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Dreaming of dragons: Tolkien's impact on Heaney's Beowulf.

As a result of surging interest in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, due in part to the Peter Jackson film adaptations and in part to the publication of Michael D. C. Drout's variorum edition of Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics, both popular and scholarly audiences have come to understand the role that Old English literature, particularly the Beowulf poem, plays in Tolkien's literary worldview. Anglo-Saxonists widely acknowledge their dependence upon Tolkien for the ground broken by his 1936 essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Without Tolkien's intercession, Beowulf may never have come to be treated as the work of art it is. Any discussion of Beowulf criticism invariably begins with a reference to Tolkien. Peter S. Baker introduces his recent collection of essays by saying that Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" "continue[s] to be influential" and is "still worth the student's attention" (xi). So present is Tolkien within the critical mind of the Anglo-Saxonist that Roy Michael Liuzza, in his essay about the dating of Beowulf closing the same volume, references Tolkien's unconditional acceptance of "the attribution of Beowulf to the 'age of Bede'"(281). The placement of Tolkien at the "alpha" and "omega" of Beowulf-scholarship in this particular collection demonstrates the prominence Tolkien occupies within the Anglo-Saxonist imagination. (1)

Tolkien's influence is also felt in literary treatments of the poem that may not always be as welcomed by Anglo-Saxonists as they are by contemporary readers nursed on Tolkien's fantastic treatments of the poem's narrative elements. Both scholars and poets assert the centrality of Tolkien's role in Beowulf criticism. Bruce Mitchell comments that "The Greenfield and Robinson Bibliography records seventy items on 'Literary Interpretations' of Beowulf before J.R.R. Tolkien's lecture and two-hundred-and-fifty between its publication and the end of 1972" (209). Seamus Heaney credits Tolkien with an "epoch-making paper" that takes "for granted the poem's integrity and distinction as a work of art" wherein Tolkien "proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered"--a major departure from the litany of ostensibly non-literary scholarly treatments of the poem that precede his discussion of Tolkien ("Introduction" xi). Few Anglo-Saxonists would quibble with Heaney's characterization of Tolkien's significance, even though much has been said concerning Heaney's faithfulness to the original poem. (2) For scholars, poets, and students alike, Tolkien's essay has become central to our understanding and treatment of the poem. At the same time, Old English literature is central to our understanding of Tolkien's own literary canon. (3) Tolkien's re-imaginings of Beowulf in his fiction emerge seamlessly from his critical treatment of the poem. Thus, in Heaney's translation of 11. 2287-2290 we find a perfect parallel to Tolkien's recasting of the dragon episode in The Hobbit. Although Heaney's unfamiliarity with The Hobbit makes it unlikely that Tolkien's fiction influences his translation directly, Tolkien's scholarship clearly prompts Heaney to select the same literary trope to represent dragonly consciousness: the dream. (4)

Heaney translates 11. 2287-2290 quite freely. The original poem presents the dragon awakening to awareness that a thief has trespassed on his hoard. The reader gets a glimpse of the dragon that resembles a bloodhound, casting about for the scent left by the interloper:
 [THORN]a se wyrm onwoc, wroht waes geniwad;
 stonc da aefter stane, stearcheort onfand
 feondes fotlast; he to ford gestop
 dyrnan craefte dracan heafde neah. (2287-2290) (5)

 [When the dragon awoke, anger was renewed. The stark-hearted sniffed
 after the stone, discovered the footprints of the enemy; he stepped
 too near, with secret craft, to the head of the dragon.]


In Old English, the dragon is a "wyrm" characterized first, and most significantly, by its sense of smell. The dragon is animalistic, instinctive, and most unlike the human trespasser, who, with a "dyrnan craefte," has enough skill to go unnoticed initially.

When Heaney translates this passage, he subtly argues for a consciousness of the dragon that surpasses simple anger or mere animal instinct. Heaney's dragon does not simply awake to discover the scent; he awakens from a dream:
 When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.
 He rippled down the rock, writhing with anger
 when he saw the footprints of the prowler who had stolen
 too close to his dreaming head. (2287-2290)


Heaney's dragon is much less like the sniffing dog implied in the Old English text, who "stonc da aefter stane," but more a true worm, who "rippled down the rock, writhing with anger." Both the Anglo-Saxon poet and the twentieth-century adapter maintain their focus on the "footsteps" (fotlast) of the thief. The most significant, and interesting, translation/adaptation decision comes with Heaney's characterization of the dragon as one who has a "dreaming head."

