Review of Tolkien’s Beowulf

Tolkien's dragon, printed before the title page, from the holdings of Tolkien Drawings in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.
Tolkien’s dragon, printed before the title page, from the holdings of Tolkien Drawings in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been reading the long-awaited, recently published Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (CT). Of course, the internet has been abuzz about this release for quite a while, and reviews have shown up here and there. I decided early in my reading that I wanted to share my thoughts, so here they are. There is little room to criticize Tolkien for his translation, or his assessments of the poem. Reading his translation was enjoyable; it presents what is, by now, expected from him. Tolkien’s translation represents the poem well, with a sense of some driving force in the language at some of the most dramatic points in the narrative, at times waxing poetic in content despite the prose form. As much as one can say, it is a fairly “literal” translation, at times following OE syntax rather than more modern expectations. It is clear that Tolkien meant to capture some sense of the pastness of Beowulf in his work, using archaisms throughout, incorporating elevated diction and early modern language forms in the characters’ speeches. As for the notion of prosody, there is even a type “rhythm” in some of Tolkien’s translation, and CT remarks on this distinctive quality (8-11). However, here we come to one criticism of the editorial matter. CT also claims that the “rhythm” of Tolkien’s translation is one “with no trace of alliteration” (8), in contrast to his work on a translation of Beowulf into modern English verse. Yet alliteration certainly makes its appearance throughout the translation, as a few examples show. After the initial introduction of Grendel and his attack on Heorot:

Thereafter at dawn with the first light of day was Grendel’s strength in battle made plain to men; then was weeping after feasting upraised, a mighty cry at morn. The glorious king, their prince proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, that demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure!

In the celebration after Grendel’s defeat, the poet in the hall begins his song:

He told of the sons of Finn. When the sudden onslaught came upon them the hero of the Half-Danes, Hnaef of the Scyldings, fell by fate in the Frisian slaughter.

Later in the poem, after Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, as the warrior lay dying, the poet tells:

Then I have heard that speedily the son of Wihstan, when these words were spoken, did hearken to his wounded lord in combat stricken, striding in his netlike mail, his corslet for battle woven, under the barrow’s vault.

