Beowulf: Tolkien’s translation

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBeowulf by J. R. R. TolkienBeowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien (author) & Christopher Tolkien (editor)

The last few years has seen the release by the Tolkien Estate of several hybrid books that combined original retellings/translations of ancient hero legends (Sigurd, Arthur) with further commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien (on the source material) and Christopher Tolkien (on his father’s work). The latest in this series is Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, which has perhaps incurred greater interest since outside of his fiction, Tolkien is perhaps best known for his famed essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” As with the prior two, one’s enjoyment of this new work will be dependent on one’s delight in /toleration of some pretty arcane scholarship. Personally, fantasy and science fiction book reviewsI enjoyed all of them, including this latest, but then, I’m a huge Tolkien fan, I’m an English teacher who owns several copies of Beowulf translations and teaches the legend every year, I love the song “Grendel” by Marillion and the book Grendel by John Gardner, and give me a good footnote or twenty and I’m alight with joy. I couldn’t be more the target audience unless I threw myself into a dragon-prowed boat and laid waste to some English coastal towns. Your mileage therefore may vary.

The book contains an introduction by Christopher (from now on I will use Tolkien to refer to the father and Christopher to the son), Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf, “Notes on the text of the translation” (both Tolkien’s and Christopher’s), “Introductory note to the Commentary” (Christopher’s explanation of his editing of this father’s comments), “Commentary Accompanying the Translation of Beowulf” (drawn from Tolkien’s lecture notes), “Sellic Spell” (three versions of Tolkien’s attempt at telling what might have been the old source folktale for the legend as we have it), and “The Lay of Beowulf” (two short poems/songs by Tolkien).

It needs to be said at the outset that none of this was meant for publication by Tolkien. The prose translation, for instance, is “finished” only in the sense that it runs from the beginning of Beowulf to the end; it is not “finished” in the sense that Tolkien thought it done. In fact, as he wrote to a friend, there was much “hardly to my liking.” Christopher explains in his preface that it is offered “as a memorial volume, a portrait (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own.” Tolkien certainly would have made changes in the text had he decided to continue working on it. That “in his time” is also important. Tolkien wrote the translation in his early 30s as a relatively young scholar (yes kids, 30 can be considered “young”) and beyond any stylistic changes he might have made, who is to say he wouldn’t have glossed certain passages or even the entire work differently in his later years thanks to personal experience or in relation to other scholarship on the topic.

It probably should also be stated early on that this is not a translation meant to compare with Seamus Heaney’s, probably the best known of modern translations. First, as mentioned above this is nowhere near a final work; it is rough and unfinished and was eventually abandoned. Second, Heaney is not simply a writer; he is a poet. And not just a poet but a Poet. Tolkien’s translation has more than its share of moments, but this is best read as a combination translation/gloss and, as Christopher put it, a “portrait” of the author, both of Beowulf and THE LORD OF THE RINGS and The Hobbit.

So, the translation itself. First, it’s a prose translation, not a poetic one (though Christopher does print a very brief poetic translation Tolkien did for an introduction of someone else’s book that makes one wish for a lot more of the same, hard as it is to imagine him sustaining that for the entire epic). Tolkien keeps much of the poem’s linguistic stylistic notes — alliteration, inversion, etc. — but the prose can get bogged down more so than a poetic translation might since poetry relies so much on compression. As far as translations go, it is better than some I’ve seen and worse than others. The two areas I think he shines are in his battle scenes and in the sadder, more bleak moments where the poem looks back to a better time or looks ahead to a worse one. Here, for instance, is a passage describing the last of his people burying the treasure the dragon eventually takes as its own:

All of them death had taken in times before, and now he too alone of the proven warriors of his people, who longest walked the earth, watching, grieving for his friends, hoped but for the same fate…. therein did the keeper of the rings lade a portion right worthy to be treasured…. “Keep thou now, Earth, since might men could not, the wealth of warriors…. Death in battle, cruel and deadly evil, hath taken each mortal man of my people, who have forsaken this life, the mirth of warriors in the hall. I have none that may bear sword or burnish plated cup…. The proud host hath vanished away. Now shall the hard helm, gold-adorned, be stripped of its plates; those who should burnish it, who should polish its vizor of battle are asleep, and the armour too that stood well the bite of iron swords in war amid bursting shields now followeth is wearer to decay…. There is no glad sound of harp, no mirth of instrument of music, not doth good hawk sweep through the hall, nor the swift horse tramp the castle-court. Ruinous death hath banished hence many a one of living men. Even thus in woe of heart he mourned his sorrow, alone when all had gone, joyless he cried aloud by day and night, until the tide of death touched at his heart.

