Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) 149-152
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A Spliced Old English Quotation in "Beowulf:
The Monsters and the Critics"
Michael D. C. Drout
lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod (MC 19).
[Life is fleeting, all departs, light and life together.]1
This Old English quotation, which J. R. R. Tolkien uses in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" to describe the theme of Beowulf, does not appear anywhere in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon. It is an invention by Tolkien, created by splicing together a partial quotation from Widsith and an Anglo-Saxon poetic commonplace most famously found in the poems The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf.2
The passage in Widsith is "oþþæt eal scæceð / leoht and lif somod" (141b-142a; until all departs, light and life together).3 It occurs at the very end of the poem, when the poet says that singers will exalt the reputations of those who are generous to them and will continue to maintain the fame of the heroic "until all departs, light and life together."
The "lif is læne" part of the quotation does not appear in exactly that form anywhere in the corpus of Old English texts, but the idea, usually phrased as an adjective-noun combination such as "þis læne lif" ("this fleeting life") appears to be a commonplace.4 The most famous instances of the idea can be found in the Exeter Book elegies The Wanderer and The Seafarer, and in Beowulf.
In The Wanderer, the following lines occur after the famous ubi sunt passage that laments the passing of the glories of the world, a passage that was in adapted by Tolkien in "The King of the Golden Hall" into the poem "Where now the horse and the rider?" (TT, III, vi, 112).5 The narrator of The Wanderer says:
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne, her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne, eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð.
[Here wealth is fleeing, here a friend is fleeting, here a man is fleeting, here a kinsman is fleeting; all this earthen foundation will become empty].
In The Seafarer, lines 64b-66a read "Forþon me hatran sind / dryhtnes dreamas, þonne þis dead lif,/ læne on londe" (Because to me the joys of [End Page 149] the Lord are warmer than this dead life, fleeting on the land).6 The context of this quotation is the seafarer's reverie when his mind roams over the empty sea. After the quotation the seafarer adds that every man will be destroyed by ill-health, old age or the sword's edge.
"Lif is læne" sentiments occur several times in Beowulf. For example, Grendel's mother is said to have left behind the days of her life and "this fleeting creation" (1622b).7 Later, in Hrothgar's "sermon," in which the old king advises young Beowulf, Hrothgar says "hit on endestæf eft gelimpeð / þæt se lichoma læne gedreoseð / fæge gefealleð" (1753-1755a; In the last days it happens that the fleeting body decays and, fated, falls).
The poet calls Beowulf's days on earth "transitory" (or "borrowed") just before the old king is about to fight the dragon:
Sceolde lændaga æþeling ærgod ende gebidan, worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod.
[the noble one, proved good of old, had to abide the ending of his borrowed days on the world's life, and the dragon, together].
The poet later adds every man should "alætan lændagas" (2591; give up his borrowed days)8 in the same manner as Beowulf does. Finally, speaking of both Beowulf and the dragon, the poet writes "hæfde æghwæðer ende gefered / lænan lifes." (2844-2845a; each had fared to the end of this fleeting life).
The key word "læne" is not easily translated. Most translators use "transitory" or "ephemeral" or...