Beowulf and its Influences in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, by Kaleena Ma
Lord of the Rings became a steady and growing best-seller after Allyn and Unwin began publication in July of 1954. Beowulf emerged from manuscript in the 16th Century, and gained a popular following. Ms. Kaleena Ma wrote about Rings and Beowulf for a college paper, but she has explored the topic since. To follow up on source criticism, I shifted tracks to hear her paper.
The Heroic Motif
She began with the sources of Tolkien’s heroic motif, and the whole philosophy of heroism in The Lord of the Rings. The consonances of Beowulf to The Hobbit are structural. Beowulf took twelve warriors and a slave to slay the dragon; Thorin takes twelve dwarfs and a hobbit-burglar. In contrast, Beowulf abides unseen in The Lord of the Rings. It hovers out of sight.
Tolkien as a very young student had discovered the Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition, by Dr. Elias Lönrott, released in 1835. Tolkien’s interest in philology may have begun by his interest in Welsh, Norse, and Finnish languages. Since language must have purpose (something to talk about), he likely created tales to give body and soul to his invented languages.
Norse-speaking people had a poetic tradition from Norway, Sweden, Iceland and the “Viking Diaspora” of the 9th to 14th centuries. Sagas were full-length prose tales of kings, battles, dynasties, and Icelandic people. Eddas were entrancing collections of skaldic poetry. The two major collections are The Poetic (Elder) Edda, dating to the 12th century, author uncertain, and the Prose (Younger) Edda, by Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241).
Old English poems aroused Tolkien’s fascination with the origins of English. Exeter Codex contains most of the extant Old English short poems, and over ninety riddles. Nowell Codex contains a fragment of Life of St. Christopher, Judith, Wonders of the East, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, and its most famous poem, Beowulf, a three-thousand-line alliterative poem recounting the epic journey from infancy to death of its title character. Beowulf is the first dragon-slayer legend we have.
In 1936, Tolkien made his scholarly reputation with “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, given as an Andrew Lang lecture at Oxford, and then reprinted in Proceedings of The British Academy. Many have said, Tolkien wrote little, but whatever he wrote became the definitive article for decades. It was just so in the case of Tolkien’s “Monster.”
A fourth source for The Lord of the Rings, was Tolkien’s Great War experience. Tolkien joined the British Expeditionary Force, and in a few months, contracted trench fever, a louse-born disease, and thereby received what a later war called a “million-dollar wound,” a ticket home that did not cripple him permanently. Yet in the process, he lost his closest friends.
Beowulf’s hero-motif features the crisis of the dragon-slayer; the hero’s unwillingness to die confronts mortality, as even the mightiest warrior is defeated by time. Tolkien hints at this in the Hobbit, whose plot and characters line up with Beowulf are well established. In The Lord of the Rings, he expands on this theory of courage as unyielding will, of shedding all that might be lost, putting oneself in the condition of having nothing to lose, with no thought to the future.
Ms. Ma ties the character of Beowulf to Frodo Baggins, the hero of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s chapters recount internal struggles with the Ring (as to who shall possess whom) and external struggles with Boromir, Sam, Faramir, and Gollum, over the Ring. At the end of the Third Age, Frodo must sacrifice his own future happiness to save his people. In the chapters where Frodo is absent, Tolkien keeps the hero’s theme alive in Theoden and Denethor; each has lost a son, but Denethor repines into madness, while Theoden, with a push from Gandalf, resolves into strength and valor, yet he dies fighting the Nazgul’s leader.
She observes character, the treatment of God, and important linguistic elements. If Beowulf himself informs the character of Frodo, Hrothgar, who tells Beowulf he has been king for past “fifty winters,” also informs Gandalf. The Rohirrim are Anglo-Saxon, and Hrothgar’s mead-hall, Heorot, strongly resembles Theodon’s Hall of Edoras. Overall, Beowulf appears in The Lord of the Rings the same way that God or Divine Providence is sensed but never seen. God is implicit in both works, and the heroes expect to make their own success.
