If we are to run with the school of thought which has it that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy form Tolkien's literary answer to the grand operatic bombast of Wagner's Ring Cycle, how did the maestro tune up? As his Germanic musical equal did across Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), the author turned to myth and legend. But here their paths would veer off - while Wagner took up his baton and delved into Norse myth of the sort which Tolkien would later be said to have been inspired by in telling his tales of Hobbits and all-powerful rings, first ‘twas time for J.R.R. to let his mind drift off towards Olde England...
And though his translation of the epic Beowulf was finished by 1926, long before he ever thought to take a trip to Mount Doom, only now can we really analyse his treatment of it. If you've studied English and/or Classics, you may well know the basics. 3,182 lines of alliterative verse isn't the half of it, but it’s a solid start. Scandinavia is the setting, the hero of the title proving himself quite handy at slaying things before a great dragon seeking to reclaim its treasure snuffs him out. Any similarity to The Hobbit is probably not entirely coincidental!
No prizes for guessing the source of Smaug's motivations. And indeed those of Fafner, the fire-breathing nasty from the earlier Siegfried. Strong men proving just how strong they are while travelling great distances? Piece of cake, whether on stage or paper - Christopher Tolkien's various annotations here lending his father's work something of the feel of a libretto. The dragon is but the final battle for Beowulf, the final act of his own saga. Grendel the troll is but the warm-up, and his mum also feels the sting of the blade.
Where Beowulf has Naegling as his stabby-stick of choice, Siegfried has Nothung. Neither seems to know the meaning of the word ''fear'' either. Far from being a ponderous exercise in classicism, the operatic analogy just might actually help the first-time reader of such material make sense of it all - split into easily digestible chunks or acts, the task of reading Beowulf surely becomes much less cumbersome than that of the man who translated it and evidently found it enough of a labour of love to return and liberally pinch ideas for his own later work?
INFO: BEOWULF: A TRANSLATION AND COMMENTARY, TOGETHER WITH SELLIC SPELL / AUTHOR: J.R.R. TOLKIEN / EDITOR: CHRISTOPHER TOLKIEN / PUBLISHER: HARPERCOLLINS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW