My Colleague J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review of Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

425 pp. Houghton MIfflin Harcourt. $28.00

There’s a special kind of joy that fills the air when a group of people, who share a certain sort of niche interest, get exciting news about their common niche.  Such are the moments that make me glad that Twitter is around, and they’re the infrequent moments when I might know something big before my students do.

Back in the spring of 2014, just such a moment occurred on a weekend, during a semester when I was teaching Beowulf in the original.  (Yes, I did just dream-class drop there.)  First Twitter lit up, then I checked Houghton Mifflin’s website to make sure it was true.  And sure enough, Christopher Tolkien, who has been releasing nuggets of his father’s work every once in a while to the dragon-loving public, was scheduled to publish his father’s translation of Beowulf.

Spring of 2014 was my first attempt to teach Beowulf in Old English, and Tolkien was already an undeniable presence in the room.  Although we never manufactured rubber bracelets for the occasion, we often wondered what Tolkien would to with particularly difficult passages, with apparent references to other myths, and with the poetic style of the poem in general.  Seamus Heaney was our text-at-hand, with which we contended and disputed, but Tolkien’s Beowulf was the legend against which we measured our own efforts.

Christopher Tolkien had, it seemed, rendered that exercise moot.  I’ve already talked to freshman English majors who know Tolkien’s translation as the standard Beowulf, and I before I read the volume for myself I feard that, even in a field already crowded by Roy Liuzza and Seamus Heaney and the unfortunate Doug Wilson (whose Beowulf hit the shelves mere months before the Tolkien announcement, ruining his chances of being a serious contender to Heaney) and all of their industrious modern-English predecessors, Tolkien’s stands to become the standard, largely on the strength of his renewed, Peter-Jackson-augmented reputation.  Fortunately, the nature of this volume abated that fear rather quickly.

Not the Translation I Feared

Tolkien never set out to publish a translation of the Beowulf, but he did write lecture notes.  The process of putting this volume together, according to the front matter, involved putting together three sets of lecture notes from his Old English Literature courses, putting together a prose translation of the poem based on the passages that he prepared for reading to classes and choosing between lecture-versions where that was appropriate.  The translated poem, then, is a critical text of sorts, stitched together from several notes and never, in its own terms, a unified literary work.  Thus unlike Liuzza’s and Heaney’s and Wilson’s, Tolkien’s translation is in prose, not in alliterative verse.  That alone made me feel better for the Beowulf-translators of the last thirty years: since there is no alliterative Tolkien, none of them will have to compete with an alliterative Tolkien.

Instead, the text that Christopher Tolkien published reads far less like a passage from Lord of the Rings than my own Old English students sometimes produce when translating medieval warrior-poems.  The premium instead is on producing clauses to match the original clauses, even if that means sentences that, in modern-English order, lack some of the driving cadence of the alliterative verse.

Some of Tolkien’s choices, in fact, struck me, as I read, as positively prosaic, a fault if he were writing a poem or a novel but perfectly sensible for a set of lecture notes.  Beowulf is surrounded by “knights” instead of “thanes” in Tolkien’s notes, no doubt an accommodation for students who would think of MacBeth and never go further if they saw the latter.  Likewise, showing some concern to connect the poem to surrounding mythologies, Grendel and his mother are often called “ogre” and “troll,” words that don’t necessarily alliterate well but situate the poem in a very particular historical moment.  Finally, and most noticeably for me, the signature Beowulf-word Wyrd always gets translated as “Fate” in Tolkien’s version, making some of the most famous lines in the poem sound far less like a Gandalf-saying than what I’ve heard my own students produce (always in some variation of Ian McKellan’s delivery) for my classes.

The big picture is this: Tolkien’s version is not meant to stand alone, as Heaney’s or Liuzza’s does so well, so much as it’s there as a sort of friendly guide for students trying to engage with the original Old English text.  For that purpose it’s really quite good, and I’ll likely use it as just such a help next time I teach the poem.

