Review – Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Cover of Beowulf trans. J.R.R. TolkienBeowulf: A Translation and Commentary, J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien

I’m full of wonder right now. Not so much at the translation of Beowulf — Tolkien was well-versed in the language and knew what he was doing, and the tone is often reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, which emphasises his attempts to weave his own stories with the old stories of England — but at all the commentary published together here. Pretty much every issue I considered in my undergraduate class/es on Beowulf is touched on here — the pagan aspects, the episodes, potential interpolations, mythic and historic origins — and dealt with in a confident, convincing way. Tolkien’s close reading of the text is exemplary. I don’t feel like I have the knowledge to criticise his work, but I do know that it’s incredibly worth reading.

As with most of the other posthumously published work by Tolkien, though, this isn’t really something for the layman. It’s not exactly technical, but in delves into the minutiae so much. For a translation of the poem for an interested but not greatly knowledgable layman, I’d still recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation as lively, well-considered and interesting. For commentary on the poem, general introductions are still enough. But for anyone who is more deeply interested in Beowulf, then this is an amazing resource. His treatment of the plot of the poem as a short story, ‘Sellic Spell’, doesn’t entirely convince me as a precursor story to Beowulf (it rings very strongly of fairytales, to me, and not so much to a sort of mythic background) but is interesting nonetheless.

In terms of fans of Tolkien’s fiction as well as or instead of his academic work, there are gems here for us too. His translation of Beowulf really emphasises the Beowulfian elements in The Hobbit, and the way he phrases things, though slightly more archaic, is definitely familiar. His commentary mentions words you might recognise from his novels — maþm, OE ‘gift’, for example, as long as you remember that þ = th…

All in all, this may be because of my personal interests and the fact that I have done some academic work on Tolkien, but I think this is generally more valuable than most of the other work brought out posthumously by Christopher Tolkien, and I found CT’s editing most logical and less of a barrier here than ever since The Silmarillion. I got very excited about it, and while I got an ebook to have it right away, I will shortly obtain a hardcover for my collection, and count it worth it.

Trigger warnings in lit courses

The latest thing I’m seeing coming up a lot on twitter is trigger warnings — not in fandom, this time, but in literature courses. Here‘s an article in The New York Times about it; I’ll wait.

The thing is, trigger warnings are pretty widely accepted in fandom. Not completely, because there are various arguments against them, like the fact that giving a trigger warning takes away from the intended emotional impact and any surprise factor. That’s fair enough, and it’s why fanfic archives like AO3 have a “choose not to use warnings” option. People then are aware going into it that it could be anything, and perhaps the fact that the author chose not to use warnings is enough of a warning in itself. Certainly, you can’t then blame the author that they didn’t warn you: they told you they wouldn’t.

The idea of trigger warnings, though, is to help protect people from things they’re not in a safe place to read. An abuse victim can avoid stories about abuse that might take them back into the part of their mind where they were so badly hurt; a rape victim can avoid being taken back to memories of that rape, etc. With PTSD, certain triggers can make you have flashbacks, panic attacks, maybe even lead you to hurt yourself — or others.

A lot of arguments against using trigger warnings in lit courses and other serious settings revolve around censorship, narrowing the discussion, etc. I think it depends on what you think trigger warnings are for. For me, in that context, they’d be saying, “We’re giving you advance warning that you need to be in a safe space to read this. Don’t try to cram it in at the library before class. Give yourself time, and space, and kind people around you. It’s still required reading, but we’re giving you a chance to make yourself as safe as possible.” And if you then make the choice not to read it, the impact on your grade is your responsibility (unless you can prove extenuating circumstances through existing methods).

It’s not actually a good idea to use trigger warnings to avoid stuff all the time. Avoiding something increases your fear of it. Take it from the person with GAD. You know, I actually have an appropriate bookish situation to bring up here: in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged stirs up an awful dark power which chases him, which intrudes into his life in nightmares and shadows, even when he thinks he’s safe. And as long as he runs from it, it gains in power. When he finally turns to chase it in turn, to hunt it, he is at last able to defeat it.

