Monday, January 3, 2011

beowulf

I've never read Beowulf, and I didn't see the recent animated/CGI movie from a year or two ago, so I was pleasantly surprised, by not only the story, but by what it has inspired in other stories. In fact, the Beowulf movie was probably inspired by this new translation--from Old English--by Seamus Heaney. Because I haven't read another translation, I can't tell you how this one stacks up, but I can tell you it reads well.

Beowulf is a must read for all J.R.R. Tolkien fans. In the introduction, Heaney notes that Tolkien wrote one of the pivotal paper's on Beowulf, titled, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which changed the way that scholars saw the poem and its unknown poet. Tolkien studied the poem extensively it seems, and I was delighted to see inspiration for Tolkien's own work right there in the poem, and not just a little bit... giagunda bits!

Tolkien uses some very old imagery and icons in his writing, as well as a deep knowledge of myths and legends, from the very origins of writing in English, and other Germanic languages. His development of the elvish languages helped to cement all these ideas together into the whole that became Middle-earth. It seems to me that what makes Tolkien's saga so powerful is the the amazingly full and rich backstory, and I think that richness comes from the fact that the backstory came first, developing slowly over time, until the stories emerged from that history, almost on their own. It is because the Middle-earth backstory is based so much in our own, collective history and mythology, that the stories that arise out of Middle-earth seem so solid; anchored in our own hazy past.

Golden rings are an example of one of those old icons, and they figure in Beowulf, albeit, not critically, as they figure in many other stories that inspired Tolkien, such as Wagner's Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). This is just one example, and there are others. Lots of others to be found in Beowulf, but I try to avoid spoilers, so I won't go into them here.

This review didn't really start out to be an analysis of the poem, purely as inspiration for Tolkien, but the parallels are amazing. However, Beowulf is much more than what others have made of it in their own writing. The poem is striking in its readability, and I'm sure this owes a great debt to Heaney's translation. The poem is also like a time machine, in that it gives this glimpse of what life was like in that early part of the world (mid-seventh to the late-tenth century, in England and Sweden). Its the quintessential hero story in English. Every bit as big and bodacious as any of the Greek and Roman hero stories.

Read this book.

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