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Tolkien's sources: Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf 332

Posted by timothy
from the ancient-sagas dept.
Danny Yee writes with the perfect background reading (once you've finished the Tolkein books, of course) before checking out the new LoTR movie: "For something completely different, reviews of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. Essential background reading for serious Tolkien fanatics! You might also want to check out my other medieval literature reviews."
The Complete Sagas of Icelanders
author Viar Hreinsson
pages 2200+ (5 volumes)
publisher Leifur Eiriksson
rating 9
reviewer Danny Yee
ISBN 9979-9293-0-8
summary stories of Viking Age feuds, battles, legal conflicts, love affairs ...

Beginning in the 9th century, settlers from Norway created in Iceland a society of fiercely independent farmers, fishermen, and traders; in the 13th and 14th centuries their descendants wrote a whole series of stories about them. These family sagas tell of feuds, duels and battles, legal conflicts, love affairs, travels and raids to Norway and the British Isles and further afield, and the attempted settlement of Vinland. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders is the first complete coordinated translation of these into English, containing all forty family sagas and fifty shorter tales.

The focus of the sagas is always on individuals and their relationships. They offer us strong men and outlaws, legal experts and tricksters, poets and warriors serving Norwegian kings, respected leaders and arbitrators -- and powerful matriarchs, faithful wives, and trouble-stirring women. The saga writers never venture directly into the minds of their protagonists, but they produce vivid, distinctive portraits of individuals caught up in memorable events: Egil, imprisoned in York by King Eirik Bloodaxe, with one night to compose a poem to save his life; the final ridge-top stand of the outlawed Gisli; Askel working for peace, to the point of trying to arrange in advance the settlement for his own death; Kormak's life-long obsession with Steingerd; Gunnar turning back from going into exile, moved by the beauty of the landscape; the imperious Gudrun, revealing at the end of her life which of her men she had loved the most; the burning of Njal and his family and the protracted legal and armed struggle to revenge them; and many others.

The sagas draw on local family stories, older myths and legends, and the broader body of medieval literature, along with a good deal of invention and original creation. While some are awkwardly structured, others rework their sources in sophisticated ways and some are literary masterpieces. In some, unity is provided by a biographical focus, sometimes ending with a peaceful death at the end of a long life, sometimes building with tragic inevitability to a climactic killing and the resulting resolution. Others are almost political studies, tracing the shifting balance of power between leading figures in a particular region. And while this genre of sagas is defined by a realistic treatment of early Iceland, many are (or incorporate) comic stories, fantastic tales, and romances.

In their attention to the actions of individuals within social networks, and the working through of their consequences, the Icelandic sagas are important precursors of the modern novel. They directly influenced many writers, among them Walter Scott and J.R.R. Tolkien. The sagas are also a valuable source of information about medieval Iceland, a subject of interest to more than medievalists. One of its notable features is that it had a sophisticated legal system but no executive government, which makes it a magnet for political theorists -- if you search the web for information on medieval Iceland, you'll find a running fight between the libertarians and anarchists over who can best claim it as an exemplum.

Some aspects of the sagas do take a little getting used to. They are episodic, sometimes covering events over several generations and jumping across decades to continue the story of a feud or the history of a region, and they alternate between periods of tension and relaxation. Characters are often introduced with a paragraph or two of genealogical information unrelated to the main story; and the sheer density of names, often shared by several characters, can be confusing. Though they never replace human actions and decisions as explanations of events, elements of foretelling and prophecy are nearly ubiquitous in the sagas. And obviously much of the cultural context is foreign to the modern reader. One soon becomes accustomed to these things, however, and overall the sagas are among the most accessible of medieval genres.

Unless your library has a copy or will obtain one for you, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders is probably not practical for a newcomer to the sagas; cheap paperback editions of any of the better known ones should be easy to come by. But if you become seriously interested in the sagas - and I should warn you that they are addictive -- then it's hard to go past The Complete Sagas.

Firstly, the translations are good. My academic friends assure me they are mostly of high quality, accurate enough to be usable for scholarly purposes. More importantly for the lay reader, they are lively and readable, avoiding inappropriate archaism or colloquialism. The sagas are each preceded by a brief note on when they were written and their manuscript sources, but otherwise they are clean, mostly unburdened by unnecessary commentary or annotation. The only regular exceptions to this are marginal glosses for the "kennings", highly figurative stock phrases in the poetry embedded in some of the sagas, and some explanatory notes where texts are partial or put together from different sources.

For readers who do want some background information, The Complete Sagas has a really good general introduction, a glossary of terms which are likely to be unfamiliar, some maps, and an index of characters. A minor complaint here is that the maps could show more detail and that they are all at the end of volume five, instead of in the appropriate volumes - and the index of characters is useful enough that it could almost have been repeated in each volume.

Perhaps most importantly, this is the only uniform, coordinated translation of the family sagas available. Collecting alternative translations of them all would be a lot of work, if it is even possible, and the result would not offer as coherent a presentation of the genre. Places, characters, and events often feature in several sagas, and motifs, stock phrases, and thematic elements often recur; a uniform translation scheme makes these connections easier to follow. On the other hand, the sagas do vary in style, mood, and structure, and this too is easier to appreciate when not obscured by variations in translation approach.

Finally, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders is beautifully produced. The leatherbound volumes find an elegant balance between attractiveness and austerity, and are of a size, shape and heft that makes reading them a pleasure (unlike some "great books" editions which are obviously designed to look impressive on shelves rather than to be read).

One minor caveat is that the title The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, while technically accurate, may mislead some: all the sagas about early Iceland (the "family sagas") are indeed included, but not any of the "fantasy" sagas such as the Saga of the Volsungs (based on older legends) or "romances" (based on continental models) from the same period. We will just have to hope that Leifur Eiriksson Publishing takes on the translation of those as a future project. A paperback edition would obviously make The Complete Sagas much more accessible; barring that, it would be nice if the volumes were available separately, so people could collect the set over a period of time.

Purchase The Complete Sagas of Icelanders at FatBrain or Leifur Eiriksson Publishing.

