“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.
“Straightaway that master of evil deeds perceived that never had he met within this world in earth’s four corners on any other man a mightier gripe of hand. In heart and soul he grew afraid, yet none the sooner could escape.”
After Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm and shoulder from his body, the dying beast flees to the water’s edge.
“There the waves boiled with blood, and the dread turmoil of the waves was all blended with hot gore, and seethed with battle’s crimson. Therein doomed to die he plunged, and bereft of joys in his retreat amid the fens yielded up his life and heathen soul; there Hell received him.”
When Tolkien’s translation works, it’s beautiful — but it doesn’t always work. One of the difficulties of translating Old English is that it contains many kennings, or metaphorical compound words. The ocean may be a “whale-road,” “sail-road,” “whale’s way” or “swan road.” When you kill someone, you “feed the eagles.” Couple those compound words with lengthy compound sentence structures, and it’s easy to get lost in the language.
Never is that clearer than when Tolkien’s version is compared to the last significant “Beowulf” translation. Master poet Seamus Heaney’s verse translation was released about 14 years ago to widespread acclaim, making its way onto The New York Times best-seller list and winning the Whitbread Award.
Heaney sacrificed complexity for the sake of readability, but with his poetic skill managed to maintain the imagery.
Consider these two translations of the same passage, each describing the lake where Grendel’s mother lives. First up, Tolkien:
“It is not far hence in measurement of miles that that mere lies, over which there hang rimy thickets, and a wood clinging to its roots overshadows the water. There may each night be seen a wonder grim, fire upon the flood. There lives not of the children of men one so wise that he should know the depth of it. Even though harried by the hounds the ranger of the heath, the hart strong in his horns, may seek that wood being hunted from afar, sooner will he yield his life and breath upon the shore, than he will enter to hide his head therein; no pleasant place is that!”
And now Heaney:
“A few miles from here / a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch / above a mere; the overhanging bank / is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface. / At night there, something uncanny happens; / the water burns. And the mere bottom / has never been sounded by the sons of men. / On its bank, the heather-stepper halts: / the hart in flight from pursuing hounds / will turn to face them with firm-set horns / and die in the wood rather than dive / beneath its surface. That is no good place.”
Which is better? That comes down to individual preference, but most modern readers likely will choose Heaney.
Is it worth it?
The publication of Tolkien’s translation has created a minor controversy among academics. At heart, it boils down to a couple simple questions: Why publish it at all? What does it add to the scholarship?
The answer to the first question is simple: People have wanted to read Tolkien’s translation for generations. And Tolkien is hot right now. The ongoing series of movies based on his fictional works has fueled renewed interest in his novels and life. Copies are likely to sell.
The second question is tougher. The translation is nearly 90 years old. The accompanying lectures are intriguing, although some would say they’re moldy, too.
Kevin Kiernan, an emeritus English professor at the University of Kentucky, asserts in a piece on theconversation.com that Tolkien’s translation diminishes him.
“After all,” Kiernan writes, “it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an ‘abuse’ and ‘hardly to my liking.’ He left it behind and forgot about it. How does its unauthorised publication serve Tolkien’s reputation? … His own assessment suggests he would have destroyed it, if he imagined anyone might publish it with selections from his undergraduate lecture notes.”
Every student of Anglo-Saxon literature, Kiernan rightly points out, ends up producing a rough translation of the poem, scraped together, as was mine, by laborious study of Old English’s punishing grammar and thorough use of an Old English to English dictionary. The result isn’t a new translation, per se, but a careful reconstruction based on extant definitions.
I didn’t expect to publish my version. Tolkien didn’t plan to publish his, either.
I would argue, though, that Tolkien’s translation is relevant, if for no other reason than its historical value. Tolkien went on to become one of the foremost Beowulf scholars of his day, if not of any generation. This translation shows his sometimes shaky steps toward mastery of his subject.