The Beowulf Conversation

The translation isn’t really where the gold is, though: Christopher Tolkien has also published extensive selections from the surrounding lecture notes, providing the sort of conversation-matter that makes translating big texts to interesting.  At every turn Tolkien is the consummate literary scholar: he’s aware of arguments running counter to his own, and he has arguments for why he’s not convinced.  Sometimes he even provides histories of his own mind-changes, but even when he doesn’t, Tolkien’s awareness of the places where language and culture and literature intersect are nothing short of gold, the sort of thing one might expect when one peruses a master professor’s notes.  Rather than deal in generalities or make this post a summary of more than 200 pages of commentary, I’ll offer a sample of three points that especially interested me, with the understanding that other folks will find other bits more central and others less so:

  1. Early in the commentary, Tolkien offers up an argument for why he renders the son of Scyld Scefing “Beow” when the extant text clearly has him named “Beowulf.”  (I wondered, as I read this section, whether the tradition of naming Sceafing’s son “Beow” in modern English translations has some fairly deep roots in Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford.)  After acknowledging that he stands against common translation practice in doing so, ultimately he holds that “Sceaf” and “Beow,” both harvest-terms, seem to fit better with the genealogy-of-providers that leads to Hrothgar, and besides that, there are sources in other medieval legends that make a Beow the son of Sceaf, making a scribal blunder, inserting “Beowulf” where “Beow” should have gone, more likely than an otherwise-unheard-of Beowulf of the Danes (143-44).  I used to leave the name “Beowulf” in my own translations; I’m fairly certain I’ll render it “Beow” in the future.
  2. On a lighter note, Tolkien notes the friendly tone of Beowulf’s greeting to Hrothgar, “wes thu Hrothgar hal” (pardon the lack of thorns in this post) when compared to modern conversational greetings.  I just have to quote directly: “They wished you good health on meeting you; we merely enquire after the symptoms: ‘how do you do?'” (222)  This, O reader, is the sort of joke that I make when teaching old texts.  Heck, I’m already looking forward to using it when I teach this passage in the spring of 2016!
  3. In a section that could have helped me as a grad student and which stands to help my own students, Tolkien offers some strong warnings about the term wyrd as characters and the narrator use them in the poem.  The presence of a word in a poem, Tolkien notes, does not mean that it occupies a central place in the poet’s “theology” (243).  He draws comparisons to modern fortune-sayings as well as noting the tautology (and wyrd-diminishing character) of the most famous wyrd-passages.  In short, where the beginning translator might see such a weird word (how long did you think I could resist that?) and make it the point of the passage, Tolkien reminds the same that one should discover, not impose, the central elements in any poem.

I’m not sure that I’m going to assign this as a textbook to accompany Klaeber’s Beowulf for my Old English students, but even if I don’t, I imagine I’ll be consulting it as we make our way through the poem.

Bonus Features

The end of the volume has a couple extras that Tolkien fans might appreciate.  In addition to his (rather professorly) translation of Beowulf, the volume contains an unpublished version of the Sellic Spell, a prose narrative roughly based on the Grendel and Grendel’s-Mother segments of Beowulf.  (Yes, I too thought that Sellic Spell sounds like the sort of magical help that Gandalf might offer to a young hero trying to grow an especially cool mustache.)  In his tale, which reads far more like the “Tolkien’s Beowulf” that I imagined than Tolkien’s Beowulf actually does, the young hero Bee-Wolf, along with his companions Hand-Shoe and Ash-Wood (what would a Tolkien tale be without traveling companions?) travels to the court of the King of the North to do battle against Grinder, a monster who has been troubling his court.  The prose though here is far more Tolkienish than the Beowulf is, and all in all it’s great fun.

The volume finishes with “The Lay of Beowulf,” a poem in rhymed verse, a nice finishing touch that reminds a reader that Tolkien was a poet and a storyteller as well as a scholar and reminds someone like me that Tolkien stands in the tradition of teaching medieval literature as a well-respected colleague, neither an inspired prophet nor merely “another medievalist” but someone whose choices, when I would make the same and when I wouldn’t, make up a scholarly personality, a friend whose work can stand in relationship with my own as any master teacher’s can with a younger teacher’s.  For all that, I’ll say (in words that don’t echo Tolkien’s Beowulf, it turns out), that was a good professor!

As a closing note, I wish to thank Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy, which came with no guarantee of a positive review, and Kristen Fillipic, the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s press liason, for navigating HMH’s rather labyrinthine communications apparatus to make the request.

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