Hopefully these passages give a sense of the style, rhythm, and alliteration that at times moves through this translation. Tolkien, of course, did not mean to capture what may be considered “classical Old English verse” in his modern English prose rendering. He had previously undertaken a partial translation of Beowulf into alliterative poetry. CT briefly mentions this text at times, quoting snippets of it for comparison in the commentary, and it is a disappointing lack in this book–the poetic translation on facing pages with the prose translation would have been nice. Nonetheless, Tolkien’s prose does preserve some aspects of the OE language, including distinctive alliteration at moments of swelling drama. The commentary included in this book ranges across matters unsurprising for those who have read Tolkien’s other scholarship on Beowulf (such as his famous lecture on Beowulf, or his posthumously published notes on Finn and Hengest). He discusses the poem’s themes and unity, related mythology, genealogies, historicity, archaeology, textual and linguistic matters (such as cruxes, emendations, etymologies), and issues concerning the manuscript and scribe. Scholars of Beowulf, Old English, and Anglo-Saxon studies generally will not be disappointed by these notes. Most of my criticisms have to do with editorial decisions by CT–such as the idiosyncratic line numbering for the prose translation that does not match the line number of the OE poem (referring to Klaeber’s edition throughout), which leads to a confusing need for two sets of reference systems in the textual notes and commentary. My greatest criticism concerns the editorial handling of the commentary. CT explains that this material comes from Tolkien’s lectures on Beowulf, prepared for readers in the English BA at Oxford, with some additions from lectures designed for those specializing in medieval philology. Unfortunately, the published commentary represents only part of the whole–chosen, CT claims, for the purposes of audience, attempting to read both popular and scholarly readers–not published in entirety because of “the need to keep within limits of length” (133). Needless to say, the omissions are disappointing. One example: in discussing a textual question about line 83 (in Klaeber’s edition, line 67 in Tolkien’s translation), Tolkien focuses on the OE word lenge (“long”, “far off,” etc.)–but CT omits “a lengthy analysis of the historical linguistic possibilities,” and only summarizes the conclusions. This is one instance in which Tolkien’s philological prowess and analytical acuity might have shone, if included. Other redactions come at points where Tolkien tackled particular textual cruces, and in one instance CT interjects a note stating that one such set of notes “runs to many pages of a closely-reasoned examination, much too long to be included here” (193), after which he only summarizes rather than presenting the material as it stands in the notes. Many other similar instances exist. The result is a consistent reminder, with every editorial intervention, that these moments of Tolkien’s scholarly mind at work are shrouded by a veil. For many readers both popular and scholarly–including many who still look to Tolkien for his assessments of the poem–it is a shame that Tolkien’s notes were not published in full (following the previous lead of Alan Bliss, as in Tolkien’s Finn and Hengest), either in this volume or otherwise. Despite the redaction of the commentary, these notes (such as they are) do offer some great gems of Tolkien’s thoughts on Beowulf. One note that I found particularly shining, toward the beginning of the commentary, is Tolkien’s explanation and analysis of kennings (141-43). He begins by describing the technique, giving as excellent a definition as I have read: “a technical term for those pictorial descriptive compounds or brief expressions which can be used in place of the normal plain word” (141, original emphasis). Following are several clarifying examples, and, finally, the heart of the comment, a close analysis of the kenning at hand, ofer hronrade (line 10 in Klaeber’s edition, lines 7-8 in Tolkien’s translation)–including some of Tolkien’s characteristically witty criticism of others’ renderings. Another example of Tolkien’s scholarship is an extended discussion (205-13–one of several extended examinations, e.g. 169-86) of what he saw as the “two fundamental materials” of the poem, “‘Historial’ legend and Fairy Story” (205), as well as “above it all, working on this powerful blend, is the latest poet, our poet, the Mallory of the Heorot legends, with his contemporary ideas of virtue and courtesy, and his theology, and his own particular apprehension (often of dramatic cast) of the characters: his Hrothgar, his Beowulf” (206). Here we see Tolkien dealing with his passion for the poem, what elsewhere he calls the “soup” of story. As that comment may indicate, much of this section is reminiscent of Tolkien’s other published works, drawing together ideas found, for example, in his essays “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien reveals much about his perspectives on the underlying components of the poem, the ways in which the poet has brought them together, and the ways in which they comprise the text as it survives in the manuscript copy. Related to this lengthy discussion are the final components of the book: Tolkien’s short story titled “Sellic Spell,” his own version of this text in Old English, and two versions of his poem titled “The Lay of Beowulf.” All of these texts portray Tolkien’s fascination with Beowulf as a fairy story, a folk-tale (he believed) carried down from old lore and crafted into a new composition for the poet’s contemporary audience. Both “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf” seek to re-present (or reconstruct) the lost fairy story in new forms, retellings of the heart of the Beowulf legend. Tolkien especially aimed at that purpose with “Sellic Spell,” which he described as “an attempt to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf” (qtd. 355). There is not much more to say about these, except that they are enjoyable thought experiments, very Tolkienian in their qualities, and that it is good to see them published at last. While some have leveled criticism at the book because Tolkien expressed his own misgivings about publishing his translation(s) of Beowulf, it is telling that the work existed in multiple manuscript forms, including Tolkien’s own revisions over the years. By way of analogy, I am reminded that we wouldn’t have many works of authors like Emily Dickinson without posthumous publications. It is certainly a joy to be able to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, several decades in the making.


2 thoughts on “Review of Tolkien’s Beowulf

  1. Really good Beowulf review Brandon. I like how you added the examples of the introduction of Grendel and his attack on Heorot in the middle.I need to write a book report on this so your post helps out a ton! Thanks!

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