I recently read Beowulf for the fourth or fifth time in my senior English majors colloquium, and several aspects of the narrative provoked some thoughts in my tired grey cells.  Specifically, what my professor, Craig Williamson, called the “sense that things are winding down.”  If you’ve read Beowulf, and if you’ve read anything by Tolkien (a rather important Anglo Saxon scholar), you probably have an idea of what that means.

Often present in Anglo Saxon poetry and narrative is the sense that an end (or change) is coming.  Beowulf has been called a heroic elegiac poem, and the elegiac tone comes through rather strongly.  Part of that is due to the upcoming Ragnarok, the ultimate battle between men and gods and giants.  Ragnarok looms, conceptually, throughout many of the poems extant from that time period.

The end of Beowulf is rather profoundly wound down.  The hero has fallen, and his demise heralds the end of the Geats (sorry if that spoiled the story for anyone).  The remaining Geats, who fled before the dragon, sing a dirge for Beowulf, and I certainly feel the remnants of the story slipping through my fingers.

Lines 2457-2459 of Burton Raffel’s translation are, for me, the most illustrative of the sense of winding down.  I also find them the most beautiful lines of the poem.

So riders and ridden
Sleep in the ground; pleasure is gone,
The harp is silent, and hope is forgotten.

J.R.R. Tolkien seized upon the sense of things winding down when he wrote the Lord of the Rings.  The narrative builds to the Battle of Pelenor Fields and the battle before the Black Gate.  There is an aspect of building up, as well, but there are key elements thrown into the narrative that make me feel, acutely, the sense of age and decay.

One of the most important, Anglo Saxon aspects of Middle Earth is the constant presence of crumbled civilizations.  The Argonath, the crumbled statues, the barrows, it all hints at something more.  Not only does it make the world deeper, but it also creates a bit of nostalgia and it weaves an elegy into the narrative.  There is a profound sense of age that pervades Middle Earth, and Tolkien uses it well.  The end of the story feels like a giant sigh, held for three thousand years and then released all at once.

It’s the sort of thing that I’d love to use in my own storytelling and world building.  A good sense of age and history makes a narrative come alive.  Have you done this sort of thing?  Share!

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