Channeling Tolkien

26 Feb 2003

Paul R. Potts

A few weekends ago at our monthly potluck my friend John and I did an impromptu performance of a little-known work by J.R.R. Tolkien: a read-through of his short drama in verse “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” In his essays accompanying the text, in a footnote, Tolkien mentions that the work has never been performed. Well, now it has, in a rather unrehearsed read-through, for a small audience. (I have a feeling it is not likely to be the first performance; the work was supposedly published in 1953; surely, a group of drunken Oxford students has performed it in a darkened dormitory lounge by now?)*

John and I sat in our darkened living room, with our guests. On the coffee table was a single candle. We read through the text by the light of a flashlight, covering and uncovering it to simulate the cloaking of a lantern, and making the occasional silly rocking motion and sound effects to indicate that the characters were riding in a horse-drawn cart. The verses end with the chanting a portion of a Latin mass, spoken for dead Beorhtnoth.

Our guests told us that the simple read-through, two voices in the dark discussing stumbling over the dead, headless body of their slain leader, was highly effective. My son, Isaac, eight years old, was quite freaked out; it is a highly effective ghost-story. The verses are quite evocative:

TOR.                          To the left yonder.
        There's a shade creeping, a shadow darker
        than the western sky, there walking crouched!
        Two now together! Troll-shapes, I guess,
        or hell-walkers. The've a halting gait,
        groping groundwards with grisly arms.

Nameless hell beasts, or wounded men shuffling along in the dark in pain, looting the corpses? We don’t know, and now can’t know; this world is a thousand years gone.

The play itself has quite a sense of strangeness about it: it is part ghost story, part gruesome and comic meditation on the nature of death (like Hamlet’s chat with the undertaker and the discovery of Yorick’s skull), and possibly even a Christian resurrection story. (Tolkien was notoriously opposed to “allegory,” but it seems to me that Beorhtnoth’s homecoming is at least symbolic, and there is at the least an interesting juxtaposition of the pre-Christian and Christian cultures. In The Lord of the Rings, when Boromir is slain, his companions take valuable minutes away from their pursuit of the Orcs carrying Merry and Pippin to give him a boat-burial, and more importantly, to compose a traditional lay remembering his valiant life (although he struggled at the last against the unbearable temptation to seize the one ring and use it himself). Why do they do this? It is a pre-Christian world, and Middle Earth’s notions of life after death are vague; in a profound sense, the lay of Boromir is Boromir’s immortality. Torhthelm seems to be in two worlds: Beorhtnoth is being taken to a Christian burial, but for good measure, he chants a eulogy along the way. His eulogy, though, has a surprisingly Christian echo to it:

His head was higher than the helm of kinds
with heathen crowns, his heart keener
and his soul clearer than swords of heroes
polished and proven: than plated gold
his worth was greater. From the world has
passed a prince peerless in peace and war,
just in judgment, generous-handed
as the golden lords of long ago.
He has gone to God glory seeking,
Beorhtnoth beloved.

But, above all, it is a grim, dark, and doubtful world that Torhthelm and Tídwald inhabit; perhaps there was beauty in it, but beauty is not there now, in the aftermath of a grisly battle:

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.

I’d like the chance to perform this again. It’s a short piece, and should not be difficult to memorize; staging requirements would be absolutely minimal. The reading took only fifteen or twenty minutes. It would make an excellent brief radio drama: a project to be explored when I am able to put my home studio back together. John has a talent for breathing life into a text and coming up with characterizations on the fly. Thanks to everyone who helped and listened and expressed their enjoyment.

Follow-up note: I found a reference to a performance: at the Maldon Millennium Celebration here. Oh, well; we weren’t the first. I wonder what their performances were like? It isn’t likely I’ll be able to attend the 2,000th anniversary of the Battle of Maldon to find out. Apparently there is also a recording available of Tolkien himself reading the play, and it has been re-issued in a transcription from vinyl record to CD, as part of the Spitter Spatter Sounds collection available here.

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