The notion of a dragon's internal consciousness appears in Tolkien's famous essay, but it is most fully realized in the way that Tolkien adapts the dragon episode in The Hobbit. Tolkien's assertion of the dragon's inner life in "The Monsters and the Critics" comes as he comments upon this very passage in Beowulf:
 Beowulf's dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be
 blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough,
 plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem, some vivid
 touches of the right kind--as pa se wyrm onwoc, wroht waes geniwad;
 stone aefter stane [when the dragon awoke, strife was renewed; he then
 moved quickly along by the rock], 2285--in which this dragon is real
 worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception,
 none the less, approaches draconitas [dragon-ness] rather than draco
 [dragon]: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil
 side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune
 that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life).
 (Tolkien, Monsters 16-17) (6)


For Tolkien, this particular passage exemplified dragon as beast, with an awareness of his own bestiality that overwhelmed his watered-down role as symbolic token of the failings of nobility: "malice, greed, destruction." Tolkien de-allegorizes, or de-symbolizes, the dragon in The Hobbit. In other words, he provides the script for the inner life of the dragon that asserts its nature as "draco," the thing itself, rather than the abstraction, "draconitas."

In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, Tolkien foreshadows the way in which Bilbo will act out the drama of lines 2280-2286 of Beowulf, the description of the thief who seeks the cup as a means for reconciliation with his master. (7) Gandalf tells the assembled dwarves that he has chosen "the fourteenth man" for their expedition, to recover the hoard Smaug the dragon guards in the Lonely Mountain. (8) Gandalf says that Bilbo "is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes" (Hobbit I:28). When the time comes, he is indeed a burglar, a burglar who is dumbstruck when he gazes on the dragon's hoard the first time:
 He gazed for what seemed an age, before drawn almost against his will,
 he stole from the shadow of the doorway, across the floor to the
 nearest edge of the mounds of treasure. Above him the sleeping dragon
 lay, a dire menace even in his sleep. He grasped a great two-handled
 cup, as heavy as he could carry, and cast one fearful eye upwards.
 Smaug stirred a wing, opened a claw, the rumble of his snoring changed
 its note. (Hobbit XII: 228)


Tolkien recasts the narrative of the young thane, driven out of his community, who plunders the dragon's hoard in hope of regaining his lord's favor, as the story of Bilbo Baggins, reluctant thief finally seduced when his "heart was filled and pierced with enchantment" at the sight of the hoard (ibid.). The only substantial differences between the Old English poem and Tolkien's narrative (besides the reduction in stature on the part of the protagonist) are the physical presence of the dragon within the scene and the description of the cup, focused more on the architecture of the vessel rather than upon its material. It is "two-handled" and "heavy" rather than simply "gold-plated."

Unlike the dragon in Beowulf, Smaug does not awaken immediately, but as our narrator tells us,
 It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you
 live near him. Dragons may not have much real use for all their
 wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule, especially after long
 possession; and Smaug was no exception. He had passed from an uneasy
 dream (in which a warrior, altogether insignificant in size but
 provided with a bitter sword and great courage, figured most
 unpleasantly) to a doze, and from a doze to wide waking. (Hobbit XII:
 229)


In Tolkien's fictional narrative, the dragon is full of that "bestial life and thought of his own" that he praises in his scholarly treatment of the lines, to such an extent that he even dreams. He is even a capable accountant, able to know his hoard "to an ounce as a rule." Moreover, Smaug is an unexceptional dragon, alike in every possible way to all other "live dragons" to which our narrator refers. Tolkien's narrative move--his assertion of proverbial wisdom--foregrounds the fact that our narrator is aware of other dragons, who have behaved similarly in the past. Finally, and most importantly for our discussion of Heaney's treatment of 11. 2287-2290, the dragon dreams.

