Goodreads: Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (with Sellic Spell)
Christopher Tolkien presents his father’s prose translation of Beowulf along with a commentary on the poem taken from his father’s lectures. Also included is Sellic Spell, a retelling of Beowulf as folktale (Christopher includes an early version, the final version, and the Old English version) and two versions of “The Lay of Beowulf.”
J. R. R. Tolkien did not prepare his translation of Beowulf for publication so we can safely assume, I think, that it is not in the form he would have wished. Even so, it is a powerful work of art, rhythmic and sonorous, and (from what I can tell) adhering closely in meaning to the original, so that readers unfamiliar with Old English feel they are getting as close a taste as possible to what it might be like to hear the tale told around the mead benches. Indeed, this is a translation that begs to be read out loud. I was skeptical when I first learned that Tolkien’s translation is in prose and not verse, but his intimate familiarity with Old English means that the form in no way diminishes the force of the original poem, but somehow manages to capture something of it all the same.
Of course, since Christopher Tolkien is editing his father’s works he has some decisions to make not only what to include but how to include it. Christopher is very straightforward about his attempts, admitting that the volume is a bit of an odd collection, attempting to appeal to the general reader and Tolkien fan while still offering something to scholars. To try to bridge this gap, Christopher explains his choices in some detail, noting how he came up with the final text of Beowulf from the several manuscripts available to him, including his father’s lectures on Beowulf in abbreviated form so readers can have a little taste of his views and his choice of translation, and providing more than one copy of his father’s Sellic Spell and “Lay of Beowulf.” The result is likely to please no one completely, but one can appreciate the difficulty Christopher had in coming up with a solution.
General readers, for instance, may very likely find Tolkien’s lectures tedious, even in abbreviated form. While I enjoyed learning about the professor’s proposed solutions to difficulties and contradictions in the text (some of which even readers unfamiliar with medieval literature can pick up on), the detailed examinations of words and their etymologies, as well as the detailed attempts to fit the chronology of the story with historical detail, and the meanderings into all sorts of ancient myths and legends, was often beyond me. I followed the arguments as best I could, but it is obvious that Tolkien was speaking to a specific audience with an expected amount of knowledge when he wrote his lectures. Some may find themselves picking and choosing which glosses they would like to read.
After getting past the commentary, however, general readers will find a real treat awaiting them. Sellic Spell is Tolkien’s answer to what Beowulf would have looked like as a folktale, without all the historical background. The result is a pleasing fairy tale that recounts the adventures of one “Beewolf” as he goes to seek his fortunate in other lands and meets the fearsome monster Grinder. The story is somewhat familiar, of course, but Tolkien adds some touches of his own–my personal favorite is his explanation of the random man who gets eaten by Grendel while Beowulf apparently does nothing. After this, Christopher adds an earlier version of the story so readers can see something of its transformation, as well as the story in Old English, but no doubt at least the Old English version will only be of interest to specialized readers!
The final bonus is “The Lay of Beowulf,” given here by Christopher in two different forms. Christopher notes that his father meant these to be sung and even says that he thinks he remembers his father singing one version to him when he was a child. They are a fun little glimpse of what the Beowulf tale would look like in yet another form.
I have waited years for Tolkien’s Beowulf to appear in print and the wait has been well worth it. I’ll admit right here that I’ve never particularly enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s famed translation of the poem, so this may well be my new go-to version. Powerful and rhythmic, Tolkien’s Beowulf makes you feel as if you are really there, watching Beowulf face Grendel for the first time, racing along with Wiglaf to find the dragon’s hoard. Even without extensive editing for publication by the professor himself, this is still a masterful work.