As a coda , Ms. Ma recounts how Frodo Baggins derives his first name from a Latin version of Frothi, a royal name in Norse culture. There were at least six known Norse kings by that name. One figures in several sagas. In Beowulf, a King Froda is the father of Hrothgar’s rival, Ingjeld. Other Norse epics recount Froda’s murder of Hrothgar’s father Halfden, thus igniting a war with King Hrothgar (called Hroar in Norse). A strategic marriage imposed a temporary truce, until Ingjeld resumed the war. Beowulf does not report its outcome. One may presume its audience knew the story already.
The name Frodo is a Latinized version of Froda. Frodo Baggins becomes a kind of wise prince after scouring the shire. Frothi means “wise old one,” and Beowulf’s Froda is accepted as the name that inspired Tolkien’s little hero. The Lord of the Rings ends with the bittersweet passing of the Third Age. Middle-Earth emerges bright and renewed from war with Sauron, but it has changed beyond recognition. The elves depart, and the Shire is saved, but not for Frodo.
Beowulf ends with the question of what the hero’s warlike pride and honor has cost his people in suffering and destruction. The question is important, owing to present concerns over rising disorder here and abroad.
My reflection begins with Frodo’s name. Frothi may have morphed into Froda due to a shift in orthography. Our modern TH spelling comes from 14th century French. Old and Middle English used an Eth (voiced, as in Breathe) and a Thorn (unvoiced, as in, well, thorn). Eth resembles the letter D with a crossed stem. Diacritical marks of that kind can disappear when copied by hand, and so later printers may have mistaken Frothi for Frodi.
Mr. Frodo Baggins of Bag End has a semi-comical feud with his overbearing cousins, Odo and Lobelia, which he inherited from his uncle Bilbo, so we might say he begins his journey with a pantomime of King Froda’s feud with Hrothgar. In addition, Frodo adventures end with his presiding, king-like, over the restored Shire. Yet here I discovered an intriguing detail.
Icelanders rediscovered the Poetic (or Elder) Edda in the 17th century. They long believed its author was Bishop Saemund Sifusson (1056-1133), a figure of note in Icelandic Church history. We may surmise that Tolkien knew his name from English translations. It happens that 18th century Icelandic folk-tales cast Bishop Saemund as a madcap magician. Scholars therefore doubt his authorship today; likely, his famous name attached to the manuscript, much the way Mark Twain links to anyone’s folksy wisdom.
Significantly, the folk-tales call him Saemundur Frothi, (the Wise). Saemundur’s deeds involve escaping the Devil’s clutches, as just as Frodo’s major feats of daring involve escape and evasion. Frodo Baggins’s last deed in Middle-Earth is also one of authorship, of what became The Red Book of Westmarch. If Tolkien knew Saemund’s name, it is tempting to believe he might have known the Icelandic folk-tales surrounding him as well.
The Kalevala in Middle Earth
The Kalevala became newly independent Finland’s national epic. Its author, the physician Elias Lönrott was far from the only person to collect folklore in his region, nor did he provide the first Finnish verse to the outside world. He had the talent to reconstruct Finnish mythology, from folk memory into heroic verse. His final draft of The Kalevala emerged in 1849. It is significant that Lönrott ended his work by inviting other authors to follow his example. Tolkien accepted, and declared to his publisher (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, reprinted 2006) that his quest for “a mythology for England” began with reading Finnish mythology.
David Dettman’s essay “Väinämöinen in Middle-Earth: The Pervasive Presence of The Kalevala in the Bombadil chapters of the Lord of the Rings,” appears in the splendid festschrift Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey. Tolkien first read The Kalevala through William Forsell Kirkby’s 1907 translation, (Volume I and Volume II), one of the first complete translations. Furthermore, Kirkby bravely attempted the Kalevala’s poetic meter in English, technically called Trochaic Tetrameter. Each line is four trochees, a metrical foot of one strong and one short syllable, a pattern well known to readers of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
Like Longfellow, Kirkby’s lines often grow fatiguing to read, and Tolkien called it “monotonous and thin” although “capable of poignant pathos (if not more majestic things).” Keith Bosley, a 20th Century English poet and translator, found the monotony so intolerable, he wrote his own English Kalevala (1991) in an original meter, based on syllables rather than meter.