The dragon's dream itself proves the most interesting detail of the passage. Smaug dreams of a warrior, "altogether insignificant in size but provided with a bitter sword and great courage." The principal way that this passage might be read would be as a lucid dream on Smaug's part: despite his drowsiness, he remains aware of Bilbo's presence. Indeed, the Hobbits are "insignificant in size," and Bilbo is no doubt courageous by the time he encounters the dragon. While not armed with a "bitter sword," Bilbo "loosened his dagger in its sheath" as he enters Smaug's hoard (Hobbit XII: 226). Bilbo's dagger, however, is not sufficient to penetrate the dragon, who is "armoured above and below with iron scales and hard gems," so that he is confident that "No blade can pierce me" (XII: 238). The hobbit does not enter the hoard with any intention to injure the dragon, so it would be impossible to assert that Smaug has any premonition or awareness of Bilbo's presence that would inspire such an anxious dream.

Nor could we assert that Smaug's dream is a premonition of his future demise. Smaug dies not at the hands of a warrior armed with a "bitter sword," but at the point of the last arrow discharged from Bard's bow (XIV: 262). A thrush shares the intelligence Bilbo had collected during his riddling banter with the dragon and prompts Bard to aim an arrow "for the hollow of the left breast" (XIV: 261). When the dragon displayed himself to Bilbo, Bilbo had thought the "large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell" (XII: 238). If Smaug had had a premonition of his own death, he should have dreamt of a "warrior insignificant in size," because of his great elevation with respect to Bard, "armed with a bitter arrow." Thus, we may say confidently that Smaug's dream is neither lucid vision nor premonition of death.

Smaug's dream manifests his knowledge of dragon-lore, the intersubjectivity that he shares with other dragons. In other words, Smaug is dreaming not of a warrior "insignificant in size" and "provided with a bitter sword" that shall face him before his own death, but of a warrior who has contended against another dragon. He is dreaming the stories of dragons. According to Tom Shippey, "For Tolkien's taste there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three--the Midgardsorm or 'Worm of Middle-earth' which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarok, the Norse Doomsday; the dragon which Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd" (36). While Smaug does not refer directly to the folkloric traditions of dragons, the whole dragon episode of The Hobbit is suffused with a sense of history: Smaug's personal history, the history of dragon-lore, and the history of Middle-earth itself. These three historical threads connect Smaug with the dragons of Germanic literature, and Smaug's subjectivity conjures up an awareness in the reader that Smaug feels his status among dragons. Once Smaug awakens, he senses something strange, a "breath of strange air in his cave" (XII: 229). Unlike the dragon of Beowulf, Smaug is not moved to "stonc aefter stane," but is instead moved to recollection, critique, and suspicion: "He had never felt quite happy about" the draft from a little hole, "and now he glared at it in suspicion and wondered why he had never blocked it up. Of late he had half fancied" he had heard knocking (ibid.). Smaug feels, suspects, and fancies. Not only does Smaug manifest his particular subjectivity in thought recorded by our omniscient narrator, he speaks, and speaks of himself, in acutely historical terms.

The hobbit makes the most of Smaug's inflated sense of historical importance. Once detected, Bilbo claims that he has come to Smaug's lair "to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say" (XII: 234). From the outset, Bilbo and Smaug encounter one another accompanied by the folkloric tradition of dragons. Although flattered that Bilbo seems "familiar with [his] name," the dragon is not fooled, and is seemingly aware that Bilbo is exploiting the shared tradition of dragon-lore in their discussion. The narrator also returns to proverbial wisdom about dragons to place Smaug further within the purview of the tradition:
 This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don't want to
 reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don't want to infuriate
 them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise). No dragon can resist
 the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to
 understand it. (Hobbit XII: 235)


Smaug, therefore, is not a unique dragon, but a dragon like any other whom the narrator knows. Shippey points out that the "riddling talk" recalls the Eddic poem Fafnismal, where Sigurd "will not give his name, but replies riddlingly, calling himself both motherless and fatherless" (36). Smaug is a dragon like that faced by any great Germanic hero, a dragon like Beowulf's foe, or a dragon like that faced by Sigurd. Thus, we may contend that Smaug, in his dream, dreams of Beowulf, "a warrior insignificant in size" and, indeed, "provided with a bitter sword and great courage."

