Nearly 90 years after he first made the translation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of Beowulf arrives at bookstores around the world today. It is a story that he once described as “a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical.”
In 1926 Tolkien prepared a translation of the Old English epic tale of the hero Beowulf, who vanquishes the monster Grendel and his mother. At the time, Tolkien had just begun teaching as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford. He remarked to a friend that his version was “hardly to my liking” and put it aside.
In the following years Tolkien would go back and make changes to the translation. In 1936 his lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics advocated looking at the text as an important work of literature. After he passed away in 1973 his writings were inherited by his son Christopher Tolkien, who has been re-editing and publishing his works.
The book that is being published today contains a full translation of the Old English story, along with an extensive commentary based on his lectures and writings about the poem. Christopher Tolkien explains:
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.”
Not everyone is happy about the publication of this book, which Tolkien never intended to have read except for by some friends and colleagues. Kevin Kiernan, a University of Kentucky professor and expert on Beowulf, remarked “If Tolkien knew that was going to happen, he would have invented the shredder.”
Harvard Professor Daniel Donoghue agrees, telling the New York Times “The formal rules of Old English poetry are very demanding. Tolkien knew this very well. This was part of his suspicion of translations in general.”
Reviews for the translation have been mixed so far. Jeremy Noel-Tod, writing in The Telegraph, explains:
The first disappointment, then, of Tolkien’s Beowulf is that it is in prose – and long-winded prose at that. This literal rendering is faithful to the formulaic circumlocutions, inversions and amplifications of Old English poetry – a heroic style that evolved to while away a winter’s night, but which loses something when locked into the frigid grammar of a legal document.
Meanwhile, Katy Waldman’s piece in Slate Magazine finds that some people will enjoy the work:
The description, stately and involved, seems sprinkled with an Arthurian grandeur; readers who love the L.ord of the Rings may resonate to that high diction and steady, exact pacing. And it’s not that Tolkien can’t do immediacy. When he first conjured the dragon—“Now it came blazing, gliding in looped curves, hastening to its fate”—I was breathless (and very reminded of Smaug).
The book will also contain Sellic Spell, a previously unpublished short story by Tolkien, that re-creates a folk-tale based on the Icelandic saga Hrólfs saga kraka. David Brawn, representing the publisher HarperCollins said, “Sellic Spell was an indulgence by Tolkien. It was the sort of thing he enjoyed doing – creating something in the form in which it might have existed had it been written a thousand years ago.”