I've been watching lectures on Tolkien's World of Middle Earth lately via the Mythgard Institute. I have read fantasy and science fiction stories for a long time. I've just never read Tolkien, thinking of him as too obscure and hard to read for a regular, working class gal like me.
I'm learning differently through this course. My mind has been opened greatly. In the course we are covering a couple of Tolkien's essays, one of his letters, The Simarilion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Beowulf.
Now, Tolkien didn't write Beowulf, but he was the first of scholars to look at the poem, for that is what it is, as a poem. Beowulf is an epic poem, about the adventures of Beowulf in killing the monsters Grendel and his mom, and a dragon, on the surface. Deeper understanding reveals that Beowulf is also about the incoming Christianity, Anglo Saxon invasions of England, and the nexus, the beginning of a truly English mythology.
In one place, the Beowulf poet has written that the opening character, Scyld, has departed life on Frean waere which may be translated either as into Frey's peace or "into the keeping of the Lord" as Chickering does in the traslation we are using in our course. Frey is the Norse god of fertility and prosperity of the time.
Further on, Chickering translates Men ne cunnon secgan to sooe, sele-raeden[d]e, haeleo under heofenum, hwa paem hlaeste onfeng as "Men cannot say, wise men in hall nor warriors in the field, not truly, who received that cargo." Cargo referring to the body and treasure trove of Scyld. My first thought on reading that line was that no one can say truly who, whether God, Lord, Frey, or other, or none, what or who receives us when we die. My mind was blown open by that thought.
There's more in there, but you'll have to check it out for yourself.
The Hobbit was a delightful adventure story, but now I'm betting there's more to it too. There's Gollum, who is very similar to Grendel. There's Smaug, also a dragon. There's an epic adventure with a hero, only Bilbo doesn't know he is a hero and Beowulf is sure of being a hero.
The letter Tolkien wrote to Waldman in 1951 gave Tolkien's view on how the bits and pieces of his works fit together. The Simarilion is the myths and legends of Middle-Earth. The Hobbit is history. The Lord of the Rings is present but past. At least that's how I understood it, not having read The Lord of the Rings yet.
I've been afraid to read these books because I thought them too hard and obtuse. I'm finding them too be many layered and full of delightful things to ruminate on. But, now, my brain is hurting and I need some tea. ;)