Tolkien’s most famous contribution to scholarship is his idea that the Anglo Saxon poet who composed Beowulf was a Christian who passed over the old pagan gods yet retained the monsters of the ancient mythology.
deorc déaþscua, duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede; sinnihte héold
mistige móras; men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrúnan hwyrftum scríþað. (Beowulf lines 160-3; Klaeber 7)
…a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors: men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 17)
The poet here classes the monster Grendel as one of the helrúnan. What is a helrún? In his recently published commentary, Tolkien tells us the Old English word is composed of two elements: hell ‘Hell’ and rún ‘secret.’ Hell is a native word meaning “the ‘hidden land’ of all the dead” (Beowulf T&C 298) and “is ultimately related to helan ‘conceal’” (Beowulf T&C 167). Thus, a helrún is one who knows the secrets of the hidden realm of the dead – a necromancer.
One of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Tolkien’s commentary is that he saw that the Old English poet glimpsed also something of ‘the other side’. The first lines of the poem tell of Scyld Scefing, the founding king of the Danish royal house, who came to his people from the further shore beyond the shoreless sea.
Tolkien believed that the Danes had taken a very ancient legend of Sheave (Scef) and welded it into their own royal genealogy. The Anglo Saxon poet was presenting the new Danish version of the ancient story. Yet Tolkien also believed that the poet had discerned something at the heart of the original story:
….at his allotted hour Scyld the valiant passed into the keeping of the Lord; and to the flowing sea his dear comrades bore him… With lesser gifts no whit did they adorn him, with treasures of that people, than did those that in the beginning sent him forth alone over the waves, a little child… (Beowulf 26-46, Tolkien’s translation; emphasis added)
In his commentary, Tolkien observes that the ship burial is not found in other versions of the Scyld Scefing story. He identifies its presence here as an innovation, albeit one that demonstrates a poetic insight into the ancient meaning of a legend already distorted and half-forgotten in the poet’s day. Specifically, in the ship burial Tolkien finds “the suggestion” – no more: for “the idea was probably not fully formed” in the mind of the poet – that Scyld Scefing had come “out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea, and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history, which nonetheless left real historical effects” (Beowulf T&C 151).
Tolkien’s commentary reveals the importance that he attached to the unspecified “those” – þá – who in lines 43-46 are said to have sent the infant alone over the waves to his impoverished people. Here is a glimpse of mysterious allies of mankind, mythological beings who may or may not be gods but are certainly not the monsters of the ancient pagan mythology. Where Tolkien discovered Sauron the Necromancer in the word helrún, in the poet’s suggestion of a further shore beyond the shoreless sea he perceived Valinor.
* Post revised after some helpful criticism. I am indebted to the allwise Richard Rohlin.