one in distress (except for Frodo calling on Elbereth to illuminate the phial - does Sam do this as well?) ever calls on Eru or any other of the pantheon. No one thanks Eru or a goddess of fortune for good luck; conversely, no one curses him or Morgoth for ill-fortune either … Tolkien is writing a mythology for England but leaving out God. It was not in his vision to spread the message, as the Beowulf poets were doing (or instructed to do?), and I merely comment on this as we are looking at the Beowulf poem in the context of one of Tolkien's influences. However, for a deeply religious man, this omission appears marked. Is it a subconscious secret thought that overt religion in modern times simply will not sell? Yet Frank Herbert manages to convey religion as the major sub-plot in his Dune series. Of course, both authors are working to very different agendas. I simply comment on this as a point of interest in comparing the texts of Beowulf and Tolkien's work.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

DEATH: still on the religious theme. Tolkien has however gone away from Beowulf as regards death. "They say [Boromir] made a good end" but they're all so unhappy about it. Yes, they have lost their companion and come to recognise his worth in the end. Possibly, Boromir is more illustrative of Beowulf than any other character in LoTR; he comes blustering into our lives in Rivendell, all full of himself and what he's done and who he is but lacking that element of courtesy that offers this information as a form of courtesy as I've attempted to explain above. But he really can do what he says he can do. And, to illustrate further the comparison of Beowulf and Boromir, after the idea that the dragon's hoard is Beowulf's reputation, so the Ring may be performing the same function for Boromir - what could he not do had he the Ring to wield against Sauron!

Beowulf is not afraid of death. He is more concerned with his reputation after death. And there are many examples of this kind of thinking in the pre-Christian era. It is also present in a terribly warped and unhappy fashion in the suicide bombers of today's terrorists - their reputation (and strangely irreligious) reward in Heaven outweighs their fear of death, but not for these poor creatures through innate heroism but through cruel indoctrination. His funeral is a strange mix of pagan and Christian - one moment the people are wailing and lamenting, the next they're riding their horses around his burial mound and swapping stories about how great he was. In the 13th Warrior, a film directly lifted from the Beowulf story (the 13th man must be a stranger or outsider or foreigner), one of the Norsemen who stays behind to hold off the Wendel horde says to the Arab: "This was a good day, a good day," knowing he is about to die. Another man says "Today is a good day to die." Bylwi, the chieftain, when he is dying, asks the Arab to "draw" his life ("draw" is what he calls writing, which is really a form of drawing, making marks on paper - or a computer screen). But they none of them lament their deaths, only seeking reassurance (for they speak their words to another) that they will be remembered for their heroic deeds.

Tolkien goes through the motions of pagan rites with Boromir being sent down the river in his little boat with orcish trophies about him but there is no Valhalla for Boromir. It seems his lust for the Ring wipes out all the heroic deeds he has done, and these were many before he enters the story at Rivendell. He is lamented but not remembered. What Tolkien does later is a kind of CS Lewis trick, disguising a Christian sentiment with some other romantic ideal: the journey across the sea to Valinor. Not everyone can go there, a kind of hybrid between Paradise and Valhalla, but it is the end, the bourne from which no one returns. It is a Mystery - what happens to Frodo and Bilbo when they get there? Gandalf rejoins the ranks of Maiar, and the Elves return to their long home. Beren went to the Halls of Mandos (a kind of watered down and not so riotous version of Valhalla) and was allowed to go back. But Bilbo, and especially Frodo, are something else.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


l. 720 - com þa to recede rinc siðian
Ben Slade translation: (He) came then to the hall the fighter journeying
This refers to Grendel. If the translation is faithful, what is the fighter referring to.
[Lynn: naming Grendel as a fighter refers perhaps to the way he attacks Heorot, but this provokes yet more questions!]

l.725 - on fagne flor feond treddode
In my translation, fagne is "tessellated". What immediately springs to my mind is Roman ornamentation. This implies that Hrothgar is extremely wealthy to have this level of decoration in his Hall. Grendel has taken over Heorot and no doubt trampled the floor and broken it - could this possibly have been inspired by the ruins of the previous Roman occupation of Great Britain, if the translation is correct or pertinent. During Beowulf and Grendel's struggle, the strength of Heorot is referred to and it is said that it could only be destroyed by fire (and Grendel eventually, if he was allowed to continue). Many Roman villas burned down but as we can see today, wonders of architecture and décor remain that still inspire 21st century people with the "wow" factor. Could the Beowulf poet or original composer have been inspired by sight of the Romans' wondrous doings?

Grendel is a cannibal. Monster, fiend, troll, all harsh names for a human male, possibly physically deformed but more likely attributed (as in Shakespeare's Richard III imagery?) to outwardly illustrate the distortion within.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

l. 677-678
no ic me an herewaesmun talige
guÞgeweorca Þonne Grendel hinc

not I myself in martial-state poorer tally
in works of war that Grendel himself

Assuming the translation to be faithful and pertinent: Is Beowulf claiming equal physical power with Grendel no matter how physically monstrous Grendel may be, or is he saying that he and Grendel are of similar actual stature as regards height and build as well as power?

MEAD-BENCHES: These figure prominently in Beowulf as a status symbol. The more mead-benches, especially golden ones, you have the better the man?
As a matter of interest, the chieftain of a band of settlers approaching the shores of Iceland would cast overboard the "pillars of his high-seat". Wherever the pillars came to shore the chieftain legally claimed as his landholding and set up his homestead.

In Beowulf: the sea is a dangerous element but is also a thing of hope and promise, in Beowulf's case of finding reputation abroad; in the more prosaic (!) case of migrants at that time, of getting away from Norwegian kings like Harald Fine-Hair and making a new home in Iceland. It was the Vikings hunting ground, and the passage of trade between Scandinavia and Britain and the rest of the Europe.

In Tolkien: the sea is dangerous (Frodo "dies" in crossing it, Legolas to told to beware the sound of it; the Elves cross the great perilous ice wastes to Middle Earth; it hoards pirates/corsairs). It is also a dream; and the threat of ends, owing more to the destructive Flood of the Bible than the creation of worlds (many other mythologies including Greek and Teutonic) or life (from Darwin); or the great adventure that it is in Beowulf, or a new start for migrants.

8:24 AM  

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