Beowulf
author Seamus Heaney, translator
pages 106
publisher Faber & Faber
rating 9
ISBN 0-571-20376-0
summary An effective verse translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic.

For those unfamiliar with Beowulf, it is a late first millennium Anglo-Saxon epic about the hero Beowulf's fights with three monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and, fifty years later at the end of his life, a dragon. Since its rediscovery in the early nineteenth century, it has become a recognised classic, translated scores if not hundreds of times. Not being able to read Old English, all I can say here is that Heaney's translation gave me a better understanding of why people rave about the poem than any of the others I have read.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Heaney's Beowulf is that it can be read almost as if it were prose - and then mined more deeply for the poetry. Heaney writes in his introduction:

"I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remembered the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique."
So he captures something of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, but not at the expense of "the sound of sense;" he doesn't inflict awkward archaisms on the reader and is never difficult to read. Here is a brief sample, from the wait after Beowulf dives to attack Grendel's mother.
"Immediately the counsellors keeping a lookout

with Hrothgar, watching the lake water,
saw a heave-up and surge of waves
and blood in the backwash. They bowed grey heads,
spoke in their sage, experienced way
about the good warrior, how they never again
expected to see that prince returning
in triumph to their king. It was clear to many
that the wolf of the deep had destroyed him forever."
An immense body of critical work on Beowulf exists. In his introduction Heaney very briefly touches on this, offering a few hints to understanding and interpreting the work. He also discusses some translation issues, feeling obliged to justify his use of one or two obscure Irish words.

Scholars may cavil at Heaney's liberties ("an interpretation and not a translation") and there are certainly better translations for scholarly purposes. Translation is always a balance between competing concerns, however, and a verse translation that attempts to convey something of the power of the original as a poem must inevitably deviate from the literal. Tolkien's seminal essay "The Monsters and the Critics" urged scholars to approach Beowulf not just as a philological curiosity or a source document for Anglo-Saxon language and history but as a poem and a story -- and Heaney offers lay readers a chance to appreciate something of that too.

Purchase the U.S. edition of the Heaney's Beowulf from FatBrain

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Tolkien's sources: Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf

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  • Christianity... (Score:5, Informative)

    by FortKnox (169099) on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:07PM (#2714991) Homepage Journal
    I know this won't be a popular post to most slashdotters, but Tolkien was a devout christian (he converted CS Lewis to christianity), and several theologists suggest that his stories parallel many christian stories/tales. They even suggest that Gandalf was an "Angel" more than a "wizard" (which almost sounds like an excuse, so they can read the books and watch the movie, but I digress).

    I don't have any links right now, nor do I necessarily believe that this is the case, but I thought it might add to the discussion.

    Please no religion flames here, its just a point
    • Discussions regarding plagarisms, sources of inspiration, etc, are usually absurd (just like complaining about how Microsoft ripped off Apple/Xerox/Aqua/whatever) : The human race is one of very limited creative thoughts and we all feed off each other: Every innovator/artist did so on the shoulder of other innovators/artists. Maybe it's better to say that Christianity ripped ancient stories about magic (i.e. angels are just wizards with some theology stuffed into them?)

      Anyways most scholars disagree and state that Tolkien completely separated Christianity from Middle Earth.

      • Anyways most scholars disagree and state that Tolkien completely separated Christianity from Middle Earth.
        While not agreeing or disagreeing, Tolkien said in a letter that Middle Earth is an imaginary time in the real world's history. You could infer from this that if Tolkien believed in The One God, then Eru must be that God.
        • You can infer no such thing, as the "imaginary time" thing makes it perfectly possible that in Tolkiens "imaginary time" God slipped into an alternate dimension/timeline/universe/your-preferred-choice- here, and Something Else took its place for a while...

          Yes, I'm just being difficult :-)

      • Angels, Devils, and Genies come from Zorasterism. Zorasterism has two supreme beings- one good and one bad- each with a legion of servants of various powers. Judaism picks up the concept of a strong devil about the time of the Persian exile. Other mideast cults such as Essenes and Manicheans pick up these ideas too and both feed into Christianity.
        • Judaism picks up the concept of a strong devil about the time of the Persian exile.

          That would come as quite a surprise to the ancient Jews that set down the books of Genesis and Job! Job is almost certainly the oldest book in the Bible. (Oldest in the sense that the manuscripts that exist of Job are older than those that exist for other works.) Both books make it pretty clear that the Adversary exists (as the Serpent that tempted Eve in Genesis, explicitly as Satan in Job) and exerts considerable strength, although equally clearly only so much as God allows him...
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Black Parrot (19622)

      > They even suggest that Gandalf was an "Angel" more than a "wizard"

      Or they could just read Silmarillion and find out.

      But alas, even Silmarillion doesn't tell how many Gandalfs can dance on the head of a pin.
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by dunham (35989)
      It should also be noted that he specialized in Old English, and some of the stories found in his middle earth mythology (published in the Silmarillion) bear a strong resemblance to Germanic mythology. (Included naming a dwarf Mim.)

      One of my guesses as to why he did this was to position his mythology as a progenetor of european mythology, or maybe he just liked the stories. :)

      Either way, he was probably also influenced by other mythologies, but I'm not familiar with them.

      He even wrote some middle earth material in old english (a translation of some annals) and used it for one of his languages. (That of "wild" men that lived in the forest near Rohan.)
      • Not to mention Gandalf was another name for Odin, as well as Grey Wanderer IIRC.
        • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Informative)

          by vidarh (309115)
          Several of the other characters as well have names from norse mythology. If you read the Seeress prophecy (Voluspa), you'll find a whole load of names that are used in Lord of the rings. Some of the names from these sections of Voluspa, for instance, should be familiar (yes, I know there's tons of names in them that Tolkien didn't use too :):

          10. Then Módsognir became the greatest of all the dwarfs, and Durin the other; they made many manlike figures dwarfs of earth, as Durin said.

          11. Nýi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri, Althjóf, Dvalin, Bívor, Bávor, Bömbur, Nóri, Án and Ánar, Ái, Mjödvitnir.

