Recently, I read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, his original folk-tale version of the story, “Sallic Spell,” and The Rood and the Torc, a historical fiction novel set in the same culture as Beowulf (though later in history). All this made me realize how Tolkien imported massive quantities of material from Beowulf and the Danish/early Anglo-Saxon culture into his Middle Earth. Ryan Lanz notes some of the other sources Tolkien used in his article on originality, but I wanted to go into a little detail about the perfectly legitimate borrowing that Tolkien did in making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
First, there were all kinds of names and terms and concepts that he took and twisted, just a touch, to suit his own purposes and his story. Aurvandil/Earendel, the star of the morning, became Earendil. Halflings seem to have been the name given to those of mixed racial descent at the time, and “Middle Earth” was not original (it turns out that the term came from myths). But he borrowed more than terms.
The concept of disappearing into the west, over the waters, and evil coming from the east, and old and powerful swords, and the giving of rings all appear in Beowulf. The golden hall of Edoras, Beorn, and the dragon whose slumber is disturbed by a light-footed burglar almost seem to have been lifted directly out of the tale.
And then there are borrowed characters. Grima Wormtongue, Théoden, and Gollum all owe heavy debts to their predecessors: Unferth, Hrothgar, and Grendel. Tolkien’s “Sallic Spell” shows just how much Unferth is like Grima Wormtongue, in his mind, as he expanded and focused on this power beside the thrown, this man with poison-tongued words. In the end, it turns out that much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth comes from taking the forgotten past and reminding us of its existence.
And I think that’s as it should be. The best novels don’t present us with anything new; they tell us something about ourselves and our world that we’ve just forgotten or haven’t lived long enough to discover, yet. They help us explore other times, other places, other lives, and other feelings, strengthening our imagination to explore our own world and our own time. This is why I believe in remakes and retellings of old tales. Every take can be different, as Tolkien’s was, covering the original with the fingerprints of its new author—provided that he or she actually has something to say and isn’t just rehashing something old and “reliable” for its commercial value.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, I would definitely recommend picking up Tolkien’s Beowulf, if just to read “Sallic Spell,” and The Rood and the Torc for its immersive cultural experience. Especially if you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings; the experience of seeing his “sources” and inspiration just deepens one’s appreciation for Tolkien’s transformative touch.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo "Take me to the edge and back" by kennymatic; used per Creative Commons license