It was some time ago that I discovered this three-part lecture series by Dr. Tom Shippey on Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, and it has been on my mind to share it with you. Dr. Shippey is a respected Tolkien scholar, specializing, like Tolkien, in Old and Middle English language and literature.1 His lectures are always clear and concise and remarkably easy to follow, despite being highly academic. This specific lecture was hosted by Signum University and the recordings were posted on YouTube, which I will link below.
The first lecture focuses on Tolkien’s essay, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” Dr. Shippey describes the structure of Beowulf as a poem and considers the difficulty the writer of Beowulf had in reconciling pagan myth with his Christian beliefs—a problem Tolkien had himself. Listen specifically from 52:00 to 53:35 to hear a remarkable parallel between Beowulf and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In Part 2, Dr. Shippey lectures on the origins of England in light of Tolkien’s translation of Finn and Hengest. Part of the tale of Finn and Hengest is relayed in Beowulf.2 Also, more on what Dr. Shippey calls the “Granny Problem” and the challenge of legitimising fairies and elves in Christian mythology.
In the third and final part, Dr. Shippey covers Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and discusses some of the errors and confusions made by the scribes who recorded Beowulf. He also explains the history surrounding the legend of Scyld Scefing, the king whose funeral is held at the beginning of Beowulf.
This series of recorded lectures is well worth watching if you are interested in Beowulf at all, especially as a work in itself. They are very technical3 and rather long (about 1.5 hours each, mostly because—joy of joys!—Dr. Shippey answers all the students’ questions at the end), but Dr. Shippey offers wonderful insight into the world, history, and culture of Beowulf, which in turn lends perspective to some of Tolkien’s own work.
Related posts about Beowulf:
Beowulf: Seamus Heaney vs. J.R.R. Tolkien: Comparing the two translations
Yet Another Translation of Beowulf: On John Lesslie Hall’s translation
1Dr. Shippey is perhaps one of the few (if not the only) Tolkien scholars left who knew Tolkien personally. Dr. Shippey also held the Chair of English Language and Medieval English Literature at the University of Leeds, a position once held by Tolkien himself.
2Lines 867-951 in Tolkien’s translation; lines 1070-1158 in Heaney’s translation.
3Even more so than “The Feminine Principle in Tolkien,” which I shared with you earlier.
2 thoughts on “Exploring Tolkien’s Beowulf with Dr. Shippey”
I’ve read Beowulf and knew that it inspired Tolkien, but in what ways, I am uncertain. Thank you for passing this along, as these are the perfect resources for me to expand my knowledge on this topic!
Grace and peace,
I am glad to hear that you intend to watch the lectures! They really are fascinating and well worth the time it takes to watch them.