However, Tolkien (Letters, p. 172) remarked, “I was brought up in the classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” According to Pr. Thomas Drew-Bear, classical poetry and drama used trochaic tetrameter to signal the arrival of royalty, or messengers bringing electrifying news, or a headlong rush to a dramatic climax. Given Tolkien’s education at King Edward’s School, perhaps Kirkby translated enough Kalevala magic to enchant Tolkien, yet not satisfy him. Perhaps that was just as well.
Moreover, Dettman’s essay explores the many harmonies between Väinämöinen and Bombadil, in particular magic by song. Here, Tolkien innovated on trochaic tetrameter. To each line, Tolkien added a caesura, a pause like a musical rest or grace note. He then extended each line by three more trochees. Further breaking the monotony, Tolkien periodically swapped out four trochees for a four-beat single stress meter (in bold):
Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle,
Tom’s going on ahead, candles for to kindle;
Down west sinks the sun, soon you will be groping,
When the night shadows fall, then the door will open,
Out of the window-panes light will twinkle yellow.
Fear no Alder black! Heed no hoary willow!
(Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 6).
According to Marina Tarlinskaja (1992) single stress meter is relatively rare, or loose, in English or German. It has no English name; Russian poets say dolnik. English medieval poems, such as The Owl and the Nightingale, (Middle English Compendium, 2018) are usually read in “loose iambic tetrameter” (four short-strong feet) with odd variations, and are so translated. Tarlinskaya makes the case that they scan simpler as four-beat dolnik meter, even with eight syllables per line. The first beat shifts, as needed, between the first and second syllable:
| Ich was in one sumere dale, |
in one suthe dichele hale,
iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one nichtingale.
(Modern alphabet, adapted from J.W.H. Atkins, 1922)
Tolkien knew of dolnik meter from Old and Middle English poems.
The Monster and the Critics
Fulk, R. D. (1991). Interpretations of Beowulf: A critical anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press collects Tolkien’s “Monster” along with other views, pro and con. Christopher Tolkien published a stand-alone edition: Tolkien, J. R. R., & Tolkien, C. (1984). The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. A still-available reprint appeared in 2006. Lastly, acclaimed Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), praised Tolkien for establishing the poem as powerful literature, not historical curiosity.
The estimable R.D. Fulk, has edited and produced the first complete edition of the works in the Nowell Codex, published as The Beowulf Manuscript: Complete Texts and the Fight at Finnsburg. It is in Volume 3 of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 2010). Dumbarton Oaks editions, like the venerable (1911) Loeb Classical Library, include Anglo-Saxon and modern translation on facing pages.
“Most Desirous of Glory”: Beowulf and “Toxic Masculinity”
As to questions of Beowulf’s destructive thirst for glory, a good rejoinder lies in Pr. Carlin A. Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (out of print).
Think of what we say, when we describe personal honor: a rock, a brick, or “He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him!” Anyone bristling at insults is thin-skinned, childish or insecure. Even scientific results, we describe as plain, solid, inconvenient, but immovable. Untrue facts we call “fast and loose” or “slippery.” We associate having “skin in the game” with unworthy bias or resentment (unless we share the bias). Purity and chastity denotes passive maidens in ivy-covered towers, but, we say, bad girls get around and make history. “Glory-hound” is the most derisive term of all.
Pr. Barton lays out how the Romans, especially before the Caesars, saw honor as part of their Mores Maiorum, the Ways of the Best, which revolved around contests for glory and honor, great or small. Honor was light and fire, striving to excel, avenging insults, proving naysayers wrong. Our words of honor were just the terms Romans used for dishonor: someone who cared not what others thought was a lump, a coward, a sloth.
Avenging trivial slights just proved you had a pulse. Romans relied on
living facts. Having “skin in the game” made your testimony more reliable, not less. Pure and chaste women were active, public “women of valor”. Women in constant seclusion had something to hide.
A host of shared cultural understandings tended to keep this constant competition from escalating to fratricidal chaos: who may fight, how to signal surrender before bloodshed, what may be avenged, and what must be forgiven. Foremost was the Roman honoring of self-sacrifice. Roman boys learned Livy’s story of Marcus Curtius, who rode a horse into a volcanic cleft to heal the city’s land.
