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“Before” by J.R.R. Tolkien

March 25, designated by the Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day, is meant to encourage the reading of Tolkien’s works individually or in group events. A new theme is announced every year, and for 2019 it’s “Tolkien and the mysterious.”

My current reading focuses on Tolkien’s verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son – let’s call it The Homecoming for short – and a specific moment in the play in which one of the characters experiences a mysterious vision.

It’s not one of Tolkien’s best-known works, so first a quick summary: The Homecoming is a short drama for two voices based on the events recounted in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes an English defeat at the hands of Viking invaders in the year 991. Beorhtnoth is the English lord who is killed in the battle, but his loyal followers fight on against hopeless odds. Often-quoted lines from the poem are spoken by an old warrior, here in Old English, then followed by Tolkien’s translation:

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
Mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.

“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.” (124)

Tolkien wrote that he thought these Old English lines weren’t original in this poem but instead “an ancient and honoured expression of heroic will” (124).

The events of Tolkien’s play The Homecoming occur after the battle is over, when two servants are sent by the local Abbot to find and bring back Beorhtnoth’s body for burial. They are out on a gruesome battlefield in the dark of night, surrounded by mangled corpses, trying to understand what happened in the fighting. They think of ghosts, are startled by a hooting owl, and face sudden danger when they come upon and fight some corpse robbers. After they identify a few of the dead who were closest to Beorhtnoth, they make their way to where they discover what remains of their lord. One of the servants is a young poet who shows several times that he is capable of composing verses in moments when the two men honour their dead lord. Eventually they carry his body to their wagon and start on the way home.  That’s where the young poet, lying in their cart, starts nodding off and speaks “drowsily and half dreaming” (140):

There are candles in the dark and cold voices.
I hear mass chanted for master’s soul
in Ely isle. Thus ages pass,
and men after men. Mourning voices
of women weeping. So the world passes;
day follows day, and the dust gathers,
his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it,
and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle.
So men flicker and in the mirk go out.
The world withers and the wind rises;
the candles are quenched.  Cold falls the night.

(Homecoming 140)

This young man, whose name is Torhthelm or Totta for short, seems to be seeing into the future – the present or near future in hearing mass chanted for Beorhtnoth among the monks in Ely — but then followed by a sweeping view of ages in the future until the “world withers” and all seems to die out.

This view intensifies in the next few moments.  The stage directions state that Totta continues with “the voice of one speaking in a dream,” and he seems to enter into a mysterious vision, recounted in the present tense, as if he is partaking urgently of some other reality:

It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming!
Is no light left us? A light kindle,
and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens,
hearth is burning, house is lighted,
men there gather. Out of the mists they come
through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth.
Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting:
stern words they sing with strong voices.
(He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,
more proud the spirit as our power lessens!
Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,
though doom shall come and dark conquer

(Homecoming 141)

At that moment, the cart goes over a bump and jolts Totta out of his dream, back to the reality of his companion who disapproves of the young poet’s words. The play ends shortly afterwards.

You’ll notice that in this intense visionary experience, Totta hears men chanting the lines that will become part of “The Battle of Maldon” – “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, / more proud the spirit as our power lessens!” – although he adds two further lines that don’t appear in the Old English poem.

Who are these ghostly men that Totta sees gathering in the hall “out of the mists” and that he hears chanting? Where is Totta in this dream-vision?  He seems to be participating in the experience in the present moment, but is he imaginatively partaking of a past event or a future one? The mystery of where this dream comes from and what kind of experience Totta is having as he speaks it out loud in a dream-like voice contributes to the significance of this climactic moment in the play.  

I’ve written about this mysterious event (and other aspects of the play) in a forthcoming essay on The Homecoming,* where I conclude that Totta is “penetrating to the heart of heroic tradition,” accessing what Tolkien called that ancient expression of heroic will, which lives in poetic tradition. I also think that Totta’s experience is similar to other mysterious instances in Tolkien’s fiction where the power of a story or poem leads people into a dream-like state in which they experience other times and places — for example, the hobbits listening to Tom Bombadil’s stories, or Frodo enchanted by poetry in Rivendell, or the Notion Club members following Lowdham and Jeremy’s adventures in an Anglo-Saxon hall.

These visionary experiences are mysterious in the sense that they are puzzling, obscure, hard to understand. They may also resonate with the sense of “mystery” as denoting something mystical or beyond human reason.  

What’s your interpretation of these mysterious visionary moments?

*My essay is forthcoming in a new book from Walking Tree Press, “Something has gone crack”: New Perspectives on Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Annika Röttinger and Janet Brennan Croft. I’ll post more when I have information about a definite publication date!

The image used above is “Before” by Tolkien, one of his early drawings estimated to have been made around 1911-1912 (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, page 65, footnote 12. The drawing is fig. 30 in their book.)

My quotations from Tolkien’s Homecoming are taken from the play published in Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001. The play was originally published in the scholarly journal Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1953, pp. 1-18.