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J R R Tolkien's Beowulf: one man's passion for the threshold between myth and reality

The literary landscape has changed since Tolkien’s day in a way he would neither expect nor acknowledge: he is now more famous than the “fairy stories” that obsessed him.

Beowulf: a Translation and Commentary, Together with “Sellic Spell”
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 425pp, £20

In his story “Leaf by Niggle”, J R R Tolkien imagines an artist painting a picture he can neither complete nor abandon. “It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots.” In the end the picture is never put on show.

The metaphor captures the scale and gorgeous impracticality of Tolkien’s writing but not its fate. Most of his “tree” has been saved and his posthumous titles outnumber those published in his lifetime by roughly three to one. In this latest book, a deep root is exposed: his work on the Old English poem Beowulf. The surprise is how “fantastic” the root turns out to be, twisting thirstily through the scholarly subsoil to tap the groundwater of a forgotten folk tale – or “fairy story”, as Tolkien prefers to call it.

The poem, written down around 1000AD, mixes fiction with 5th- and 6th-century history. Beowulf sails from his Geatish homeland in Sweden to defeat Grendel, an ogre who has usurped the Danish feast hall of King Hrothgar. Beowulf then hunts down Grendel’s vengeful mother, but in old age, now king of the Geats, he slays and is slain by a dragon. In his 1936 lecture “Beowulf : the Monsters and the Critics”, Tolkien insisted that the poem is not just a mine for historical data into which some fantastical monsters have inconveniently strayed but a work of art in which the monsters are foils for an entire cultural attitude to life, death and courage.

The literary landscape has changed since then in a way that Tolkien would have neither expected nor accepted: he now towers in fame over Beowulf. Last year, Penguin repackaged its Michael Alexander translation as one of five “classic [stories] that inspired J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit”.

Tolkien’s prose translation has been edited by his long-serving son Christopher, now 89, from versions dating back to 1926 (regrettably omitting an earlier, unfinished verse translation). A large, nuggety selection from Tolkien’s lectures, presented by way of commentary, ranges from semantics to genealogy, from the giants of Genesis to the Germanic concept of fate. Also included are two short, lapidary pieces of creative writing, “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf”. All this illuminates the poem but far more people will read the book for Tolkien’s sake than for Beowulf’s. That is fair enough.

Tolkien was studying Beowulf deeply when the First World War broke out and by the time he went off to fight in the battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916, he had begun to map out his vision of Middle-earth. The folk narrative of an individual battling through fear or horror, experiencing loss and new-springing hope, must have chimed with his experiences on the Western Front: his enthusiasm for fairy stories was, he wrote, “quickened to full life by war”. Born out of the cataclysm of conflict, Middle-earth has since become a mirror to the modern world. Yet only Tolkien’s brilliance in inhabiting the early-medieval Germanic mindset could have produced it.

In Beowulf, we see the lordly custom of giving rings to retainers, which Tolkien subverts with Sauron, his own “lord of the rings”. We encounter Hrothgar’s golden hall, the model for Théoden’s. In the night-haunting, man-eating Grendel, we may recognise Gollum magnified; the dragon is a prototype for Smaug. For some, the world of Beowulf and Middle-earth were elided in Tolkien’s lectures: W H Auden once wrote to tell him “what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.”

Tolkien, an obsessive niggler with too many projects to fit in one lifespan, would have needed a hard push, from a publisher and perhaps from a strong-armed friend such as C S Lewis, to finalise and publish his prose translation. The version that survives, though, is far from prosaic. He cannot conceal the strangeness of the underlying idiom but his cadence is commanding and his language evocative: “He came now from the moor under misty fells, Grendel walking. The wrath of God was on him.”

Much syntactic inversion yields not promptly to grasp of mind – but few will be surprised to see archaisms such as “Lo!” and “smote”. This reflects Tolkien’s view that the poet wrote in a register already venerable in 1000AD. With kennings – metaphorical Old English compounds of words – he is more expansive than most. What Seamus Heaney in his 1999 translation gives as “the whale-road”, Tolkien, who argues that rád did not mean “road” but the act of riding, unpacks as “the sea where the whale rides” (his commentary expands the image: “watery fields where you can see dolphins . . . seeming to gallop like a line of riders on the plains”). Students may prefer Tolkien for accuracy and fans will snap his book up but it won’t convert admirers of Heaney’s poetic latitude.

The commentary shows Tolkien’s curiosity about the threshold between myth and reality. Hrothgar’s ancestor Scyld “came out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history”, he writes. Hrothgar’s court at Heorot, which once really existed near Roskilde, Denmark, becomes in Beowulf a scene of superhuman marvels, like Camelot. And in his aspect as “the bear-man, the giant-killer”, whose hands have the strength of 30 men, Beowulf comes directly from fairy story.

“Sellic Spell” means “a tale of wonder” and Tolkien’s experimental story strips away Beowulf’s historical aspect to expose the even older fairy story he discerned at its heart. The hero, Beewolf (a kenning for “bear”, named the “bee wolf” for its plundering of hives), heads to the Golden Hall with two companions who first try their magic powers against Grinder (Grendel). This story is the gem in the book. Only its disconnection from Middle-earth can explain why it has remained hidden so long.

Yet it is not truly disconnected. Like “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s Middle-earth oeuvre began as an attempt to imagine the “lost tales” behind the scattered fragments of medieval literature. It was a hunger that scholarship alone could not fully satisfy. Tolkien’s view of Beowulf as a marriage of fairy story and history explains his rationale in constructing for his own grand fairy story a world so convincing in its “historical” detail that many feel they have been there.

John Garth’s “Tolkien and the Great War” is published by HarperCollins (£9.99)

Image: Poodlesrock/Graphicartis/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Why we'll all have to stomach the high-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survial may depend on it.

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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