Episode 60
March 4, 2024

Tolkien Dropping Bars

Hosted by Jared Pechaček, Ned Raggett, and Oriana Schwindt

Jared, Oriana and Ned discuss Jared’s choice of topic: Beowulf. The famed Old English poem, the longest extant poetic work in general preserved in that language, almost accidentally survived over the years until it became more widely recognized in the 1700s, including surviving a fire. It has since become a cornerstone of studies of English literature, telling the story of a heroic Geat warrior who defeats two monstrous presences on a visit to an afflicted Danish kingdom, and who in later years as an aging king slays a dragon at the cost of his life and, it is strongly implied, his kingdom’s. Tolkien knew the work thoroughly and regularly taught it in his academic career, leading to both a prose translation and various notes and commentaries that Christopher Tolkien presented and edited for a 2015 publication. But besides the notable connections that can be made between the poem and elements of his own legendarium, Tolkien has a further place in Beowulf scholarship thanks to his most famed academic work, the 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics,” which single-handedly reframed the poem from being primarily seen as a historical document to being considered as a remarkable work of imagination. What are some of the key differences between Beowulf’s world and ethos and Tolkien’s own reworking of it into his legendarium, in terms of character, society and more? What points does Tolkien bring up in his lecture that provides a deeper insight into how he was not only arguing for the Beowulf poet – whoever it might be – but also placing his own work into that lineage? How do the portrayals of the various monsters Beowulf faces differ, and what in particular makes Grendel’s mother such a fascinating character? And how many moments per episode are points raised and then suddenly realized to be maybe not accurate? (Sorry about that.)

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Show Notes.

Jared’s doodle. Gotta be careful with dragons.

Ooooooh boy, the angst this Fellowship of Fans post unleashed in some corners when it came to Rings of Power rumors. (On a side note, RoP’s Morfydd Clark is in the new two part Agatha Christie Murder is Easy adaptation on Britbox and is unsurprisingly really good!)

The whole Matthew Weiner spoiler-war thing re Mad Men was a thing. Was it ever a thing. Here’s a sample.

Beowulf! You might have heard of it. Plenty of translations freely available, and of course there’s Seamus Heaney and Maria Dahvana Headley and etc. And yes there’s Tolkien’s too.

HWAET!” (Tolkien allegedly really loved to get his students’ attention by delivering this full on.)

If you haven’t read “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” we really do encourage this. (And picking up the full essay anthology too, key pieces like “A Secret Vice” and “On Fairy-Stories” are included among others.)

Kennings are very cool. (But please avoid ‘whale road.’)

Imagining Tolkien delivering this to the other Beowulf critics is something wild to think about.

There’s a wide variety of pieces about the women of Beowulf out there; here’s one that provides a general summary and consideration about them.

If you’d like to see the Nowell Codex, head on over to the British Library, physically or virtually.

We’ve mentioned E. R. Eddison before. Definitely NOT Tolkien.

The full historical background that Beowulf draws on is definitely there, though treating the poem as a history itself is not the way to go. Here’s a useful piece tackling the history as such.

The Geats aren’t around as such anymore, and there are reasons for that

It’s not directly mentioned in the episode but Tolkien did write and lecture about one of the ‘side’ stories in Beowulf, with the results published in the book Finn and Hengest.

Did we mention we’re not impressed with Silicon Valley’s take on Tolkien?

Grendel’s mother is, no question, awesome.

Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” – definitely not Smaug.

Sellic Spell” really is interesting, and may be the most notable part of the volume it’s published in.

Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead! (But avoid The 13th Warrior.)

A last little bonus: didn’t bring it up in the episode but Ned remembered seeing Robert Macneil’s 1986 documentary series on PBS The Story of English back when it first ran, and the second episode, “The Mother Tongue,” has a brief bit discussing Beowulf and how it might have been performed as a song, as well as a separate section on the impact of the Viking invasions on English as a language led by noted Tolkien scholar and academic descendant Tom Shippey.

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