That’s where I am with my anxiety, with the aftermath of bullying and all sorts of attached problems I don’t want to talk about (and let’s avoid discussion of the specifics of my personal issues). I’m chasing it. I like to think I’m somewhere out on that impossible shore, like Ged, closing on my fear and about to name it with my own name and make it part of me, a part of my strength, not something which oppresses me. It helps. This isn’t the only narrative there is, and maybe some people will never be strong enough to turn and face their fears, and that’s not their fault. The least we can do is give everyone the opportunity to take care of themselves, though.

It’s difficult to make a hard and fast rule. Some triggers are just not common — I’m terrified of insects and parasites, for example — and it’s hard to figure out where the line is between ‘this is offensive’, ‘this may cause harm’ and ‘this isn’t a comfortable read’. But to my mind, warnings for basic triggers like abuse, violence, rape and gore would help protect people and actually foster debate, not stifle it. If you give people the tools to protect themselves, they will know they’re safe engaging with the material you’ve set, rather than holding back out of fear.

Review – An Introduction to English Poetry

Cover of An Introduction to English Poetry by James FentonAn Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton

This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry.

We disagree on quite a few things — his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as “not English” (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer’s Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn’t mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas’, but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have “done them right” than he suggests.

Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.

Imposter syndrome and an essay on Frankenstein

I have a tragic lack of confidence in my own academic abilities. I know, intellectually, that I have two good degrees in English Literature from a reputable university. But I don’t really believe that. I worry that I was given my degrees out of pity, or favoritism, or due to a sheer mistake. I pretty much embody the idea of imposter syndrome.

My online courses, though they fill me with joy in one sense, are just making that worse. In my literature classes, I am getting bad marks. Literature classes! My ego is bruised and sullen, my imposter syndrome thinks it’s justified, and I’m feeling the urge to quietly withdraw from the course and possibly the entire internet in mortification at my own stupidity.

Because that’s a bloody stupid idea, here is my mini-essay on Frankenstein written for the SF/F class on Coursera, with bonus reference to Beowulf. I’m not going to pretend it’s utter genius, and it’s very short (all essays for this class are 320 words long or less), but it’s an idea I would like to develop and think about some more, and it’s an analysis based on literary context, not completely pulled out of thin air.

The Mark of Cain

There are many Biblical references in Frankenstein, particularly revolving around Genesis and the creation of Adam (“I ought to be thy Adam”, chapter ten). Biblical imagery offers a powerful way to read the novel, and one Biblical story closely connected with that of Adam, though not mentioned in Frankenstein, is the story of Cain and Abel.

The murder of Abel by Cain has its echoes in the murder of Victor’s brother by the monster. Though it is the monster which kills William, Victor is complicit in that death because of his neglect of the creature he made. Both Victor and the monster are set apart from humankind, as Cain is: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be” (Genesis 4:12), God says to Cain, and that is equally true for Frankenstein’s monster. But it is also true of Frankenstein himself: “I saw an insurmountable barrier placed between me and my fellow men; this barrier was sealed with the blood of William and Justine” (chapter 19).

The monster’s exile is not solely due to his crimes, but also to his appearance, which suggests a link with the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15). Another link worth noting is that monsters are sometimes described as being descended from Cain: Grendel, in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, is identified as kin to Cain. He is a “wretched creature”, as Frankenstein’s monster is so often described, “siþðan him scyppend      forscrifen hæfde / in Caines cynne” (“since the Creator had condemned him with the kin of Cain”, ll. 106-107).

Though this connection is not made explicit by Mary Shelley in the text, the similarities are there; Frankenstein’s monster acts out the first chapters of Genesis in a compressed form, going from creation (as Adam) to acquiring knowledge (i.e. comparing the interlude where he observes Felix and his family with the Fall) to the first murder of the human race (that of Abel).


Works cited:
Anonymous, Beowulf (Published online, 2012:, quoted translation is my own
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (Project Gutenberg, 2008:
Various, The King James Bible (Accessed online: