Review: Beowulf

Posted 15 August, 2016 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

By: J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (editor)
Format/Source: Hardback; my purchase

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.

I picked up this book and read it when it was first released back in 2014 but I never got around to reviewing it here. That was because I didn’t have much to say about it at the time–didn’t honestly know what to think of it, I had read The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (review) and knew there would be added content in this book but I didn’t expect Tolkien’s actual piece to be so short. Since then I did get around to reading the stardard edition that’s available (re-read it again earlier this year (review) so now that I have a sense of how the story went down, I decided to revisit Tolkien’s rendition of the tale again.

Well, I have to say I prefer Tolkien’s rendition of the tale and now wish he had completed it so that it would have been the standard edition to access 😛 There’s something about Tolkien’s use of language that makes the story feel more epic, grander than life. Like The Fall of Arthur (review), I wished he had finished his translation as I thought it was very interesting. In the same vein, it can be easy to get lost in the more archaic forms of delivery that Tolkien uses in his translation of the text (I read somewhere the first line alone is the subject of academic debate as to what the actual translation would be) but as I mentioned, there’s something about his use of words here that captures that grandiosity of Beowulf’s deeds and bravery.

Re-reading this book, I remember now why I didn’t review it the first time around, and it’s something that Briana @ Pages Unbound mentioned in her review of the book (review): the bulk of this book is commentary. Which would perhaps be more interesting had to been included with the text as footnotes instead of at the end as its separate section, or endnotes as it were (side note: I hated using endnotes in essays, I had this one instructor who specifically asked for endnotes and I cringed the whole way). Having the information accessible on the same page is very useful instead of going back and forth with the commentary and the text. I understand perhaps they wanted to keep the translation free of additional information detracting from the tale, but it lends a disservice to the commentary; I for one wasn’t as thrilled to browse through the commentary after reading the text. Nonetheless the commentary is useful in laying out some of the ideas that Tolkien had when it came to the text.

Nonetheless it’s interesting to read Tolkien’s approach in translation Beowulf, his version really showed his understanding of the tale through the imagery and atmosphere that his choice of words evokes. I can’t say this book is easily accessible if you’re just a passing classics/Scandinavian epics reader or even if you’re a casual Tolkien reader but anyone who’s interested in the story of Beowulf or is interested in translated texts may want to check this book out.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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2 Responses to “Review: Beowulf”

  1. Yes! I really love this translation, as well. It’s so different from some of the ones we use as standards in classrooms, so I think that’s really interesting.

    I also think the publisher should just go for an academic audience. It’s an unfinished translation of a very old text with lots of notes. Embrace that. Use footnotes and let me read them easily instead of trying to hide them in the back while also trying to tell me that they’re really a great feature of the book.

    • Agreed on everything you mentioned *nods* Academia all the way! On a personal note, I hated using endnotes when I was in uni and I still hate it today 😛

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