Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien

For years I have wanted to sit in Tolkien's class on Beowulf and hear him talk about the poem and culture he knew so well. If only they had MOOCs back then! But now I feel that my wish has been granted. Christopher Tolkien put together a book of his father's translation of Beowulf and the accompanying lecture notes.

This is actual academia, so it may be an uphill battle for those without a deep interest in Tolkien. But I found an invaluable window into the mind of Tolkien between the lines of these notes. In addition, at the end is appended Tolkien's own fairy-tale version of Beowulf (without all the Geats/Swedes/Danes history stuff and actually beginning "Once upon a time ... ). I just read that to my older boys and they enjoyed the parallels with Rohan in the Lord of the Rings, although neither they nor I were expecting quite so many decapitations in a fairy-tale.

My favorite part of all this was reading Tolkien being a professor, discussing academic claims and translations and historical debates. Ultimately, academic discussions are very similar, and even if I didn't care about the debate, I did care about the debater.

Tolkien had a sharp mind and an amazing grasp of Anglo-Saxon literature. For example, he could tell you if a word was used or a name alluded to anywhere in the literature, such is his love for the field. But for all his ability to parse out the trees, what truly amazes me is Tolkien's ability to always remember the forest as well. Tolkien often solves tricky translation problems by appealing to the piece as a whole and how this part works within the entire poem.

He also spends a lot of time talking about the faith of the author and how that author applied his own Christian theology to the pre-Christian history/myth he was writing in this poem. There's some fascinating theology in there for someone interested in that to chase down with a dissertation, in how that aligns with Tolkien's Catholicism and Biblical passages on this topic like Romans 2. Most important, Tolkien never checked his faith at the door, but brought it in robustly, with academic skepticism where appropriate, but with the obvious conviction that this matters. And he's right -- those (to me) are the most interesting parts of the lecture notes.

So I'm not sure how someone else would react, but I loved the chance to sit under Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could have heard him in person declaim the opening "Hwaet!" of the poem. Some things books cannot do.

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