          12. Veig and Gandálf, Vindálf and Thorin, Thrór and Thráin, Thekk, Lit and Vit, Nár and Nárád, I have now correctly, Regin and Rádsvid, reported the dwarfs.

          • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward
            The full list, from the Bellows translation (edited by Ari Oðinnsen) at The Midhnott Sol Regintroth [midhnottsol.org]:

            9.
            Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
            The holy ones, and council held,
            To find who should raise the race of dwarfs
            Out of Brimir's blood and the legs of Blain.

            10.
            There was Motsognir the mightiest made
            Of all the dwarfs, and Durin next;
            Many a likeness of men they made,
            The dwarfs in the earth, as Durin said.

            11.
            Nyi and Nithi, Northri and Suthri,
            Austri and Vestri, Althjof, Dvalin,
            Nar and Nain, Niping, Dain,
            Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori,
            An and Onar, Ai, Mjothvitnir,

            12.
            Vigg and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thrain,
            Thekk and Thorin, Thror, Vit and Lit,
            Nyr and Nyrath, -
            Regin and Rathvith- now have I told the list aright.

            13.
            Fili, Kili, Fundin, Nali,
            Heptifili, Hannar, Sviur,
            Frar, Hornbori, Fræg and Loni,
            Aurvang, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.

            14.
            The race of the dwarfs in Dvalin's throng
            Down to Lofar the list must I tell;
            The rocks they left, and through the wet lands
            They sought a home in the feilds of sand.

            15.
            There were Draupnir and Dolgthrasir,
            Hor, Haugspori, Hlevang, Gloin,
            Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari,
            Skirfir, Virfir, Skafith, Ai.

            16.
            Alf and Yngvi, Eikinskjaldi;
            Fjalar and Frosti, Fith and Ginnar;
            So for all time shall the tale be known,
            The list of all the forbears of Lofar.
          • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Informative)

            by Earlybird (56426)
            I don't remember the exact reference -- though I think it's mentioned in the introduction to the first book of The History of the Lord of the Rings -- but Tolkien later regretted stealing [supanet.com] names from Voluspå (note correct spelling; the title means "wolf's prophecy") for The Hobbit, saying that with hindsight, choosing the names was admittedly pretty silly and unoriginal of him. In writing its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, he was forced to keep those names.
            • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Informative)

              by Anonymous Coward
              Voluspå doesn't mean the prophecy of the wolf. It's the prophecy of the Volve, where a Volve were a kind of witch.

              audun
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by bahtama (252146)
      Here are a bunch of links to interesting articles on just this topic.

      http://www.leaderu.com/focus/tolkien.html [leaderu.com]

    • Re:Christianity... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by King Of Chat (469438) <fecking_address@hotmail.com> on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:21PM (#2715067) Homepage Journal
      Certainly large parts of the Silmarillion [amazon.com] owed a lot to Christian mythology. The fall of Melkor certainly parallels the Satan thing - and yes, the Wizards to have cetain characteristics of angels.

      There are elements of the Norse stuff in there though - the quest of the human hero (sorry, been that long I've forgotten the names) to recover a silmaril so that he can marry the elven princess etc. is a very epic sort of a thing. Mind you, there are parallels to be drawn between many religions. Odin's trial hanging from the tree Yggdrasil for nine days in order to give mankind the secret of the runes could be compared with the crucifiction.

      The Silmarillion (nor Marillion - they're bloody rubbish) is well worth a read (although it takes some concentration). Don't judge Tolkien just by LOTR any more than you would judge him just by The Hobbit.
      • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Black Parrot (19622)

        > Certainly large parts of the Silmarillion [amazon.com] owed a lot to Christian mythology. The fall of Melkor certainly parallels the Satan thing - and yes, the Wizards to have cetain characteristics of angels.

        The problem for people who want to really push the idea is that the Tolkien mythos doesn't have any Redeemer, which is the central concept of the Christian mythos.

        Conversely, the Numenor meme plays a fairly large role in the Tolkien mythos, but it's derived from the Atlantis myth rather than from Christian myth.

        The problem here is that people see a few points of contact between Tolkien and Christianity, know that he was a Christian, and take that as license to hammer everything else into the mold. But it simply doesn't stand up if you look at it objectively.

        The interpretation of LoTR as an allegory for WWII seems to work better, though Tolkien himself disavowed it. I'm with those who say that Tolkien was immersed in Western culture (with a deeper than common familiarity with the languages, literature, and folklore of northwestern Europe), and not unexpectedly his writings reveal some of the notions deeply embedded in his culture.
        • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          From his own letters:

          "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," he wrote, "unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." (Letter 142).

          http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al010 8. html
        • by Samrobb (12731)

          I'm lacking mod points, so instead, I'll just repost the AC comment from below:

          From his own letters:

          "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," he wrote, "unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." (Letter 142).

          http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0108. html [catholiceducation.org]

          • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Informative)

            by ptrourke (529610)
            1. Devout Catholics identify themselves as devout Christians.

            2. C.S. Lewis is best known outside of the Narnia and Perelandra books as a Christian apologist, and his religious identity in writing those books was as an Anglican. Anglicans sometimes identify themselves as "High Anglican" or "Anglo-Catholic," meaning Anglicans whose doctrinal beliefs were closer to those of Catholics than were those of other Anglicans; C.S. Lewis did not identify himself as such (while e.g. T.S. Eliot did, explicitly describing his conversion from Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism as becoming "Christian").

            Thus the doctrinal differences between Tolkien and Lewis were rather minor: similar to those between an American Catholic and an American Episcopalian.

            3. That Tolkien was a Christian, and that his Christianity consciously informed his writing, is undeniable. But he was also an Anglo-Saxonist and Medievalist, and some of his Christian imagery is probably unconscious, in reflection of the medieval influences on his work. Also, that professional interest exposed him to a lot of non-Christian imagery. In other words, many of the influences identified in this thread are probably validly identified. But allegorical interpretations, on the other hand, were explicitly denounced by Tolkien, and one should speak not of Tolkien deliberately identifying e.g. Gandalf as an angel, but using a different name (which would be a kind of allegory, though a transparent one), but rather as Tolkien using the concept of angels (a concept in he which might well have believed) to help him create Gandalf.