One can hear the echoes in this of the same sort of mourning for ages past or about to in THE LORD OF THE RINGS — the passing of Lothlorien and the elves or of Gondor that was. That biting sense of loss comes out clearly in Tolkien’s Beowulf and is probably my favorite aspect of this translation.

Though it’s possible that my favorite part of the book is his commentary on the text, though as mentioned, the pleasure one takes from this part will be dependent on how much one enjoys long glosses on etymology, genealogy, verb form, and the like. Early on, for example, Tolkien takes issue with the oft-used “whale-road” kenning to refer to the sea, going on for a bit more for a page on this two-road phrase as to why “it is incorrect in fact,” including its unfortunate similarity to “railroad,” and ending with a quite snippy (for scholars) statement that its use “suggests a sort of semi-submarine steam-ending running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic (I actually like the snippiness). There’s also this a bit later: “This is not, as it seems still universally stated, a weak adjective agreeing with (and thus solely applicable to) a singular noun. It is an adverb, which usually qualifies a singular noun, but does not necessarily do so. It can be found qualifying a group, separate from others… The verb móte naturally agrees with the adjacent ic.” Naturally!

There is a decent amount of this, and other similarly into-the-weeds discussion, but it would be wrong to paint it as all like this. Tolkien’s commentary delves into broader-scale analysis, say on theme or possible sourcing. For instance, he had a fascinating take on Unferth (one of the Danes), asking: To which book does he belong? The book of Kings [the historical aspect of the tale] or Tales of Wonder [the folk-tale aspect]? Unferth is the actual link between the two worlds. He is balanced precisely between them.” I did a good amount of marginal notation in these sorts of sections beyond what I wanted to mark for my review.

The short work “Sellic Spell” is an interesting if minor work, about 30 pages, about which Tolkien wrote, “This version is a story, not the story. It is only to a limited extent an attempt to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf …. Its principal object is to exhibit the difference of style, tone, and atmosphere if the particular heroic or historical is cut out.” That being its goal, it has some typical folk-tale tropes (the number three for example) and stands quite well as a folk-tale. It might stand even better in the Old English version Tolkien wrote and that is printed here after the regular version; feel free to let me know in the comments, those of you fluent in that language.

The last two pieces, the Lays, total a bit under ten pages, and have a nice force and rhythm to them, though I have to chuckle at Christopher’s recollection of his father singing them as bedtime songs, considering lines such as, “The demon lurked at her cave’s dark door/her fangs and fingers were red with gore/and skulls of men lay on the floor…”

Finally, casual fans of Tolkien’s fiction will have a good time coming across some familiar names or actions (major fans will already have tracked down these source points), such as Eomer or Hama, or when riders ride round a burial mound or when a scene takes place that astute readers will recognize as being almost a direct parallel to Aragorn’s group entering Theoden’s home at Meduseld.

Tolkien completists will want this book to, well, complete their Tolkien collection. Beowulf fans — scholarly or casual — will want it to see not just another translation but for the insights into the text, no matter how old, by a major figure in Beowulf scholarship. But even casual fans, I’d say, could do worse than read a decently told story of a hero fighting demons and dragons; they can opt in or out on the scholarly notes. Recommended.

Published May 22, 2014. The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book. From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot. But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf “snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup”; but he rebuts the notion that this is “a mere treasure story”, “just another dragon tale”. He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is “the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history” that raises it to another level. “The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure’ is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.” Sellic spell, a “marvellous tale”, is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the “historical legends” of the Northern kingdoms.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Bill, I read Seamus Heaney’s poem a couple of years ago and have been mulling over whether it’s worth my time to take on Tolkien’s version as well. I’d rate myself as a very low-level scholar of Beowulf; I read a different prose version back in college as an English major, and while I was reading Heaney’s poem I did several pages of word-by-word translation of the original poem with the help of an online translation source, to get a better feel for the original. Just for fun. :) I’m also of the type who would be interested in all the footnotes and source materials.

    But as literature, it sounds like you rate Heaney’s version much above Tolkien’s, especially since Tolkien’s wasn’t really a polished, final version. Is that a fair statement?

    • I’m far from a scholar (far, far), but yes, there’s a polished consistency and focus to Heaney that isn’t always there in the Tolkien. I don’t think Heaney’s (if I recall correctly–it’s been a while) is particularly “poetic” in the way people often think of that word in terms of language–his translation I think was pretty straightforward often. But in its singular word choices where he breaks out of that straightforwardness, his attention to sound, and his compression I think you see more of a poet’s gifts than here.

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