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, I 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.