Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell Edited by Christopher Tolkien
By: Michael A. Arnold

23 of October 1731, London - A fire is raging at the luxurious Ashburnham House. As flames are flowing out of every exit point, the scholar, classicist and theologian Dr. Richard Bentley jumps out of a window with a huge medieval codex in his hands (the Codex Alexandrinus - not important to us) while inside many other priceless medieval codices are going up in smoke. There are reports that parts of this collection, originally collected by the 16th century antiquarian Robert Cotton, are being thrown outside in an attempt to save them - sending hundreds of pages of ancient manuscript floating down the River Themes, never to be recovered. While much was lost, one of the things that survived (although badly singed) was the Nowell Codex that contains the only manuscript of the great Old English poem Beowulf.

Obviously, Ashburnham House is an ironic name for the place where this magnificent poem was almost lost to ash and fire, but in a way this is very fitting. Irony is deeply enthused in the poem itself – pretty much from the very first few lines. Ending a summary of the legendary Viking king Shyld Sheafing (who as a boy was mysteriously found washed up on the shore in a boat and went on to conquer and subdue the neighboring tribes), the author of Beowulf says ‘þæt wæs god cyning’ – that was a good king, a line that in context seems dripping with that typically British form of ironic understatement and self-deprecation - and few people would have known more about this than J.R.R. Tolkien. It was both one of his favourite poems and something he taught for many years as Professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University. Recently his translation of the poem was published, along with many other goodies for people interested in the poem. However, as another example of irony, while J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essays on the poem, particularly ‘Beowulf: Monsters and the Critics’, are a seminal work of Beowulf scholarship and required reading for anyone who has more than just a passing interest in the poem, Tolkien’s translation of the poem is rather bad. However Tolkien cannot really be blamed for this, and there are certain things a potential reader must be made aware of.

First of all, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was not an attempt at anything artistic, like his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which was published in his lifetime) or his original, medieval-inspired poetry like The Death of Arthur and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, both of which were published posthumously. It is instead basically little more than lecture notes. It is in prose, but occasionally imitates the original Anglo-Saxon poetic style through the occasional use of alliteration – without much forewarning or without much reason. Alliteration was absolutely essential to the sound and rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and usually worked on a system of three or four strong stresses on the same sound, and in as concise a line as possible - usually with a break in the line in the middle acting as some kind of pause. For example:

Strong are the stresses that sharply are struck

Or for examples taken from Tolkien’s translation:

Great gobbets gorging down (page 34)

Laid the light of battle (page 45)

Greif after gladness when Grendel came... (page 64-65

Beowulf’s sword ... failed him in the fight (page 91)

In most other translations this Anglo-Saxon poetic form is used to imitate the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry in modern English, but this is not the only thing that can be done with it. It could also be used to draw attention to parallels between characters such as in the 1999 Seamus Heaney translation of this poem, such as during Beowulf’s battle with the dragon:

and Beowulf drove his sword into the wall. The dragon died of it.

His daring had given him total possession

of the treasure hoard

In this section, Heaney is suggesting some kind of a link between Beowulf and the dragon by using words beginning with D four times. ‘Drove … dragon died … daring’ like a line in Anglo-Saxon verse, only the word ‘daring’ is by a line break, both for the sake of the form Heaney has picked and also because the poet Heaney is suggesting that daring is not just separate from the dragon itself, but also from the act of killing it. There is more to bravery than just standing up to monsters. This is alliterative verse being used for an artistic purpose, Tolkien’s translation does not attempt anything this complex. This is not (at all) to suggest that alliteration is needed, especially in a prose translation, but the fact that alliteration is used almost randomly in some parts, and not throughout makes Tolkien’s text feel a bit disjointed.

But this is just an indication that this text is a rough sketch that Tolkien could refer back to whenever he needed, rather than an attempt at a good translation. Christopher Tolkien basically admits in his introduction to the book that this text is little more than lecture notes, and goes on to detail how J.R.R Tolkien tinkered with the text his entire life – changing words and adding notes to the manuscript whenever the mood took him. If Tolkien had tried to translate the poem more seriously, he probably would have tried to have done it imitating Anglo-Saxon verse, instead of the prose style found here. Tolkien himself even wrote in his essay ‘Translating Beowulf’ that to translate a poem like Beowulf into prose would be ‘an abuse’, and yet here is a prose translation from that same author. Basically, there is an unmistakable sense that this is not a text Tolkien would have actually wanted published at all.

However, despite all the criticisms that could be made of this text as a translation, it is still very interesting. Even the use of the archaic, flowery, poetic words, which can be strange to a contemporary reader, can be justified because (as Tolkien argued in ‘Translating Beowulf’) the poem was written in a heightened, poetic form of Old English – which Tolkien’s version is reflecting. There is also the occasional, very beautiful line or phrase, such as:

Darkling night and the shapes of mantling shadow came gilding over the world, dark beneath the clouds. (page 31)

Defeated and death doomed to the water-demons’ mere. (Page 37)

But it is the commentary on the poem that is the major selling point of this book. They are the result of a lifetime of reading and teaching the poem, and are full of fantastic observations and detail. An example is connecting the story of Shyld Shefing, which opens the poem, with the legend of King Arthur. There is something poetic in the fact that Shyld not only is washed up by the sea as a baby, from some other mysterious place, but in his death is returned to the sea as it apparently vanishes without a trace. Or at least, that is the implication in the line ‘None can report with truth, nor lords in their halls, nor mighty men beneath the sky, who received that load’.

There is also, in the back of the book, a text in Old English written by Tolkien. Tolkien’s skill with Old English is exceptional (also, as a side note, the language of the Roherrum in The Lord of the Rings is Old English, which is spoken in the extended version of the films, and the names are often from Old English. King Theoden, for example – ‘þeoden’ translates to ‘leader of men’) and here it really does show. To be honest, people who know Old English well are going to get the most out of this book. I only have a passing knowledge of Old English, and cannot read it without a dictionary close by, but even then I was able to get a feel for just how talented he was with the language. It really is impressive to see.

So the question will inevitably be asked, is this a good book? Well, it entirely depends on what you as a reader are looking to get out of it. As a translation of Beowulf it is not great. There are worse translations, and there are translations that are in every way superior. My personal recommendation, if Beowulf appeals to you, is to first read the Seamus Heaney translation – since it is beautiful and has a great feel, and then if you want to go deeper into the actual text then get the Howell D. Chickering translation - which is my personal favourite translation, and is far more accurate than the Heaney version (it is called ‘the Heaneywulf’ because although it is a fine poem, it is not a very accurate translation of Beowulf). If this is a book that appeals because you are a fan of Tolkien then you might see some interesting parallels between this story and his famous legendarium and Middle Earth. If you are a serious student of the poem, while the translation might be lacking – everything else in this book will more than reward the purchase. So what can ultimately be said about this book is: what each reader gets out of this book will entirely depend on what they want to get from it.