est easy, lovers of Icelandic literature. A few people sprang to Njaals
defence, and meanwhile I read Beowulf and kept on thinking about the effort it takes
to read things like that, which are Tolkiens sources. For me in the twentieth century to
look at Njaals world took a leap of the imagination far beyond what it takes to read most
fantasy literature, of which sensible people say, "Oh, its so unconnected
with everyday life."
The world of Njaal and Beowulf is the real world, or was, and yet it seems
further and stranger than half the fantasy novels Ive read, whose main characters could come
and live here and now, theyd adapt in no time. McDonalds and a nine-to-five job, thank
you very much.
Those characters in the sagas, they would never adapt, they would never compromise
their suicidal honour, their crazy passionate ideals, their love of glory and of courage for
courages sake. We would never understand them or they us, and theyd kill everyone for
reasons that we couldnt fathom. The only things Ive read lately achieve the same sense
of otherness in a race of people are Paul Parks Soldiers of Paradise,
(check out his antinomial berserkers as they go singing into battle!) and Mary Doria Russells
In the sagas and Beowulf you have to do the work of getting your
mind into that world yourself
but then, the sagas were read or spoken aloud to a group,
and the bard could do with his eyes and hands and voice and silences what it would take Stephen
R. Donaldson 3 "Refulgent"s, 2 "Scintillating"s, 4 "Suppurating"s
and an "Orotund" to achieve. Which is why sentences in "Njaals Saga can
afford to be shorter. (Just my theory. Passionate defenses of SR Donaldson are not solicited by
I also imagined that in a saga which is read aloud, the listeners
reponses save the writer from having to go on about fiery hearts like red-hot cauldrons of
seething hatred etc. etc. Imagine a saga being read aloud:
"And so Thord fell dead," said the bard.
There was outrage amongst his listeners.
"No! Not Thord?! He was my favourite character!" cried one.
"Well that Thorgeir better watch out, the cowardly scum, hell get
his comeuppance soon, I hope!" Everyone in Thorstead denounced Thorgeir bitterly until the bard
was able to continue
All of which is off the track from Tolkiens Lord of the Rings,
but I wasnt making any promises. Ill leave it by saying, like LOTR the Icelandic sagas
and Beowulf are understated rather than overwrought, and also share with Tolkien a love
of landscape (at least in Hrafknels saga) which I think will also feature in Peter
I read Beowulf, of which Tolkien was a major scholar. Each left-hand
page is in Old English, and it looks like gibberish. And then certain words start to spring out,
"Wealle" becomes "wall," "Scild" becomes "Shield," and
suddenly there are a raft of familiar words: the Eorlingas, Theoden (once Id figured out
the odd rune standing for th) and Thengel
.not as names now, but titles and nouns:
Prince, hero, warrior
(OE scholarsll get mad, Im being indiscriminate here!) Eomer
turns up as an anglian prince, and so do the mearas, the horses of Rohan in elder days.
And then the lovely line,
"On him the mail-coat shone, an armour net woven by a smiths
I think the word for "ingenuity is "orthancum." Orthanc is,
flame me if Im wrong, the tower of wizards
.or of skill, cunning
Suddenly Beowulf seems very familiar: old heirlooms are "mathoms," the floor
There is a scene where Beowulf and his troop come to the golden hall of
Heorot, and lay their arms outside as custom demands, and go in to offer their services to the king
to cleanse the land of evil, and the attempt by the kings advisor Unferth to discredit
it was surely in Tolkiens mind when he described the arrival of Aragorn and the
others to Theodens hall.
Except that Tolkiens characters are facing a different kind of evil (or
are they?) and so they dont offer to kill Sauron with their bare hands like Beowulf does
Grendel. Though that is what the hobbits will do in the end, defeat evil unarmed.
Beowulf is really beautiful. How those people loved the sea! "The
swans road, the gannets bath, the whales way." And speaking of their ships,
"floating foamy-necked over the waves like a bird." Maybe some things were common figures
of speech back then that strike us with their novelty now, I dont know. Things like:
"Then he anwered him, unlocked his word-hoard
Anyhow, looking round the Net for Beowulf was fun, you could spent a lifetime.
To hear Beowulf read aloud with text and translation, I found it on:
They talk a bit in their introduction about the
influence the Elder Edda had on Tolkien.
Thanks anyway to my correspondents who put me onto these, among others.
Off on a different track, another correspondent, Renee talked a bit about creating
fantasy worlds: "Im not quite to the point of thinking up important linguistic rules for
my imaginary world
" and I thought, Why should you have to? Was it the secret of
Big question. Is The Lord of the Rings such a compelling imaginary
world because the languages make its cultures more diverse, detailed, plausible and self-consistent?
What kind of world would Tolkien have created if he had not been a linguist? Could the races have
been distinguished by their music or art or science? What world would he have invented if he had
been a physicist, or a psychologist, or an architect?
Part of the answer is that I cant answer it, Im too biased towards
words, and any fantasy world that has a richly detailed sense of a culture expressed by different
languages is going to seem plausible to me.
But two of the most convincing worlds Ive read about lately were written
by linguists: CJ Cherryhs Pyanfar novels, and Mary Doria Russells The
Sparrow. The races and cultures in them seemed truly individual and other, i.e.
non-human, and for me that was partly achieved by the different languages they spoke, and the real
sense that their thought-processes werent anything like English, especially if they were
knnn or whatever. And maybe good linguists have a command of detailed structures (necessary
both for creating worlds and philology) and a vast word-hoard that get them off to a flying start
when it comes to creating plausible fantasy worlds.
Or is that just my bias again? Who knows?
Next week, Norse myths and legends, and why youd be better off going for
a hike in the woods with Tolkien than with Tad Williams.