Talks on Tolkien: Dimitra Fimi on Folklore and “Sellic Spell”

My weekly “Talks on Tolkien” series continues with a video presentation by Dimitra Fimi. Dr. Fimi was part of the Beowulf Launch Party organized by the Tolkien Society and Middle-earth Network last spring, when Tolkien’s Beowulf and other related texts were first published. Dr. Fimi’s talk is a little different from my previous video selections in that she is not reading a paper to a live audience at a conference. The Launch Party was an online event featuring several commentators throughout the day who were giving their first impressions of the Beowulf publication. If you’re interested, the other recordings from that day are also worth a look.

One reason I chose this talk was to highlight the fact that the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf includes more than just his translation of and commentary on the poem — intriguing as that is to Old English and Tolkien scholars. Dr. Fimi’s presentation focuses on one of the texts included with Tolkien’s Beowulf translation: a folktale called “Sellic Spell” (which can be translated as “wondrous tale”) that Tolkien wrote in both modern English and in Old English. The other text that’s included in the volume is a poem, or two versions of a poem, titled “The Lay of Beowulf” which is written in rhyming stanzaic form, very different from the original Old English alliterative meter.

The publication of these texts has given us not only Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf (an interesting research topic in its own right), but also adaptations of the Beowulf story in different genres — ripe material for analysis! Further, I believe that Tolkien’s rendition of  “Sellic Spell” in Old English warrants study of his ability to think and write in Old English. In the following video, Fimi outlines another approach to the story through the lens of folklore research.

Dimitra Fimi is the author of Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, published in 2008, which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies and was shortlisted for the Folklore Society’s Katharine Briggs Award. She is a Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Recently, she filmed two short videos for a BBC iWonder guide on Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh? You can find out more about her videos and interviews on her website’s Media page, or follow her blog or her Twitter account: @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi.

To read “Sellic Spell” or “The Lay of Beowulf” you’ll have to buy Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. But if you’re interested in the original poem itself, you can listen to a few lines of it on Michael Drout’s Anglo-Saxon Aloud website. The poem exists in a single manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A. XV, held in the British Library. You can find information about the manuscript in the British Library’s Online Gallery, and you can also leaf through the digitised manuscript (go to f.132r to see the beginning of Beowulf).

Adaptations of Beowulf have proliferated since the late nineteenth century in books for children and adults, and more recently as films. Some of you may know the 2005 Beowulf and Grendel movie, or more likely, the 2007 Robert Zemeckis version featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. I especially enjoy the 1998 animated version made for TV featuring Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes, which you can view below. It’s just one among many examples of Beowulf adaptations — and now we have more of Tolkien’s work that can be examined as part of this rich store of material.

If you have any favorite Beowulf adaptations, or if you want to say something about “Sellic Spell,” let us know in the comments!

3 responses to “Talks on Tolkien: Dimitra Fimi on Folklore and “Sellic Spell””

    • Hi Roger! Thanks for adding the link to your discussion of “Sellic Spell.” I’ve just started reading your “Tolkien in Pawneeland” — I know, it’s taken me a while to get to it — but I’m looking forward to reading your ideas about how Tolkien could have used this body of folklore.


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