            It is worth noting that the Christian element in LOTR isn't as remarkable as that in the Perelandra books.

            • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Insightful)

              by jjo (62046)
              Actually, I consider the Christian element in LOTR to be more remarkable than that of the Perelandra books, because it is deeper and more subtle.

              Lewis is quite up-front about the moral and theological bases of his imaginary universe, and his protagonists often mull over (for the reader's benefit) the moral dimensions of newly-discovered worlds and creatures.

              As has been mentioned, Tolkein quite consciously removed any overt religious elements from LOTR, but be did so only to highlight the underlying relgious/moral message, and to make it more accessible. In this he succeeded magnificently.
          • Somebody mod this up. I was going to post this same quote. It's hard to argue with Tolkien's own words on the subject...
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Kheldarstl (543640) <kheldarstl@ya[ ].com ['hoo' in gap]> on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:28PM (#2715107)
      Actually much of "Western" Fantasy parallels the Judeo-Christian worldview, just as "Eastern" Fantasy parallels Buddhism, or Taoism or Hinduism. This in no way should detract from the overt pleasure of reading these tales. My Anthropology Prof. as an Undergrad was a huge Tolkien fan and as such integrated elements of LOTR into his lectures to provide a "Neutral" example of some cultural traits i.e. the Hobbits as English Peasantry, the Elves as the Romantic ideal of Nobility, etc. An important point which my Anthro professor made was that Tolkien was writing to an audience with a Judeo-Christian background, he WANTED to have his audience draw parallels between Biblical stories and his stories, I feel he was much more subtle about it then C.S. Lewis but the parallels are there and make sense when Tolkiens background is taken into account.

      I would be interested in reading decent Fantasy novels written from a non-Judeo-Christian perspective as well if anyone knows of any and could post titles.

      Just my $.02 worth

      Keith
      • Re:Christianity... (Score:3, Informative)

        by elmegil (12001)
        There were some previous Slashdot articles (which I'm too lazy to go look up) about Roger Zelazny and a few of his novels based on hinduism, theories of egyptian theology, etc. They are more hard sf explanations of the myths (kind of like Stargate in a way), but they're great novels, and they do have a little bit to say about the traditions he mines. One of them is _Creatures of Light and Darkness_, another is _Lord of Light_. I suspect a search in slashdot for either of those would bring up the previous discussions.
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by elandal (9242)
      Actually Gandalf was pretty close to an angel. Saruman would be one, too. Sauron again would be a fallen angel.

      Silmarillion contains much of the mythology, including creation and so on. The creation story implies one God, then a small number of major angels of which one later fell from grace, and a larger number of minor angels that were basically assisting the 13 or so major ones while God no longer did anything about the Creation.

      I liked Silmarillion even more than LotR.
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Informative)

      by Ugmo (36922)
      Tolkien was a Catholic, raised by a priest.
      C.S. Lewis was a Protestant Christian who thought it unusual that a Catholic could be so well educated (Catholics were not allowed to attend Universities in England until relatively recent times, late last century/early this century).

      I do not think Tolkien converted Lewis. Lewis was evanglical (see Narnia, the Screwtape Letters other christian writings) Tolkien was not evangelical. There are themes of good and evil in his writings but no allegory for Christ like Aslan in Narnia.

      For those who have read the Simirilion, another source for Tolkien was the prophetic writings of William Blake who used the names "Valar" and "Orc" though orc is an old word for monster, there are others.
      • Re:Christianity... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:56PM (#2715270)
        "I do not think Tolkien converted Lewis. Lewis was evanglical (see Narnia, the Screwtape Letters other christian writings) Tolkien was not evangelical."


        Actually, Tolkien's biography (by Humphrey Carpenter) and Lewis's autobiography do pretty much state that Tolkien was one of the major figures in Lewis' conversion from Atheism to Christianity.

        From Lewis' autobiography:
        "When I began teaching for the English Faculty [at Oxford], I made two other friends, both Christians who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile [to accepting Christianty]. They were H.V.V. Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices..."

        According to Tolkien's biography (which I don't have in front of me right now to quote), one of the major catalysts to Lewis's acceptance of Christianity was a conversation between Tolkien and Lewis on the nature of myth and how in the story of Jesus Christ the myths of antiquity came true in human history. For a poetic rendering of this conversation, read "Mythopeia" by Tolkien.
    • Re:Christianity... (Score:5, Informative)

      by glenmark (446320) on Monday December 17, 2001 @01:00PM (#2715288) Homepage

      Tolkein intentionally kept his real-world religious beliefs out of his Middle-earth works, preferring instead for his heroes to display an intrinsic moral and ethical nature, although his world had its own creation myth (as described in The Silmarillion). Within that mythical construct, Gandalf and the other Istari (the Wise) could indeed be characterized as angels incarnate.

      Here is the Middle-earth mythos in a nutshell. There is a central deity named Illuvitar in the language of the elves. From Illuvitar's thought's sprung the Valor, a host of beings who one might consider as demigods or archangels. Through a magical song, Illuvitar and the Valor created the world, and Illuvitar breathed life into the living things there. Illuvitar created Elves and Men, but left them sleeping while he sent the Valor to prepare the world for their awakening. One of the Valor, Melkor (the first Enemy) was jealous of Illuvitar's ability to create life, and sought to undo the work of his fellow Valor.

      Where does Gandalf fit into all of this? Ranking just below the Valor, there existed another rank of divine beings known as the Maier (roughly equivalent to the angels of Christian mythology) who served the Valor. Some of these were corrupted by Melkor. Among these corrupted Maier were beings who would come to be known as Balrogs (such as the fire-deamon fought by Gandalf in the Mines of Moria).

      Melkor's main lieutenant was a fallen Maier known as Sauron, who became the primary Enemy after the eventual defeat of Melkor. Eventually, to counter Sauron's rising influence in Middle-earth, the Valor dispatched a number of Maier there, made incarnate. The Maier-made-flesh were known as the Istari (the Wise), and included among their ranks Gandalf the Grey (Mithrandir), Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, and the two Blue Wizards, who are only mentioned in passing.

