Before Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark, from the hugely popular Game of Thrones series, there were Beowulf and Hrothgar; and Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons have nothing on their prototype, a fearsome beast called the Guardian of the Hoard, which Beowulf fights to the death.
The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf tells the tale of its eponymous hero as he journeys to Heorot, the hall of old King Hrothgar, to save him and his people from the depredations of the monster Grendel and his mother. A second part, set decades later, features Beowulf in his old age and a final battle with a dragon that has been threatening his own people, the Geats. The poem is believed to date from the eighth or ninth century and is written in the alliterative verse typical of surviving Old English poetry.
Unlike other major epics of the Western tradition, such as the Divine Comedy and the Aeneid, Beowulf was unknown for almost 1,000 years and came very close to being lost forever. The only surviving manuscript copy was discovered in 1731, after being barely saved from a fire. Beowulf, therefore, is not only a lucky find but a window into an early medieval world that lay just beyond the available historical record.
Since its rediscovery, translations and commentary have regularly appeared, most recently in an acclaimed version by the late Seamus Heaney. There have also been a couple of movie versions, including one starring a decidedly nonmonstrous Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. Until now, however, the 1926 translation by J. R. R. Tolkien had remained unpublished. His son Christopher has now published it, along with extensive commentary based on class lectures the elder Tolkien gave through the 1930s.
Although Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he was also for many years professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and an influential scholar in the field. His famous 1936 lecture—“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”—made the definitive case for the poem as a work of literature. Tolkien argued that Beowulf was a literary artifact with artistic value and not simply a source for historical data about the various warring Danes, Swedes, Geats, and others who make appearances in the poem. The fantastic and the historical are too deeply mixed to be that easily separated. It is a monster story, after all.
But the poem is not only a mix of the historical and the fantastical, but of two different histories. The deeds of Beowulf and the other heroes draw on, and echo, the pre-Christian history of northern Europe; but by the time the poem was being written down (presumably by monks in a scriptorium), Christian elements had begun to creep in. Thus, Grendel is depicted as a descendant of Cain, and therefore cursed; but he is also a monster familiar from other sagas. Warriors consult pagan runes to tell their fortune, but repeated references to Christian titles for God such as the “Lord of Life” speak to later Christian interpolations.
Anglo-Saxon culture was somber, bleak, and nostalgic; all one needs to know about their world can be summed up in the fact that Old English has no proper future tense. This may have been one reason Christianity appealed to some of its peoples, as the faith seemed to offer a way out of the cold experience of mortal existence. Seeking to do and be remembered for noble deeds and generosity were paramount. Tolkien closes the tale this way:
[T]hus bemoaned the Geatish folk their master’s fall, comrades of his hearth, crying that he was ever of the kings of earth of men most generous and to men most gracious, to his people most tender and for praise most eager.
The mood, rather than being depressing, is majestic. Every action is charged with meaning because life can end at any moment. Remembering the past is vitally important: A sizable portion of the poem is taken up with recounting quarrels, family trees, and promises broken and kept. The past is what we know and what tells us who we are, while the future remains ever uncertain. Great deeds done in the past can still inspire heroism, even if the ultimate result is unclear. “Fate goeth ever as she must,” Beowulf says in his first meeting with Hrothgar. Anglo-Saxon literature expresses as sharply as any Western literature how differently pre-modern people thought of their universe, and reading them enables us to escape what T. S. Eliot called the “provincialism of time.”