“Death comes to the feast.”

beowulf-02I’ve given JOB long enough to post this; for some reason, he refuses, though his duty is clear. Oh, well. Ye Olde New Yorker has a fun piece on some guy named Tolkien who went and translated Beowulf and then never published it…

“…Spoilers proliferate. When Beowulf goes to meet the dragon, the poet tells us fully four times that the hero is going to die. As in Greek tragedy, the audience for the poem knew the ending. It knew the middle, too, which is a good thing, since the events of Beowulf’s fifty-year reign are barely mentioned until the dragon appears. This bothered many early commentators. It did not bother Tolkien. The three fights were enough. Beowulf, Tolkien writes in his essay, was just a man:

And that for him and many is sufficient tragedy. It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone: lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod (life is transitory: light and life together hasten away). So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast.

According to Tolkien, ‘Beowulf’ was not an epic or a heroic lay, which might need narrative thrust. It was just a poem—an elegy. Light and life hasten away.”

Be sure to follow the link for a throwdown between J.R.R. and some clown named Seamus!


  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    [T]hose who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil.

    According to St Bede the Venerable, the pagan King Edwin of Northumbria called a council of the wise from his realm around A.D. 627, seeking their advice on whether to convert to Christianity. Tolkien’s quotation above (and the article’s discussion of Beowulf‘s mix of pagan and Christian worldviews) reminded me of this speech, which Bede attributes to one of Kind Edwin’s ‘chief men’:

    The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

    St Bede the Venerable, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. LC Jane (Temple Classics, 1903), Book II, Chapter 13, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_History_of_the_English_People/Book_2#13



    • Aye, there’s a poem all its own in that wonderful passage. Thanks for that!


      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

        Thanks to the Venerable Bede and his source(s) for the quotation.

        That image of a sparrow darting out of the cold night, through the warmth and light of the mead-hall, and back into the cold night, is awfully true to life, innit?

  2. This is truly a discovery – I saw something in passing about JRRT’s version coming out but never followed up on it.

    It was Beowulf, more than Homer or Virgil (though I admit they exceed the Beowulf poet in excellences up and down the line) or even Shakespeare who first showed me the potential of poetry. Freshman year in high school – I read the Norton’s translation (this was before Heaney’s verse version), which like JRRT’s was in prose, but captured, also it seems like JRRT’s, the hard-glittering and wintry landscape of the original OE language.


  3. Life is fleeting
    All things fade
    Light along wuth life.

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