      I'm only hitting the high points here. For the full story, it is well worth reading The Silmarillion, or at least perusing the Encyclopedia of Arda [glyphweb.com].

      • You could also arguably equate the Valar and the Maiar to the norse Vanir and Aesir. OK, so they're not quite the same but there are some similarities.

        HH
    • I know this won't be a popular post to most slashdotters, but Tolkien was a devout christian (he converted CS Lewis to christianity), and several theologists suggest that his stories parallel many christian stories/tales.

      Well not just theologists... many people over the years have suggested the same thing. They also suggested that "The Shire" is actually supposed to be England, and that Sauron is Adolf Hitler, and the big war in LOTR is World War II.

      Thankfully Tolkein dispelled these notions. LOTR is what it is.

      They even suggest that Gandalf was an "Angel" more than a "wizard"

      Actually I would think, if anything, Tolkein was drawing from Jesus Christ, because...

      SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!

      at the end of book one, Gandalf the Grey sacrifices his life to save the others in the fellowship, and then is "resurrected" as Gandalf the White, who is even more powerful than before.

      Then again, it just spoils it for me to think of LOTR in religious terms. It's a good old-fashioned story of Good vs. Evil that is popular because of how realistic the histories/languages/cultures really are.

      Besides, if the Bible was written half as well as LOTR, you Christians might have way more followers than you do. ;-)
    • by epepke (462220) on Monday December 17, 2001 @01:33PM (#2715453)

      There's a difference. Of course, Catholicism is a form of the religion called Christianity. However, when one says "a devout Christian," at least in the U.S. and increasingly in the U.K., it carries a connotation of a certain type of person, one who feels compelled to consider Halloween "of Satan" (even though it's one of the earliest Christian holidays), to state that when the Bible mentions "wine" it's really unfermented grape juice, and above all to make every creative work a footnote to the Bible.

      In contrast, Catholicism was truly catholic, because it engulfed and incorporated all of the myths of the cultures it touched. Tolkien saw no conflict at all between being a devout Catholic and being fascinated by the mythology of various places in Europe. He referred to the world in LOTR and The Silmarilion as "sub-creation" and didn't think it conflicted with his religion at all. He asserted more than once that Middle-Earth was the Mediterranean, only very long ago.

      Tolkien attempted to convert C.S. Lewis to Catholicism and was by all accounts really ticked off when it didn't work, and Lewis instead adopted something much more in line with the connotations with "devout Christian." Hence The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is the sort of blatant Christian allegory that such people like. Tolkien himself said he detested allegory, although he wrote a little allegory in his youth. He would certainly have considered the assertion that Gandalf was somehow "really" an angel to be absurd and simplistic, especially as the name, borrowing from a pastiche of Northern European languages, means "wizard-elf."

      Do many of Tolkien's ideas parallel stories that some call "Christian?" Of course they do, just as they parallel similar stories in just about every culture on the planet. What Tolkien wrote made use of what might be called "archtypes." These stories are basic stories that human beings tell because they are human beings. To say that Gollum was really Coyote is just as accurate and just as silly as to say that Gandalf was really an angel. The value of an archetypal story is in the telling, not the plot, and Tolkien told it very well.

      When modern apologists make these assertions, they're dealing with their own internal conflicts, not Tolkien's.

    • Re:Christianity... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by elmegil (12001)
      The good news is that Tolkien is graceful about his use of Christian sources, as opposed to CS Lewis who is about as hamfisted as you can be.
    • What even more people are unaware of is that the author of Beowulf was almost certainly an early northern Christian. There are many indications in the text that evidence this, although it is not explicit in any particular place, to my knowledge. Vol. 9, Issue 4 of Credenda/Agenda [credenda.org] from a few years ago discusses this aspect of Beowulf, and how it impacted the Anglo-Saxon mind. Worth a read if you're interested in Beowulf and early Christian literature.

      As an aside, Christians (and perhaps others as well) stand to learn a lot about correct reasoning about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the current issue of Credenda/Agenda [credenda.org]. A choice quote:
      We hold a national worship service that can only be described as a theological crapfest, and more faux-evangelicals will be distraught over the use of crapfest than are upset by the worship of other gods.

      Well worth a read.
  • It's interesting to note that with the long established link between Tolkien and Beowulf how stories any myths have changed little through the ages.
    What is worrying is that now business is trying, through the ever tightening web of copyrights, to take ownership of what seem to be demostrated to be universal human myths.
    • What is worrying is that now business is trying, through the ever tightening web of copyrights, to take ownership of what deem to be demonstrated to be universal human myths.

      Typical uninformed Slashdot copyright-bashing. Here's why it's wrong:

      Businesses don't create copyright law. Sure, they lobby for influence, but law is created by legislators and interpreted by the courts. At least in the U.S., the Constitution provides important checks on what monopolies can be granted through copyright.

      The Constitution provides Congress the power to create copyrights for limited times only. Though life of the author plus 70 years is a long time, universal human myths are quite a bit older. (No, Star Wars is not a universal human myth, it just draws on them.)

      Copyright protects only expression, not ideas. The story of a demigod undertaking a quest is unprotectable. The character of Hercules as found in Greek myth is in the public doman. Artwork from the Disney animation is protected by copyright--but Disney can't sue Renaissance Pictures for "Hercules: the Legendary Journeys" (or vice versa), because they don't use each other's protected ideas.
      • typo alert:

        ... life plus 90 years ...
        • ...life plus 90 years...

          No, you're mistaken. After the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (the Sonny Bono Act), copyright in the U.S. currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, or for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first, if the author is a corporation. See 17 U.S.C. 302 if you don't believe me.
    • by richc (64788)
      If you really want to read about the universal nature of myths try 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' by Joseph Cambell. It is a pretty old book and a bit Christianity centric in places but it is an interesting take on mythological stories in general (Star Wars rather than LOTR being the most obvious direct lift from it).
  • ...just last month, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I agree completely with Heany and Tolkein: This is a story! And a damned fine one that lies at the core of Western fantasy literature.

