Tolkien and Beowulf -

Warriors of Middle-Earth


© 2001 Michael Kennedy
 

This article originally appeared in Amon Hen 171


'The light of it shines far over the land.'

Many people may not associate one of the most remarkable story tellers of the twentieth century, J.R.R. Tolkien, with Beowulf, the first great heroic poem in English literature, but as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, he probably taught it every year of his working life, culminating with his sea-changing and supporting paper, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Through this essay, Tolkien not only demonstrated an erudite understanding of Beowulf, but also clearly revealed just how much he cherished it. Knowing it intimately as he must have, it is not surprising then to learn that Tolkien's imagined world of Arda owes something of it's creation to Beowulf, if only to fertilise a burgeoning imagination destined to blossom. Tolkien himself acknowledged that:

'Beowulf is among my most valued sources ...'           (Letters, no.25)
Tolkien used Beowulf in much the same way that the author(s) of Beowulf used old traditional tales, in order to add a sense of credibility to their own tales. In fact, if you were to read Beowulf as it was written in Old English, especially orally, you will discern many words and images that have also materialised in everyday English, and not just in the entrancing world of Arda. Without doubt, the fact that Tolkien created such a believable secondary world as our own is fortified by the use of ancient English words in his creation of names, melding fragments of real history with invented history.

Tolkien was a unique story-teller, and an exceptional linguist, but first and foremost he was a lover of language. It's this attribute that shines and reflects through all his creativity.

What follows is two tables that contain almost fifty Anglo-Saxon words or phrases from Beowulf, with both definitions and references, that can be found throughout the works of Tolkien. These tables make up part of a lengthy essay that, beginning with Tolkien's early years, sets out to explore just how influential Beowulf was to Tolkien's own mythic vision.
 
 

Table 1:  A list in alphabetical order of Old English words from Beowulf
            that appear in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. For the Kings of
                 the Mark refer to Table 2. (* Denotes possible doubt in definition)
Old English word 
from Beowulf
Beowulf reference
Definition
Tolkien’s equivalent
Beorn*
ll: 1299
Warrior, hero
Beorn
Beor
ll: 609
Bright, shining
Beor the Old
Eotenas
ll: 112
Giant / troll
Ent/ Ettenmoors / Ettendales
Flet
ll: 1540
Floor
Flet
Fródan / fróda*
ll: 2025, 2928
The wise one / old
Frodo
Fyrgen-holt
ll: 1393
Mountain-wood
Firienfeld
Grimmon
ll: 306
Mask
Grima
Hádor
ll: 497
Blithe
Hador
Háma
ll: 1198
Skin, covering (?)
Hama
‘him wæs géomeor sefa murnende mód’
ll: 49-50
‘sad was their heart and mourning in their soul’
‘has pity in her heart and mourning in her soul’
‘iúmonna gold, 
galdre bewunden’
ll: 3052
‘the gold of men of long ago enmeshed in enchantment’
‘The Hoard’

 

Lord of those rings*
ll: 1507
Lord of those rings
The Lord of the rings
Máthmas
ll: 1867
Treasure
Mathom
Méaras
ll: 1035
War-horses
Mearas
Medu-seld
ll: 3065
Mead-hall
Meduseld
Middan-geard
ll: 75
Middle-Earth
Middle-Earth
Myrcan*
ll: 1405
Dark, gloomy
Mirkwood
Orc-néas
ll: 112
Evil shades
Orc
Orþancum
ll: 406
Skill / ingenuity
Orthanc
Searo-
ll: 406
Iron / metal
Saruman
Thenga
ll: 2033
A noble
Thane
Ylfe
ll: 112
Elves
Elf

NB. Not all the above Old English words are specific to Beowulf.



 
Table 2:  A list in chronological order of the Kings of the Mark
     and their respective occurrence in Beowulf 
Order of Kings
Kings of the Mark (& kin)
Beowulf reference
Old English
definition
Comment
Ist
Eorl
ll: 573
Earl / noble / man
 
2nd
Brego
ll: 609
Warrior / prince
Built Meduseld
3rd
Aldor
ll: 369
Leader / elder
 
 
Baldor
ll: 2428
Sovereign
Brother to Aldor
 
Eofer
ll: 1112
Boar
Brother to Aldor
4th
Frea
ll: 2285
Ruler
 
5th
Freawine
ll: 2357
Lord
 
6th
Goldwine
ll: 1171
Gold-friend
He gives out gold
7th
Déor
ll: 1933
Guide
 
 
Fréca
ll: 1033
Hero / chief
 
 
Wulf
ll: 2965
Wolf
 
8th
Gram
ll: 777
Grim / fighter
Reign marked by warfare
9th
Helm
ll: 182
Helmet / protector
 
 
Hild
ll: 2076
War / battle
Sister to Helm
10th
Frealef
 
Descendant of kings
Entire name – not in Beowulf
11th
Brytta
ll: 607
Treasure-giver / lord
 
 
Leofa
ll: 2663
Loved
His people loved him
12th
Walda
ll: 1314
Mighty
Derived from OE alwalda
13th
Folca
ll: 430
Man of the people
 
14th
Folcwine
 
Folk-friend
Entire name – not in Beowulf
15th
Fengel
ll: 1400
King / prince
 
 
Folcred
ll: 3006
Furthered / worked
Brother of Fengel
16th
Thengel
ll: 1507
Prince
Variation of Fengel
17th
Theoden
ll: 1871
King
See text
18th
Eomer
ll: 1960
Eomer (title)
See text

  NB. Not all of the Old English words are specific to Beowulf.
 


 

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