Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is life, death, and immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound is hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!
Published: May 22, 2014
Note: I love Beowulf as a poem, but my review focuses more on the translation and this book as a whole. The short version about Beowulf itself is that it is wondrous and everyone should read it.
I was initially skeptical about a prose translation of Beowulf–I hate when translators turn poetry into prose–but J.R.R. Tolkien does a fantastic job of conveying the meaning of the text while preserving its rhythm and feel. Though Seamus Heaney’s translation is the default in schools, especially since it contains the original Anglo-Saxon on facing pages, Tolkien’s version retains more of the Old English tone and should be equally accessible to students and other general readers. Even readers who feel themselves familiar with Beowulf will find something fresh and exciting about this translation, something new to marvel at. Though Tolkien did not complete the translation to a point he would be satisfied publishing it, the care he takes choosing his words is evident. This is definitely an edition that should be added to every reader’s collection.
Unfortunately, Christopher Tolkien struggles, as with The Fall of Arthur, to create a volume that can appeal to both a general readership and an academic one, though he is more upfront in acknowledging the dilemma this time around. His conclusion is that we should simply consider this a “memorial edition,” which is something I have seen J.R.R. Tolkien himself refer to in discussing academic friends but not something I have ever experienced. Ultimately, I dislike this categorization. It makes this Beowulf sound exclusive, as if only people who knew Tolkien or are associated with Oxford have any right to be reading it. And it still sounds academic. The general public is not in the habit of reading memorial books even for well-known and loved professors.
In actual reading practice, the volume falls awkwardly between accessible and academic. Christopher’s tactic to make it “less academic” is to put first the translation of Beowulf, then the notes he has pulled from his father’s lectures. There is no indication within the poem itself about which scenes or lines have notes about them. This means that a reader interested in the commentary has to work backwards, reading the notes and then looking up the section of the narrative they talk about. Since this is frustratingly awkward, I gave up. I read Beowulf in one big chunk. Then I read the commentary in one big chunk, never turning back to look at the text and trying to trust the fact that I’ve read Beowulf enough times to generally know what scenes the notes were referring to. It worked well enough for me, but this isn’t exactly the most effective way to read.
Structure of the book aside, the commentary itself is fascinating. Though I’ve read Beowulf a few times in high school and college and was a TA for a class where the professor taught it, I’ve never seen the text treated in such detail. It seems that, today, the text is so well-known that professors are afraid to really touch it. They go over the main points, assuming either they have nothing to add about to the conversation or that the conversation is so vast they shouldn’t bother to cover it all. Consequently, most of my academic knowledge of Beowulf has been reduced to debates over things like “how evil” exactly Grendel is or “how monstrous” Beowulf himself is. It was really enlightening to read Tolkien’s detailed treatment of the poem, focusing both on the Old English language (what is the poem really trying to say by a word choice? how should we translate it?) and the history of the poem. There are even enough references for readers to get the general debates that scholars were having about the poem, even if Tolkien himself never goes into it. Anyone really interested in Beowulf should definitely look into this book and take the time to go through the commentary.
Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, an attempt to tell a folklore version of Beowulf that keeps the great feats but cuts out all the historical situating and commentary, is interesting both as a story and as a look into Tolkien’s thoughts on the poem. Though much of it is of Tolkien’s own invention, it could almost serve as a SparkNotes edition of the first two monster scenes for those readers who just want the action. However, it is also worth reading the commentary before reading the tale because Tolkien implements many of his own thoughts about the history and production of the Beowulf text. For example, he posits that some other men who traveled with Beowulf to Heorot also wanted to try their strength against Grendel, which is why Beowulf just sits around while a guy gets hacked to death. This theory is incorporated into Sellic Spell.
The Lay of Beowulf at the end is just a beautiful poem in Tolkien’s usual style, capturing both the grandeur of Beowulf’s deeds and the air of sadness that surrounds Heorot, as its end in fire is so well-known. Christopher supplies a couple versions and details some of the manuscript history, which will be interesting to readers serious about Tolkien scholarship. Personally I just wanted to read and enjoy the poem.