    My 12yo daughter is reading Heany's book now... I highly recommend it!

    • I posted this against another thread, but I just have to repeat myself. Heaney's translation bad. Even given the excuse that it is an interpretation not translation, it's bad.

      If you want to see the side-by-side text, go for Chickering, but for a drop-dead wonderful translation Rebsamen [amazon.com] is the only choice.

  • Strange (Score:3, Informative)

    by gowen (141411) <gwowen@gmail.com> on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:15PM (#2715034) Homepage Journal
    I don't know how anyone can review the Heaney Beowulf without mentioning his Irishness (whose vernacular is used to capture the flavour of the original). For a less superficial review, try this one [guardian.co.uk] or this one [guardian.co.uk]
    • While Heaney's translation is excellent from a literary standpoint, I thought it obscured the source for the sake of readability. Literary works from other cultures, especially those separated from us by a gulf of centuries, are hard to read by their very nature, but that's a lot of the point of reading this sort of thing. His Irishness is almost beside the point, considering that Beowulf is the archetypal Anglo-Saxon literary work. One may as well recommend a translation of Borges by Russians emigres. All that being said, Heaney's rendition is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can't approach Beowulf in the original tongue, I'd recommend reading several translations.
      • Heaney's translation is not excellent in any sense. If you want to see the side-by-side text, go for Chickering, but for a drop-dead wonderful translation Rebsamen [amazon.com] is the only choice.
  • I saw The Fellowship of the Ring last Saturday and decided to check out the User Comments at the Internet Movie Database [imdb.com].

    Well, I guess the studio was clever to run the movie first in countries such as The Netherlands and Iceland. The reviews are raving.

  • And for more info (Score:2, Insightful)

    by cvd6262 (180823)

    You should also check out the fairy tales by Chrétien de Troyes (which include a ring that makes the wearer invisible) and Marie de France.

    There are stories that are a part of who we are as humans. Several societies have legends/myths/religious texts that mention a great flood or deluge. And every society seems to have their heroic epics. Over time, these stories are retold and rehashed, divided and distrubited into digestible parts for frequent/easy consumption.

    In the western world, be it Frankish, Saxon, Norse, Gothic, etc., these primordial stories were kept alive in fairy tales and folk tales. Tolkein knew these (especially Celtic and the like) and was able to take pieces of them and weave them into a coherant story.

    So, when a teenager in Nebraska, or a 30-something in New York, reads the trilogy, there is something with which they identify - something rings true.

    It's stories we've been telling for ages, retold and preserved by a master of the trade.

    • by Morrig (258723)
      Chretien's not fairy tales!! It's Arthurian lit! It's a legitimate literary tradition! RRARRG!
      Sorry, Arthurian lit.'s kinda important to my existence; in fact it's a major aspect of my job- take a look at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cphome.stm
      Unfortunately our server seems to be having major issues right now, but it's a GREAT resource if you want to learn more about this literary genre.

      And to keep this on-topic: hmmm, interesting point about the ring of invisibility in, i think, the Yvain story. Tolkien would almost *certainly* have known it; he was a medievalist, and it's rather difficult to be a medievalist and escape those darn French authors, even if your main focus is Anglo-Saxon.
  • Online texts (Score:2, Informative)

    by davidhan (539718)
    The online Medieval & Classical Library (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/) has Njal's Saga and some of the other Icelandic Sagas.
  • I am sure that if you spend some time searching, you should be able to find at least Beowulf, and probably most of the Icelandic Sagas on-line.

    ttyl
    Farrell
    • Not sure about Icelandic Sagas, but there's an Internet Wiretap edition of Beowulf which is available here [sympatico.ca].

      Regards

      HH
      • I found it interesting to compare the Internet Wiretap translation of Beowulf with Heaney's translation. Wiretap is quite a literal translation, whilst Heaney is more poetic. I'd certainly recommend reading Heaney, especially if you've never read Beowulf before. Tolkien also published an essay on Beowulf entitled "The Monsters and the Critics", which I have not read, but have heard is excellent and was the cause of an academic reappraisal of Beowulf.

        HH
    • Of course, with any translated work, no two versions are identical, and are not necessarily of equal quality. Thus, the least expensive translation is not necessarily going to be the best (or even adequate) one.

      It may be interesting to note that Heany's "Beowulf" made the New York Times bestseller list -- a pretty impressive feat for a book a that's over 1,000 years old.
  • Arthurian works (Score:4, Informative)

    by MikeCamel (6264) on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:28PM (#2715111) Homepage
    Other good background is Malory's "Arthur" (Le Morte D'Arthur?), which is pretty much readable by a modern audience, and is a good romp through most of the Arthurian myths that you know and love - lots of magic, knights, and the rest. Much of the original Arthurian legends can be traced to "Layamon's Brut", which was an early pseudo-history of Britain, and it not easy to read if you're not into Middle English, though there are some good translations of parts of it. Of course, once your Middle English and Anglo-Saxon are up to speed, you'll be able to read Elvish with no problems (it's what Tolkein based the language on).
    • Elvish is not based on Middle or Old English in the traditional sense; though the grammar and morphology may be similar (it's been a while since I've read Tolkien's appendices), the morphemes themselves are completely different.
      • Elvish is close enough that I can read it based on my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. Having said that, I've got several other languages, too, so they may be swaying me!
        • You're thinking Rohirric, which is simply Old English (although not the traditional West Saxon one is typically taught). Elvish is nothing like Anglo-Saxon anything. Compare the Rohirric `Ferthu Theoden hal' to the Elvish `A Elbereth Gilthoniel.' The first is pretty obvious; the second is pretty obviously foreign.

          Much of Quenya and Sindarin (Tolkien's Elvish tongues) was picked out of Finnish and Welsh, with a lot of additions and evolutions.

