Posts Tagged ‘Tolkein’
Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, exists in only one manuscript– a copy that survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The 3182-line poem, now housed in the British Library, still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph above.
Beowulf was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) between 650 and 1000 in what we now know as England. It recalls a golden age of valor and martial prowess via the adventures of a great Swedish warrior of the sixth century- Beowulf– who comes to the aid of the beleaguered Danes, saving them from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother. In old age, and after many years of rule in his own country, Beowulf dies in the processof heroically slaying a dragon.
A great many translations are available, in both poetry and prose. In his A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard lists 33 “representative” translations in his bibliography; it has been translated into at least 23 other languages. Probably the best-known (and best-loved) current version is Seamus Heaney’s verse translation. But surely the most-anticipated version is the translation completed in 1926– but never published– by J.R.R. Tolkein.
Tolkien’s academic work on the epic was second to none in its day; his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.
Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo.Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.
Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. “Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them,” he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s…
Read more of John Garth’s appreciation– and explore the influence of Beowulf on Middle Earth– in “JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters.”
And pre-order the translation (with a bonus story by Tolkein), available late next month, here.
As we grapple with our Grendels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Ezra Pound should no longer be held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C. Pound has been imprisoned for 13 years, following his arrest in Italy during World War II on charges of treason.
Pound, a poet who was a major figure of the early modernist movement, was the developer of the “Imagist” school, and the “godfather” of a number of now-well-known contemporaries– among them, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. He was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Deeply troubled by the carnage of World War I, Pound moved to Paris, then to Italy, and embraced the fascism of Benito Mussolini, whose policies he vocally supported; he was arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945. While in custody in Italy, he had begun work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress… setting off an enormous controversy.
His release in 1958 was the result of a campaign by writers including Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway. Pound, who was believed to be suffering dementia, returned to Italy.
The best of Pound’s writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature.
After an author has been dead for some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for his publishers to get a new book out of him each year.
- Robert Benchley
From the always-amusing Mental Floss, a current read on The All-Time Best-Selling Books. The top spots are held by volumes either instructional or devotional:
1. The Bible (6.7 billion copies)
2. Quotations from Chairman Mao, Mao Tse-Tung (900 million)
3. The Qur’an (800 million)
4. Xinhua Zidian (400 million — a Chinese dictionary, first published in 1953)
5. The Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer
6. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
7. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Foxe
8. The Book of Mormon, Joseph J. Smith, Jr.
But two works of fiction round out the Top Ten:
9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (107 million — UK title was …and the Philosopher’s Stone)
10. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie (100 million)
Read the full list (and find links to top lists of videos, games, and albums) at The All-Time Best-Selling Books… dive more deeply into the rankings at Wikipedia– which observes: “This is an incomplete list, which may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.” To put it politely: note, e.g., that Tale of Two Cities and Tolkein’s work probably belong in MF’s Top Ten… Still, it’s fun…
“Classic.” A book which people praise and don’t read.
- Mark Twain
As we turn the page, we might recall that it was on this date in 1593 that poet and playwright (Shakespeare’s nearest rival) Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl. Marlowe reputedly supplemented his income as a spy; in any case, he ran afoul of Queen Elizabeth’s government when, earlier in the month, his roommate, playwright Thomas Kyd was grilled by authorities. Kyd insisted that the “heretical” papers found in his room belonged to Marlowe, who was subsequently arrested, but was able to use his connections to arrange bail. While out Marlowe became involved in a fight– ostensibly over a tavern bill, but believed by many to have been a set-up– and was stabbed to death.
The 1585 portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1953, believed to be of the 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe. The inscribed motto is “QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT,” “that which nourishes me destroys me.” Indeed. (source)
We might note too that (as the Library of Congress recalls) it was on this date in 1868 that Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30 as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The first national celebration of the holiday took place on that day at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Originally known as Decoration Day, at the turn of the century it was designated “Memorial Day.”