Change came in the dying days of the Roman Republic. As the empire expanded, all roads led to a more multicultural Rome. All cultures are ecosystems with their own integrity. They will vary in rules of engagement, or, just as important, disengagement. Just by absorbing new customs, it became possible to rationalize blowing off restraints. Roman factions took to winning at any cost, which energized howling partisans and turned moderate citizens into passive spectators of social and political blood sport. (No, that does not sound familiar at all).
Having lost the ancient confidence in action, Cicero, and others after him, turned to Stoicism, founded by Greek philosopher, Zeno of Actium, who taught that we could not control our destiny, only our own reactions. Stoicism taught forbearance, tolerance, indifferent to pleasure, pain, or insults. All spiritual paths have dangers, and Stoicism at its best endowed one with strength and resilience. At its worst, Pr. Barton admits, it is sour grapes wrapped in a grandiose pose of rectitude.
Cicero seemed aware of this, when he wrote about Roman boys:
“…these things which I call honorable are also by their own nature deserving of being sought for their own sake. Children show this, by nature, as in a mirror. What eagerness is there in them when contending together! How vigorous are their contests! How elated are those who win! How ashamed those who are beaten! How unwilling are they to take blame! How eager to be praised! What labors will they not endure to surpass their fellows! What a recollection have they of those who are kind to them! How anxious are they to prove their gratitude! These qualities are most visible in the best dispositions.” – De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, Bk V, Chapter 22.
Today, we have similarly ambivalent views on stoicism and honor-culture. Many praise “social justice” from people we like, and denounce “toxic masculinity” from people we dislike. It may be difficult to believe or accept that Cicero said Roman men should be more like Roman boys, but the more Stoicism, and Imperial government, turned Romans from citizens into subjects, so the Mores Maiorum faded into a mournful nostalgia lying within the stoic mask.
Today, some observers blame Christianity for enfeebling our culture. Others read that St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, brawled with the dissident Arius over theological essences at the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.), at which they scorn the hypocrisy and “toxic masculinity,” and revel in how this proves that they know Jesus better than does his church. Romans saw it differently.
The names Nicholas and Catherine were unknown before those two saints’ lives. St. Nicholas of Myra was a two-fisted character whose name means “the people’s victory.” Similarly, St. Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th century martyr, was a woman of sterling virtue, whose name, Ekaterina, means, “shining light.” Perhaps both were nicknames bestowed by admirers, their real names lost to history. Perhaps, Romans saw Christians bringing back the Mores Maiorum. St. Nicholas became the second most popular saint in England, judging by the churches dedicated to him, after St. Mary.
It should be abundantly clear that most cultures have struggled with the dilemma of aggression down to the present time. Ours is no exception; in this global age, when seven billion and growing people have to share a planet, personal stoicism has much to recommend it. However, (see link above) I also respect the fact that something of the fire of life goes out when we cry “toxic.” A sterilized life is not worth living, and spiritual fires half-extinguished can be the most dangerous.
Doom, Hope, and the Long Defeat
Tolkien scholarship amply supports Ms. Ma’s main point, that Beowulf inhabits The Lord of the Rings as invisible air and fire. The estimable Pr. Verlyn Flieger, in Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, sums the impact of The Silmarillion:
“Lord of the Rings clearly now has what Tolkien planned for it to have all along, that same illusion of depth that he found and praised in Beowulf, the illusion of “surveying a past … noble and fraught with a deep significance—a past which itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity of sorrow” (from Monster and the Critics). Tolkien’s tale is now placed within a larger history, and what had seemed digressions of little relevance are now seen to be essential elements enhancing both plot and theme.”
This dark antiquity of sorrow, the dragon-slayer’s unwillingness to die without having gained his goal, and the bittersweet sense of an entire age passing, is a major theme of Beowulf. It hearkens to Tolkien’s heartbreaking experience as an officer. As Marjorie Burns’ Perilous Realms points out, Denethor and Theoden are mirror images of one another. These two elderly kings have each lost a son. Their names even mirror one another. Denethor dies in madness and despair, while Theoden falls, as Beowulf falls, to another dark dragon, the “fell beast” bearing the Witch-King of Angmar.