          He uses English for the Riders of Rohan because, IIRC, he'd not gotten around to developing a full Rohirric. Or possibly he just loved OE too much to leave it out:-)

    • If you're into Tolkien and Arthurian legends, then you should definitely read Tolkiens translation of the mediaeval middle-english poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

      HH
  • Last night on ITV ( UTV where I watch it ), appeared a program on Tolkien and those things which affected him. Some interesting things for those of that ilk :
    • his mother converted to become a catholic in adolesence/early adulthood;
    • she died when he was in his early teens;
    • as an orphan he was brought up by a poor but devote catholic monk in a poor english city ( Birmingham ? );
    • he was a very big fan of the pre-Norman folklore ( this includes Beowolf, Icelandic and Finish tales );
    • it was CS Lewis and Tolkien's publisher who convinced him to write a followup to "The Hobbit";



    Sorry I do not know what the name of the program was.

    • > * it was CS Lewis and Tolkien's publisher who convinced him to write a followup to "The Hobbit";

      In the front matter to my edition of LoTR he says that he had actually wanted to follow up The Hobbit with what later became The Silmarillion, but when he enquired about the chances of getting it published he was told "snowball's". So he wrote LoTR as a sort of half-way consolation piece.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:44PM (#2715194)
    Tolkien discovered Finnish and with the help of a Finnish grammar he began to translate the Kalevala (he had already read the English translation) but he never learned Finnish enough to work on more than part of the original. He said 'It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.' This must have influenced his undertaking to create a private language heavily influenced by the Finnish language. This was the language that would eventually emerge in his stories as 'Quenya' or High-Elven.
  • Gutenberg (Score:2, Informative)

    by danjerdanjel (519284)
    Gutenberg [promo.net] has txt's of, beowulf and the icelandic sagas iirc..
  • by tcyun (80828) on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:45PM (#2715201) Journal
    Good literature is a great thing. A fairly obvious statement, really, but worth saying every once in a while.

    That said, I have had an ongoing discussion with my circle of friends. The quick summary is: How do the Tolkien books compare with Lewis' Narnia books and more recently, Rowling's Potter books. Now, before you jump and defend/attack, the question is in reference to the way the stories are constructed. I have learned a great deal talking this out with my friends. It would be interesting to see what you all have to think.

    That said, Beowulf is a very interesting book to add into the mix. Beowulf, being one of the older stories known to exist from Europe, has proven its worth by sheer existance today. I also think that it is interesting to note that several other pieces of literature have based directly from it. Grendle, by John Gardner, is a great retelling of the Beowulf story. A great read for those of you familiar with Beowulf.

    So, another question to ask in light of all of the views posted already, what literature has been created directly based on the LoTR books. (Or, do modern copyright laws just make this a moot point...)

    (Also, see "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" by Tom Stoppard if you like re-tellings...)
    • Well, there are points of similarity and differences.

      I think the extremely original thing that Tolkien did, the thing that revived fantasy as a literary genre, was to give the saga a geographic and historical context. This underlies their "geek appeal" to be sure -- without the languages, the appendices etc, LOTR would not be anything like the phenomenon it is.

      Aside from it's geek appeal, the huge amount of backstory and geography accomplishes something very important: it makes a tale of magic plausible to a literate, modern reader. Things (to a modern mind) don't simply happen some vague place and time lacking geographic, cultural, political, and historical connections. It isn't enough anymore to simply explain how the hero falls into the world of magic, but the author must also arrange a vehicle to take the reader along too.

      In this, I think there is a strong parallel to Rowling's work. On the whole Rowlings work is very different (in some ways better, in other ways not) from LOTR. But the innovation in her writing is the way she encourages the reader to dovetail their world with the world of wizardry. Hogwarts is, if you read carefully, clearly in Scotland -- where else would you be if you travelled north from Kings Cross for five hours? There is a ministry of magic that reports to the prime minister. You buy your wizarding supplies in London in a magically hidden street. Magical folk live quietly near non-magical folk and do their best to avoid attracting attention.

      The Narnia stories, by contrast, are more pure fairy tale (which does not to my mind denigrate them, or the Hobbit for that matter). The heros enter the world of magic through the simple device of clibmbing through the back of an old wardrobe. This is not a criticism, but it limits full enjoyment to the kind of person who can enjoy himself by climbing into a closet and pretending it is a door to some magical place (e.g. children and very child-like folk). Perhaps a better comparison would be Lewis' space trilogy, which holds much more appeal to an adult reader.
  • by jonesvery (121897) on Monday December 17, 2001 @12:49PM (#2715227) Homepage Journal

    One of its notable features is that it had a sophisticated legal system but no executive government, which makes it a magnet for political theorists -- if you search the web for information on medieval Iceland, you'll find a running fight between the libertarians and anarchists over who can best claim it as an exemplum.

    Yes, indeed...it's entertaining to read swashbuckling epics that spend a great deal of time discussing property rights, the complications of joint ownership, legal machinations surrounding property...some selections from Njal's Saga:

    "There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer..."

    "Thorarin lived at Varmabrook, which he owned in common with Glum, who had spent many years trading abroad. Glum was tall and strong and very handsome. The third brother, Ragi, was a great warrior. The three brothers jointly owned Eng Isle and Laugarness, in the south."

    "At the Thingskalar Assembly in the autumn, Kilskegg made his claim to the land at Moeidarknoll; Gunnar named witnesses and offered to compensate the people of Thrihyrning with money or another piece of land lawfully assessed at the same value. Thorgeir then named witnesses and charged Gunnar with breaking their settlement.

    And you thought that Monty Python was making all that stuff up... :)

  • by Flower (31351)
    I remember reading a translation of Beowulf in high school. Very fun stuff.

    Another cool epic is the Nibelungenlied which I haven't completely read but I remember a week in which my dad and I watched Wagner's The Ring on PBS. I'm not a big opera fan but that was definately worth watching.

    Just my 00000010 cents.

