‘Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

First of all, it should be made clear – and I wonder how anyone could be in doubt on this, but it’s possible – that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is not a work of imagination meant for popular entertainment. It’s a translation of an already much-translated work, intended as a teaching aid, by a major scholar in the field. If you’re unfamiliar with Beowulf, you might want to try one of the modern verse translations, like Heaney’s, but I liked this version very much.

Personally, I prefer a prose translation. Tolkien probably knew Old English poetry better than any modern man, and here he attempts to provide some sense of the original metrical form, but he is not forced to alter the text in order to make the verse scan. Any translation is always a trade-off, especially in poetry, and for my own part I prefer some approximation of the original text.

Tolkien’s translation is a lively one. I can imagine him reading it to Lewis (and we’re told Lewis did advise him on bits of it) and then ignoring, as he always did, Lewis’ suggestions.

There are many notes. Some are by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who is editor. Others are drawn directly from Tolkien’s own notes. Some of this material fascinated me, some seemed to me (approaching more from the historian’s than the language scholar’s perspective) pretty tall grass. It was interesting to read, for instance, that Tolkien thinks the Beowulf poem correct in crediting (in passing) the slaying of the dragon to Sigfried’s father Sigmund, rather than to Sigfried himself. The dragon-slaying fits in with Sigmund’s story, he thinks, and seems like an interpolation in the Sigfried-Brunhilde narrative.

Also in this book is a work called “The Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to reconstruct how the Beowulf story might have been passed down as a folk tale, rather than as a heroic poem. He sees a separation between the “fairy tale” Beowulf and the “historical” (by which he does not mean to suggest he thinks Beowulf a real historical character) tale. Here Tolkien may be observed “reverse engineering” an imagined lost legend, something he later did in a larger, more powerful way with The Lord of the Rings.

Also appended to this book is “The Lay of Beowulf,” an attempt to reimagine story as a sort of ballad. That was pleasant to read, but the editor gives us two earlier drafts to read as well, at which point I’m afraid I lost interest in it.

I recommend Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary for people interested in the Old English poem itself. Less so for readers whose main interest is Middle Earth. I’m glad this work has come out in print, and I’m happy I read it.

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