Yet themes of final defeat are still consonant with Christian hope. In Pr. Flieger’s words, “Despite his praise of the poem’s quality of pagan stoicism, Tolkien reads the Beowulf poet as a Christian writing about a pagan past, a not-too-distant past that still held his imagination. ‘The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there’ (MC 23). That Tolkien is in sympathy with this despair is clear, but it is just as clear that for him this in no way contradicts Christianity. ‘For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world’ (MC 22).”
The ailing Lt. Tolkien, recovering from his interrupted war service, may have struggled between pagan valor and despair. He spent his hospital stays composing and revising his legendarium. Intense therapeutic writing is today gaining cautious approval as an alternative treatment for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and he went on to establish a happy marriage, a productive family, a distinguished academic career, and immortality as author of the most acclaimed book of the 20th century. Beowulf’s heroic will, foreclosing the future, facing danger with nothing to lose, is perhaps what Tolkien saw behind the plain homespun phrases from Great War, such as “There was a job to be done, and we got on and did it.”
Tolkien’s most Biblical passages
The English word “Bible” comes from Greek Biblia, the plural noun, “Books.” Jewish rabbis sometimes nickname the Scriptures “the Twenty-Four Books.” It is therefore wise to be humble in characterizing any specific thing as “Biblical” since the books have each a special flavor. Yet readers may have confidence that if ancients were aware but not bothered by this differential character, they have no need to stumble over it either.
I must agree with Ms. Ma and with Pr. Flieger: “The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s gloss on Christianity, illustrating its universals, not repeating its specifics.” Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, another Andrew Lang lecture, is if anything more famous than Monster and the Critics, and the two form the twin poles of Tolkien’s thought. Beowulf’s universal defeat he held in mind alongside the Gospel’s final triumph.
Pr. Flieger writes, “Deathlessness [of the Elves] is not true immortality, but simply prolongation of life. In Tolkien’s view, the real escape from death is through death to eternal life. Thus the final Consolation, the Escape promised in the Gospels, denies ‘universal final defeat’ because it offers the reader life beyond death. This is Tolkien’s evangelium, ‘giving a brief glimpse of joy … beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’”
Tolkien scrupulously avoided language that might have had Biblical echoes. Those words were so familiar they could only distract (See C.S. Lewis, The Literary Influence of the Authorised Version).
Cris Dickason very helpfully points out the glimpse of joy in Frodo’s dream at Bombadil’s house, which connects to Frodo’s experience as he takes his final voyage. Other readers may have found other quiet glimpses of joy in Tolkien’s text. Yet I looked at what comes just afterward, to the passage that brings tears to the readers’ eyes:
“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.”
Two things stand out for both these passages: the sheer concreteness of every word, along with Tolkien’s parataxis, the linking of thoughts with an eternal, present and, rather than chronological then or next.
Philip Alter, after twenty-five years of labor, has just published The Hebrew Bible: A Translation and Commentary (2018). The Tanakh reads (like The Lord of the Rings) in three volumes: Torah (the five books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Alter cleaned up the cathedral organ tone and frequent inaccuracies of the King James Version, which remains popular because so much recent translation has, Alter writes, “placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language.”
Tolkien’s readers would profit from reading Alter’s work. He found, and sought to revive, the Scriptures’ concreteness and ever-present parataxis, and particular fondness for terms derived from nature and the human body. The familiar word Ruach he renders as nature-centered Wind rather than human-centered Breath, or theological Spirit. He restores the pungent terms Eye, Hand, Foot or even Seed (as in semen, in place of descendants), where modern translations use broader and more abstract terms to explain the Scriptures, rather than let the text speak for itself.
Even so, Tolkien quietly closes the War of the Ring and the Third Age in a still, small voice, with a hill, and a fire, and an evening meal, and a chair, and a little hobbit on her father’s lap.
Thank you for your kind attention. My next post will be a while, as real life takes up my time. My best wishes to you for a goodly spring.