  • Discounting chairty and reviewer previews,
    Tuesday midnight is the first show.
  • Kalevala (Score:3, Informative)

    by Longhair (28625) on Monday December 17, 2001 @01:00PM (#2715291)
    Good reading for those seeking the myths behind the Middle Earth is Kalevala [amazon.co.uk] which is the saga and tales of the Finnish people. Tolkien was greatly impressed and influenced by the Kalevala, specially Silmarillion has many similarities to Kalevala. Tolkien also studied the Finnish language and used it to create the Elf language.
    • Re:Kalevala (Score:2, Informative)

      Good reading for those seeking the myths behind the Middle Earth is Kalevala [amazon.co.uk] which is the saga and tales of the Finnish people

      Good point but one thing to remember is that Kalevala is more along the lines of "Bullfinch's Mythology": a modern (19th century) telling of Finnish folktales. The collector's name was Lonnrott if memory serves. So you're not dealing with a primary source the way one is with Beowulf or the some of the Icelandic sagas.

  • Grendel [amazon.com] by John Gardner. Beowulf from the monsters point of view.

    Eaters of the Dead [amazon.com] by Michael Crichton. The movie "13'th Warrior" is loosely (very, and badly) based on this. The plot is that an Arab Scholar of the 9th century wrote a report of his travels with a Viking who was fighting neandertals in Scandanavia.

  • Masks of Odin
    by E Titchenell
    is a great book on the why where when of the ancient norse mythos.
    A really great in depth look at the grand stories of the norse peoples
  • by btellier (126120) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [reilletb]> on Monday December 17, 2001 @01:23PM (#2715402)
    let us not forget that Tolkien hated [demon.co.uk] allegory [dictionary.com] in all its forms. He has repeated stated that while inspiration comes in many forms, he never meant LoTR to parallel the bible, nuclear arms race, or any of the dozens of theories that people with degrees love to speculate on.
  • Why Heaney ? (Score:2, Informative)

    by freddled (544384)
    Why look at Heaney's Beowulf ? He's an Irish poet. Tolkein was one of the finest philologists of the 20th century and an expert in old English. His translation of Beowulf was and still is definitive. Read Tolkein's version instead.
  • T-O-L-K-I-E-N (Score:2, Informative)

    by cyberkreiger (463962)
    That's *Tolkien*, folks.

    Not "Tolkein". Not E-I.
    I-E. Got that?

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

    I can't believe the number of so-called "fans" that can't even spell his name.
    • I can't believe the number of so-called "fans" that can't even spell his name.

      Hey cyberkrieger,

      Who peed in your cheerios?

      -Sean (heh, heh ... )
  • The Matrix (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RazzleFrog (537054) on Monday December 17, 2001 @02:07PM (#2715614)
    I remember when the Matrix came out there was a similar debate about the influences and the deeper meaning behind it. Some people associated Neo with Jesus; others noticed the Simulacra and Simulation book in the movie and applied that; still others applied the teachings of Jung and the collective unconscious.

    The point is that there are probably several things that influenced Tolkien both directly (or consciously) and indirectly (or unconsciously). This holds true for everything and anything ever written. Really one of the best places to look at this is religion. We are all fairly familiar with the similarities between Greek and Roman Gods (because the Roman's were greatly influence by the Ancient Greeks) but the correlations occur with many other distant religions. Virgin (or miraculous) births, sibling rivalry, great floods etc. appear in many different religions.

    In summary, we are all the product of thousands of years of collective ideas and experiences. While the names in Tolkien's works may be from Norse or Germanic mythology, the ideas are from all of World History.
  • Tolkien's puts his "Land of Terror" Mordor in the same geographic location as is the Middle East and Central Asian is to England. Traditionally these areas have been a source of invasion: the Huns, the Jihads, the Mongols, the Crusades (in reverse), the Turks, and the new Jihads. I've seen some newspapers refer to bin Lauden as the "Lord of Terror" and Sauron analogies spring to my mind, especially this month.
  • BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW: Tolkien's magical world unconnected to ours

    Beyond Tolkein's literary sources, it is important to understand the "open source" nature of the collaborative environment he had with "The Inklings" (including C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams). Also, it is crucial to know his literary software development methodology, which he called "subcreation." I believe that many deep software projects are examples of "subcreation" --including all Role Playing Games, much literary hypertext, and the sense in which any coder is a god-like subcreator of an complete, consistent, imaginary yet interactive world.

    "Beyond the Fields We Know" is a haunting phrase by Lord Dunsany.

    This is (as Baird Searles, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin point out ["A Reader's Guide to Fantasy", New York: Avon, 1982] a fine description of tales in which all the action happens in a magical world unconnected to our own by space or time. "The Lord of the Rings", by J. R. R. Tolkein, is a superb example. Tolkein said that the author of such fiction is engaged in "subcreation" of the other world, with an inner consistency and conviction:

    "To experience directly a Secondary World, the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded -- whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called" [J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories", in "Tree and Leaf", 1964].

    David Hartwell [Age of Wonders, New York: Walker, 1984, p.14] summarizes this genre as "Tolkienesque fantasy, in the manner of Lord of the Rings -- carefully constructed worlds as the setting for a heroic quest."

    Here we mean tales of a world sufficient unto itself, with its own history, geography, cultures, races, and nonhuman beings. There is a greater or lesser degree of magic, sometimes central to the action, sometimes part of
    the taken-for-granted background, but always as something distinguishing this world from our technological one.

    When we read such fiction, we feel ourselves drawn into the other world, and taking it as real, so that when we close the book, it is hard to wrench ourselves away from that world and reluctantly return to home. To capture the dream, we read the book again, or perhaps look for others that will produce the same magical emotion. Beowulf and the Icelandic Sagas certainly qualify.

    For a list of 90+ such books, see my web page (from which this posting is drawn):

    http://magicdragon.com/
    then click on "Science Fiction", then
    "Genres", then "Beyond the Fields We Know."
  • For those of you who can read Old English, don't forget that Beowulf has been available on Project Gutenberg for some time now.

    Plain Text [ibiblio.org]

    or zipped at

    ZIP [ibiblio.org]



    Help out Project Gutenberg!!
    Distributed Proofreaders [dns2go.com]

  • For those of you who enjoy Norse/Icelandic/Northern type stories and sagas, besides all the good info given here by other posters I'd recommend Eaters Of The Dead [amazon.com], by the guy who wrote Jurassic Park (yeah, I know). They made it into a movie (The 13th Warrior), which in most respects does do justice to the book, mainly because it's a short story.

    Still, it's good reading.

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