Tolkien’s “Exodus”

First lines of the Beowulf manuscript. Note the opening “Hwæt” just as in Exodus.

As March 25th, National Tolkien Reading Day, draws to an end, I have much to celebrate. For today I discovered a new book. By a favorite author. A book which I should absolutely have known about, but did not. A book which cannot be found anywhere except on Abe Books, two copies, one just under $1000 and one just over $1000, which is pretty much the same as “cannot be found anywhere.”

Fortunately for me, I know someone who has more books than I do – more books than most public libraries, and who is a medievalist, and who is a Tolkien scholar, and who lives in my town, and who is very kind.

This person and I are both rule-followers. And our town is under a stay-at-home-except-for-necessities order. Getting my hands on this book was a necessity. So at noon:30 today, I ventured out to a quiet neighborhood, pulled up to a curbside mailbox, surreptitiously retrieved an unmarked manilla envelope of medium heft, deposited in its place a small hermetically sealed package of British cookies, glanced around nervously because what if someone thought I was making a ransom money-drop, and then drove off with literary gold settled gently on the passenger seat next to me.

And now, at nearly midnight, I am settling into The Old English Exodus, Text, Translation, and Commentary by J. R. R. Tolkien.

You read the correctly.

And glory be. The inside dust jacket has already filled my soul with delight. But the first lines – well, the first lines cause my heart to pound with joy.

Hwæt we feor and neah gefrigen habbađ
ofer middangeard Moyses domas
wrætlico wordriht wera cneorissum –

All of that valiant orthography. All of that Beowulfian pathos. Plus middle earth. And Moses. There are simply no words to express the wonder and weight of language.

Hold your heart. Rest your soul. And hear the opening lines of Exodus as translated by John Ronald:

Lo! We have heard how near and far over middle-earth Moses declared his ordinances to men, uttering in words wondrous laws to the races of mankind – to all the blessed healing of their life’s care in heaven on high after the perilous journey, to all the living enduring counsel: let him hearken who will!

This man did the Lord of Hosts, true King, by his own might honor in the wilderness, and to him did the Eternal and Omnipotent grant power over many miracles. He was dear unto God, prince of his people, a leader of the host, sage and wise of heart, valiant captain of his folk.

March 25th, 2020 was filled with far too little reading of Tolkien at my house, much to my dismay. But I am going to make up for that now by settling into a mere 590 lines of ancient epic, a mere 13 pages of translation, and a mere 44 pages of linguistic and literary commentary.

I cannot think of a better way to finish out this day of sheltering-at-home.

One thought on “Tolkien’s “Exodus”

  1. Diane J McElwain March 26, 2020 / 8:06 am

    Oh how exciting! We all need encouragement in these times. Enjoy!

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