“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pages, in stores)
Many years ago, when I was a young man, I wandered through the British Library hand in hand with a new girlfriend I’d met mere days before. So smitten was I that I breezed past countless literary and pop cultural treasures — everything from original Beatles compositions to James Joyce’s handwritten version of “Finnegan’s Wake,” which looked as if it had been written by a madman.
But I stopped short when the “Beowulf” manuscript caught my eye. I stared and stared, transported, unaware even when my lady friend, piqued, slipped her hand from mine and went exploring on her own.
Only a couple pages of “Beowulf” were visible, sealed within glass plates inside a glass case, so fragile from age and past abuse that a mere breath likely would send precious characters crumbling away. I was struck by two things: the unlikely fact that this moldering relic had survived for roughly 1,000 years and my immediate desire to read it, not in translation, but in its original Old English, a language every bit as foreign as Icelandic or Norwegian to modern English readers.
There and then, my graduate school plans changed. Instead of pursuing an advanced degree in creative writing, I would devote myself to Old English and to “Beowulf.” With the help of an able teacher, I completed my own (horrid) translation of the poem’s 3,182 lines within my first year of studies. Frankly, I don’t know if my translation exists today. Often have I moved since then, from country to country and state to state.
I was not the first — nor, I imagine, the last — to be captivated not only by the appearance of the manuscript but also by the rich and colorful story contained in its pages.
J.R.R. Tolkien, for one, found it an endlessly fascinating tale, one that almost certainly served as inspiration for his beloved “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,” among other works. And like me, he completed a translation of “Beowulf” relatively early in his scholastic career, not intending for it to be published. Tolkien completed his translation in 1926, locked it in a desk drawer and returned to it only occasionally to change a word here or there, making quick corrections.
Knowledge of a Tolkien translation has been widely known for years, and although academics repeatedly called on the family to allow it to be published, Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, declined the requests. His father’s version was not polished and perfected. And his father was not the towering master on the subject when he composed the translation that he would become in later years.
“This translation was completed … when my father was 34; before him lay two decades as the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, two decades of further study of Old English poetry, together with an arduous programme of lectures and classes, and reflection most especially on ‘Beowulf,’” the younger Tolkien wrote.
At last, though, J.R.R. Tolkien’s version has been published. “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,” edited by Tolkien’s son, includes the poem, extensive selections from the elder Tolkien’s 1930s Oxford lecture series and a short story, “Sellic Spell.” The book was released May 22.
It’s a fascinating read.
No one knows who composed the original version of “Beowulf,” although it probably dates back to sometime between 600 and 700 A.D. Many names and some events in the poem correspond to history, including the Ravenswood battle in 510 and King Hygelac’s death in 521.
The British Museum’s copy of “Beowulf,” which is contained within a larger manuscript called the Nowell Codex, is the only one in existence. Before being committed to writing, the poem was passed down through generations as part of an oral tradition.
At its most basic level, “Beowulf” is the story of a mighty hero who faces three monsters, each stronger than the last. Beowulf himself is a Geat, from modern-day southern Sweden, who comes to help King Hrothgar, a Dane, whose great hall, called Heorot, is under attack by a powerful creature named Grendel.
Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands. The monster’s mother attacks the hall, seeking retribution, and is pursued to her home beneath a lake. Beowulf is unable to harm her until he grabs a magic sword and cuts off her head.
Fifty years later, back at home, Beowulf — now a king — is called upon to slay a dragon, which has become enraged because someone dared steal a gold cup from its treasure hoard. Beowulf tells his men he will fight the creature alone, but he is old and weaker than he used to be. One of his retainers, Wiglaf, disobeys Beowulf’s orders and comes to his aid. Together they manage to kill the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded.
At times, Tolkien’s prose translation of the poem is towering and magnificent. At night, Grendel creeps into Heorot and starts snacking on warriors. Then his hand encounters Beowulf’s.