Tolkien borrows the plot of the plundered hoard, this plot of the thief who steals the cup from the sleeping dragon. But the little touch of literary genius, Tolkien's nod to Beowulf, comes not from just this plot, but from the way he manipulates the dreaming dragon Smaug in his story. Tolkien uses Smaug's dream to remind us of the sleeping dragon in Beowulf, who is finally defeated by Beowulf himself, who first attacks him with an ancient long-sword (Naegling) and finally with a short sword.
 Naegling forbaerst.
 geswac aet saecce sweord Biowulfes
 gomol ond graegmael. (11. 2680b-2682a)
 [Naegling snapped; Beowulf's sword, ancient and gray, failed at
 battle.]

 [THORN]a gen sylf cyning
 geweold his gewitte, waell-seaxe gebraed
 biter ond beaduscearp, [thorn]aet he on byrnan waeg (11. 2702b-2704)
 [Then still the king himself held his wits, drew the battle-dagger,
 bitter and battle-sharp, that he carried in his coat of mail.]


The description of the "warrior [...] provided with a bitter sword" even recalls the language of the passage where Beowulf's dragon-foe meets his end, where the hero draws a "waell-seaxe" that is "biter ond beaduscearp." Not only does Tolkien recast Bilbo as the thief who steals the cup, Tolkien deploys the language of the dragon's death-scene in Smaug's dream. Given Tolkien's acute awareness of language and all its resonances, it seems likely that his use of a cognate (bitter for biter) is intentional and indicates a direct gesture to readers familiar with the Old English original that he modifies. (9)

Thus, when Heaney's dragon realizes that a "prowler [...] had stolen / too close to his dreaming head" the connection between Beowulf and Tolkien's Hobbit comes full circle. Not only does Tolkien reframe the concluding heroic episode of Beowulf as the adventure of a hobbit from The Shire, but Tolkien's treatment of that episode has such resonance for our modern understanding of the poem that it parallels translation choices in the decidedly most modern of translations. For both Tolkien and Heaney, dreaming is the optimal measure of subjectivity. Although Heaney doubts that The Hobbit could have influenced his translation choices, Tolkien's scholarship certainly has. Heaney discusses Tolkien's impact upon Beowulf scholarship (and the reading of the poem) with clearly articulated respect for "Tolkien's brilliant literary treatment," that argues "that the Beowulf poet was an imaginative writer rather than some kind of back-formation derived from nineteenth-century folklore and philology" ("Introduction" xi). The imaginative writer, the Beowulf-poet, manages to create a balanced poem where the "set pieces [...] have the life-marking power of certain dreams" (xii). The most powerful and vivid of all of these dreams, for the poet (medieval and modern), is the dragon, who,
 once he is wakened [...] manifests himself [as] a Fourth of July
 effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet,
 because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there
 is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him. He is at once a
 stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air, no painted dragon but
 a figure of real oneiric power, one that can easily survive the
 prejudice which arises at the very mention of the word 'dragon'.
 ("Introduction" xix)


For both Heaney and Tolkien, the "oneiric power" of the dragon rises up within the dragon's own consciousness and is fixed upon this moment of waking in the poem. The two authors have transposed the dragon's power to inspire dreams in readers of the poem upon the dragon itself.

Tolkien moved outside his scholarly treatment of the poem to give inner life to the dragon, placing the dragon-episode within his imagined Middle-earth so that he might give subjectivity and language to the dragon. Heaney manages to accomplish the same purpose within his translation of the poem, clearly guided by Tolkien's "Monsters and the Critics." As a result, we may be able to say that Tolkien's fiction acts as an ancillary to his scholarship; he uses his fiction to make manifest his own vision of the poem, his heroic world, and the subjectivities of its monsters. In return, adapters and translators of the poem, so accustomed to Tolkien's worldview presented explicitly in his scholarship, to which all writers (both scholarly and poetic) are undeniably indebted, and presented implicitly in his fiction, have begun to translate the poem as interpreted by Tolkien. Even though Tolkien's scholarly output, by contemporary standards, was infinitesimal, it has made a lasting and indelible impact on our reading and understanding of Beowulf.

