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Review: Tolkien’s Beowulf

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Hwæt!  This is what it took to get me excited about J.R.R. Tolkien.  Years ago and miles away, my dungeon master more or less forced me to read The Hobbit in order to get my D&D.  I’m betting there was an underlying assumption that I wouldn’t be able to stop there.  I did.

After much time, the Peter Jackson movies, and a growing interest in some of the other Inklings, I sort of came back around.  The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was fascinating.  When Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary was announced in March, I might have shouted with delight.

Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” has been credited with reinvigorating the study of the epic poem as literature.  Beowulf scholars frequently cite Tolkien as an inspiration.  Seamus Heaney, author of the new standard critical edition, praised him.

In the months leading up to the release of this new (old?) translation, I worked my way through several other interpretations to get a feel for what was common to them as well as how they differed.

This version lacks something almost all others have: a coherent introduction by the translator.  I can’t understate how valuable this is.  Knowing what the author intended to preserve from the original and what he was willing to sacrifice helps contextualize what the reader will see for some three thousand lines.  It’s invaluable both for understanding phrasing and evaluating whether he succeeded on his own terms.

Unfortunately, since Tolkien never intended to publish the text as we have it, no such statement of purpose was ever written.  The task falls to his son, Christopher Tolkien, who edited and published this book.  He explains how he compiled the translation from manuscripts and notes made by his father and why he believes this to be an adequate presentation.

While his introduction provides some guidance, most of what I wanted was found in the notes.  This might be a turn off for some readers.  Flipping pages back and forth, following ebook links, or plowing through front to back are all reasonable strategies, but none of them are quite as satisfying as a simple statement of purpose.

Heaney, for example, explains that his “tuning fork…for the overall music of the work” was the vocal style of his father’s scullion relatives.  The reader is given to understand that his will be a forthright retelling.  He acknowledges that the alliterative meter of the original might occasionally be loosely adhered to or sacrificed entirely in favor of directness.  So, when you enter into the almost grimdark realism of his translation, you’re prepared.  When the meter falters in favor of forceful phrasing, you appreciate it.

Tolkien translates in prose.  There’s a comfortable rhythm, but no meter, no alliteration.  Still, it’s somehow more engaging.  At once more heroic and more holy, there’s a sense of deep investment in the characters.  Where other versions strive for accuracy or poesy, this one tells a story.  Here the reader experiences the elision of myth and history.

The endnotes make it clear that this was actually on Tolkien’s mind throughout the translation.  I can’t help but wonder what effect that knowledge would have had on my reading if it had been revealed at the beginning.  They also thoroughly establish his scholarly approach, detailing nuances of Old English grammar and usage that demonstrate his facility and illuminate my ignorance.  Familiar readers will also see early seeds of what would evolve into The Lord of the Rings.

The additional story, “Sellic Spell,” attempts to reconstruct the folktale that might have collided with Anglo-Saxon histories to produce what we know as Beowulf.  Even here, Tolkien’s grasp of Old English and his philological interests are on display.  The effort of imaginative reconstruction might have little to support it, but it nonetheless adds to the reader’s experience of the poem.  Both it and the songs that close this edition lend context and understanding to the epic and to his larger body of work.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is definitely for Tolkien fans, though how much of what’s presented was unknown previously is a mystery to me.  However, as someone who’s been reading Beowulf for decades, it provided new insight and inspired further engagement.  It belongs on the shelves of enthusiasts next to Donaldson, Seamus Heaney, Frederick Rebsamen, and Dick Ringler.

One thought on “Review: Tolkien’s Beowulf

  1. Enjoyed this informative and entertaining review! I have Seamus Heaney’s translation and I do admire it for its “forthrightness,” as you say. You can almost see him pulling up his sleeves, ready to tackle it. So your characterization of the contrast with Tolkien’s rendering is most revealing. I’m prepared now for Tolkien’s idiosyncratic tampering with the text, and what is it they say about being forewarned? :)

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