.middle-earth

When Grendel first experiences Beowulf's strength he exclaims, "Nowhere on middle-earth, I realize, have I encountered a grip like his." (168)

Gardner's use of "middle-earth" is striking because it seems to allude so openly to J. R. R. Tolkein's mythical land from The Lord of the Rings books and The Silmarillion (reviewed by JG in the New York Times, 10.23.77). It may be worth remembering Grendel was published in 1971 during the first wave of mass enthusiasm in America for Tolkein's work.

But we do not need to look so far afield. Gummere's 1910 translation of Beowulf describes Grendel at this same shocking moment:

Soon then saw that shepherd-of-evils
that never he met in this middle-world,
in the ways of earth, another wight
with heavier hand-gripe...

Seamus Heaney's (2000) translation abandons the term altogether:

The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth.

The Old English term in question is "middan-geardes", which is sometimes translated as "world" and other times as "middle-world". It is easy to imagine the theological value of this term for seventh century Christians who strove to make a point about the precise location of this impermanent world. It is in the middle, south of Heaven and north of Hell.

But the non-Christian roots here are more convincing. Norse mythology tells of the creation of the earth from the body of the dead giant Ymir:

They then fashioned a world for the families of giants and this world is known as Jotunheim. Away from this land they fashioned a stronghold to surround the world, to defend it from the giants. This land was fashioned from Ymir's eyebrows, and it is called Midgard. They then took the brains of Ymir and cast them into the air and these became the storm-threatening clouds.

One day while Odhinn and his brothers were walking along the sea shore they came upon two tree trunks. The gods saw great beauty in the trunks and set forth to bring them to life. Odhinn gave them soul, Vili gave motion and sense, and Ve gave being and blooming hue. These beings were the first humans and they were called Ask and Embla. Midgard was given to them to inhabit.

       

The online Tolkein reference work Encyclopedia of Arda notes

Middle-earth is conventionally treated as a single continent, but in fact may have consisted of more than one landmass. Tolkien's writings on this topic, and especially his Letters, suggest that Middle-earth is defined as that part of the world inhabited by mortal beings (that is, all the lands of Arda except Aman and, apparently, the Empty Lands). It might therefore easily have consisted of more than one continent.

It is most likely that Gardner is simply translating from Beowulf.

Still, it is also possible that Gardner uses a term so familiar from Tolkein's work as an homage to the scholar, whose 1936 paper, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" was among the first to take the epic seriously as an artistically coherent work of literature. Seamus Heaney makes this point about Tolkein's essay in the Introduction to his translation of Beowulf.

Modern English to Old English Vocabulary
Norse Mythology
The Encyclopedia of Arda: Middle-earth

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