Works Cited

Baker, Peter S., ed. The Beowulf Reader. New York: Garland, 2000.

Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien the Medievalist. Routledge, 2003.

Chickering, Howell. "Beowulf and 'Heaneywulf'." Kenyon Review 24.1 (2002): 160-79.

Faraci, Mary. "'I Wish to Speak': Tolkien's Voice in His Beowulf Essay." Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance. Routledge Series in Medieval Religion and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2003. 50-62.

Heaney, Seamus. "Introduction." Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. ix-xxx.

___. "Letter to the Author." 2004.

Klaeber, F., ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh. 3rd (with first and second supplements) ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1950.

Liuzza, Roy Michael. "On the Dating of Beowulf." The Beowulf Reader. Ed. Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland, 2000.

Mitchell, Bruce. "J.R.R. Tolkien and Old English Studies: An Appreciation." Mythlore 80 (1996): 206-212.

Orchard, Andy. "Beowulf. A Verse Translation / Beowulf: A Prose Translation (Review)." Notes and Queries 50.1 (2003): 80-81.

Shippey, Thomas A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Pearl. Sir Orfeo. Trans. J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Verse Translation. Trans. Marie Borroff. New York: Norton, 1967.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf and the Critics. Edited by Michael D.C. Drout. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. Vol. 248. Tempe AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002.

___. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. London: The British Academy, 1936.

___. The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

(1) Jane Chance has discussed Tolkien's influence on medieval scholarship in the critical assessment that introduces her collection, Tolkien the Medievalist.

(2) Howell Chickering reports that "professional Anglo-Saxonists early on derogated [Heaney's translation] with the name 'Heaneywulf' since to them it was 'just not Beowulf" (161). Andy Orchard comments that "Heaney's version has been justly celebrated as a piece of poetry in its own right," contrasting it to "more pedestrian" prose translations (81).

(3) As T. A. Shippey points out "Tolkien's fiction is certainly rooted in philology;" he also reports that Tolkien believed "a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration" (xiii).

(4) When asked if The Hobbit could have influenced his translation choices, Heaney answered, "I just wish the answer could be more interesting, but the truth is, I have not read The Hobbit and am therefore unlikely to have been influenced by the Tolkien dragon episode"("Letter to the Author").

(5) All quotations from Beowulf will be from Klaeber. Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.

(6) Mary Faraci has already commented that "When The Hobbit was published, its readers were privileged to get a full picture of what Tolkien considers 'dragon enough.'" (59).

(7)
 od daet hyne an abealch
 mon on mode; mandryhtne baer
 faeted waege, friodowaere baed
 hlaford sinne. Da waes hord rasod
 onboren beaga hord, bene getidad
 feasceaftum men; (2280b-2285a)


[until one man angered him in his mind; he bore the gold-plated cup to his leader, asked his lord for terms of peace. Then the hoard was explored, a cache of rings carried out, the petition granted to the wretched man.]

(8) The number fourteen has a particular resonance within Beowulf. When Beowulf sets out for Heorot, he leads a crew of fourteen men in the expedition and, hence, is "fiftaene sum" (a certain one of fifteen), 1.207. When Beowulf returns from dispatching Grendel's mother, he is one of the "feowertaene Geata gongan" (fourteen of the Geats walking), 11. 1640-1641. At the conclusion of Beowulf, "ealre twelfe" (twelve lords), 1. 3170, circle Beowulf's barrow. Since these have expressly been described as "Geata leode" (the people of the Geats), 1. 3137, there may be some ambiguity. If Wiglaf is included in the count, there are fourteen warriors present: the twelve encircling the barrow, Wiglaf, and the departed Beowulf.

(9) As an astute anonymous reader has pointed out, Tolkien regularly demonstrates preference for cognates in translations. For example, in Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we find PDE flood for ME flod (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Pearl. Sir Orfeo, 13). Other translators, including Marie Borroff, prefer the term sea (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Verse Translation, 13).
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Title Annotation:J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney
Author:Steele, Felicia Jean
Publication:Mythlore
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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