A Dragon-Worthy Treasure
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 448p, cloth $28.00.
Today J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but the Oxford University professor of Anglo-Saxon, who died in 1973, occupies a special place in the history of the poem Beowulf, and more than forty years after his death his views on the poem are still necessary reading for scholars and serious students. It has been widely known that Tolkien translated Beowulf, but his rendering of the poem wasn’t published until this past May, edited by his son Christopher, and its appearance is regarded as a major event for Beowulf enthusiasts as well as fans of the professor’s fictional Middle-earth saga.
The translation takes up only a small portion of the book, just over 100 of its nearly 450 pages. The majority of the book is devoted to Tolkien’s lectures on the poem which were delivered in the 1930s to university students who were studying Beowulf in the original Old English and tasked with translating it themselves for their exams. In the preface and introduction, Christopher Tolkien discusses why the translation’s publication has been so long in coming (his father completed a draft of it in 1926), the translation’s evolution during the professor’s two decades of teaching, and also the difficulty of determining the book’s audience and hence how much commentary to include and to what scholarly depth.
In the end, Christopher Tolkien’s intention was to provide a view into his father’s mind and imagination via the translation and commentary. In that regard especially, he’s succeeded. There is much in the book to fuel the interests of Anglo-Saxonists, as well as comments that seem chosen for fans of The Hobbit and Middle-earth since the insights show how his love of the poem inspired his own storytelling. For example, in the section of Beowulf in which a thief removes treasure from the dragon’s lair, one can see shades of Bilbo Baggins’s sneaking into Smaug’s cave in The Hobbit. Tolkien describes the original passage as “sombre, tragic, sinister, [and] curiously real.”
In Beowulf scholarship, Tolkien’s special position is based on his view of the poem as a single artistic expression by a lone, extremely gifted, though anonymous, Anglo-Saxon poet—a view which he elucidated in a famous address to The British Academy in 1936 and was subsequently published as “The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien’s views about the poem were quite radical and very much in the minority at the time. During the 19th century, most scholars believed that the poem was a cobbled-together thing of barely related stories by various poet-minstrels, poorly done at that, and even up to Tolkien’s time interest in the poem was primarily as a historical artifact from a dimly lit period of English history, composed in a language that disappeared after the Conquest of 1066.
In his address, Tolkien argued that Beowulf was a great work of art by a talented poet whose genius was unrecognized due to the ignorance of his readers, not the shortcomings of the poem. The professor’s opinion altered his fellow scholars’ approach to the poem and ushered in its prominence as a work of literature and not merely a historical and linguistic relic.
Tolkien’s respect for the unknown poet and his admiration for the poem are apparent throughout his commentaries; and, what is more, his translation is at times a radical departure from widely accepted readings of the Old English. In these departures and the accompanying commentaries in which the professor explains why he reads the lines as he does, the translation may be of greatest value to contemporary scholars. Though only a small excerpt of the collected whole, according to his son, the commentaries demonstrate the breadth of Tolkien’s knowledge of Old English and other Germanic languages as well as his grasp of the history and literary traditions of northern Europe.
Before deciding on a painstakingly literal prose translation of the poem, Tolkien experimented with one in poetic form, attempting to mimic the highly alliterative verse style of the Beowulf poet. He must have felt that too much of the meaning of the Old English was lost in the process. The professor, after all, states that the “English language has changed—but not necessarily improved!—in a thousand years.”
He has, however, attempted to preserve the ornate quality of the poet’s language, a version of Old English that was used exclusively for verse and was not the workaday language of the Anglo-Saxons. The result is a narrative that is often times stilted and a challenge to comprehend.
In clinging so closely to the precise meaning of the original, Tolkien has forfeited the poem’s bleakly elegiac mood. Elsewhere he described Beowulf as “a drink dark and bitter: a solemn funeral-ale with the taste of death.” Perhaps that is why he was moved to also write original lays based on the poem in contemporary English, published for the first time as addendums to his translation. In the lays, Tolkien captures the mood of Beowulf more faithfully than he is able with his literal translation. For instance, in “Beowulf and the Monsters,” Tolkien writes of Grendel’s revenge-seeking mother: “[T]he mother of trolls there wrought them woe, / with a Danish corpse she turned to go / and shrieking fled from Heorot. / Like a shadow cast on the mountain mist, / where winds were bleak and the heather hissed / she fled, but none could keep her tryst / since her son found death in Heorot.”
Tolkien’s translation and commentaries are well worth reading, and I trust that his lectures will be published one day in their entirety, for they would be a treasure horde worthy of a dragon’s guardianship.