on 24 May 2014
I expect the publication of this volume will strike some as a purely money-making exercise, especially given J R R Tolkien's reticence in pubishing the translation during his lifetime - but one has only to read his thoughts on translating the poem to see that his reticence was mainly due to not wishing to produce something that might 'replace' reading Beowulf in its original Old English.
Arguably Heaney's translation is one that can be read alone, capturing the essence of the original - yet it isn't necessarily true to the original - for one cannot preserve both meaning and a sense of real poetry in a translation. One has to be sacrificed. John Porter's word-for-word translation gives us a literal meaning, yet it is hardly (nor is it meant to be) an easy read. What Tolkien's translation does is to preserve the original meaning yet in such a way as it is not hidden by poetic flourish. In other words it is an ideal translation for student, scholar or interested lay-person - but wouldn't necessariy make the best read for someone with a passing interest. This is because Tolkien never meant it to be so - it was a workman-like translation that was never meant to replace a reading of the original. If you want the proper metre and poetry of the original then one must read it in the Old English, for to read a modern poetic 'version' ike Heaney's one necessarily loses out on meaning.
In my view Tolkien's translation is that middle ground - readable yet informative; a translation of a great poem rather than a great poem itself - but even so very well written, and truer to the original than any other popular translation. On a personal note, as one who has researched the poem, I wish it had been to hand when I was writing my own book.
What's more I wish his notes had been available, too. These form the most interesting part of the work - a briliant analysis of the poem 9crafted by his son Christopher) out of Tolkien's lecture notes from his teaching days at Oxford. One is greeted with not a dry commentary but great insights, as one might expect from a man who championed the poem when others questioned its quaity.
If you are interested in the poem and it's history, then the book is a must; if you're interested in Tolkien's ideas and wish to see how the poem influenced his fiction, the clues are here too. The inclusion, after all this, of his Sellic Spell, a reconstruction of the 'folktale' behind Beowulf, which he argues became emeshed within historical events to become the poem we know today, is a real bonus. It reads ike a Grimm's fairy tale. I loved it. After this come two variants of a poem based on Beowulf - both of which are of interest.
If i have any criticisms they are that I wish an Old English version of the poem had been placed alongside the translation, as often the Old English is referred to in the commentary, and one feels a loss that the original is not present (and I'm sure Tolkien would have wanted wider public access to the original poem - luckily the Sellic spell does come in an Old English version, too); also I wished that we could have seen the complete set of lecture notes, though what does appear is more than adequate. His lecture 'Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics' would aso have made a good inclusion - but thebook is hefty enough as it is, and both this essay, and Beowulf in Old English are widely available. My advice would be to get hold of a copy, and then let Tolkien be your guide in to its mysteries, for in my opinion there is no better guide than this man whose love for the poem shines through on every page of this book.
on 30 August 2014
During the last years, the Tolkien Estate has released several hybrid books which combine original retellings and translations of ancient hero legends with further commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien on the source material, and Christopher Tolkien on his father’s work. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is the latest book in this series, and it has incurred greater interest since outside of his fiction Tolkien is best known for his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. The enjoyment one can derive from this title, though, relates directly to one’s tolerance for arcane scholarship. I will also add that the book itself is truly beautiful (though my final opinion of it isn’t based on how it looks physically). The cover design is amazing, and its touch is just as good.
The book contains an introduction by Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf, “Notes on the text of the translation” (both of Tolkien and his son), “Introductory note to the Commentary” (Christopher’s explanation of his editing of his father’s comments), “Commentary Accompanying the Translation of Beowulf” (drawn from Tolkien’s lecture notes), “Sellic Spell” (three versions of Tolkien’s attempt at telling the old source folktale for the legend as we have it), and “The Lay of Beowulf” (two short poems by Tolkien). It should be perhaps noted, as Christopher Tolkien mentions in the preface of the book, that the book isn’t a final work (as it isn’t completely finished) and is instead meant as a ‘portrait’ of the author, both of Beowulf and Middle-Earth. As such it isn’t truly meant to compare with other modern translations, such as that of Heaney.
The first thing that shocked me was the great detail and care put into the book. It is clear that the book wasn’t constructed as a critical essay of his views (as was put in the preface by Christopher Tolkien), but a portrait. All of it, from start to finish, is constructed with great detail and care, truly benefitting the book.
The translation is in prose form, with an ear to how long sentences are and to alliteration, and not a poetic one (although a brief poetic translation Tolkien did is offered in the volume). The poem’s style is very well kept, though at times it can get bogged down. In this sense, it is better than a lot of translations, but also worse than some others. It shines in battle scenes and in the sadder, bleaker moments where the poem looks back to a better time or looks ahead to a worse one. One can almost hear echoes in this of the same sort as those passages of mourning for ages past in Lord of the Rings, when reminiscing about events of the first age. It is a biting sense of loss that comes across clearly in Tolkien’s Beowulf, and one of my favourite aspects of it.
The commentary of the book is perhaps even better, though this depends more on how much the reader is interested in the etymology of particular words, and so on. In this section, it delves into a broader-scale analysis on theme or possible sources. Though my limited knowledge of old English and linguistics (aside from latin, and even then) prevented me from fully enjoying this area, it was still fascinating to read Tolkien’s take on this. It was part of the reason why I decided to purchase and read the book, knowing the author’s interest in the poem.
‘Sellic Spell’ is interesting, though short. As Tolkien wrote, “This version is a story, not the story”. It has common folk-tale tropes, and stands well in this genre. It was enjoyable, as was ‘The Lay of Beowulf’. This latter one is under ten pages, and has a nice rhythm and force to it. Christopher’s recollection of his father singing them as bedtime songs made me chuckle, too. All in all I also deeply enjoyed reading this part of the book too, if only for the author’s take on it.
Tolkien’s Beowulf is beautifully complex, and the commentary is amazing. My only real complaint was that ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ wasn’t included, but then this isn’t really a flaw with the book itself. The poetic-prose translation and its related notes were deeply interesting, as was ‘Sellic Spell’, and ‘The Law of Beowulf’. I give it the highest rating, and thoroughly recommend it to Beowulf fans, whether scholarly or casual; Tolkien completists; and casual fans of Tolkien’s fiction, as it is deeply interesting to see the author’s take on Beowulf and the scholarly notes can be chosen to be read or not read. Whether you like or dislike the translation, it is undoubtable that it this book is at least worth to purchase and read. You will not regret to do so.
on 26 May 2014
Hwaet! First, before you pop this book into your basket, you might like to know that for the time being, it's also available in one of Harper Collins's fancy de luxe editions - see Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell. This version comes in a slipcase matching those of its predecessors. The slipcase is covered in an episcopally purple paper, and decorated with a golden version of the Tolkien dragon that once embellished Allen and Unwin's de luxe edition of The Hobbit. The slipcase fits the book snugly, but not so tightly that extracting the book is difficult, which is more than I can say of my copy of The Fall of Arthur! The book itself - rather fatter than it looks in Amazon's photo - is quarter-bound in purple and grey, with the same golden dragon coiling on the front board and a golden JRRT monogram on the back. As usual, the monogram also appears in gold on the spine. The book is printed by L.E.G.O. Spa on lovely thick, opaque, creamy paper, and bound in signatures with brown and white head- and tail-bands and a grey silk ribbon marker.
A folding frontispiece shows Tolkien's original colour painting of the dragon, as well as two black and white Tolkien drawings of Grendel's Mere. ( No sign of Angelina Jolie, alas.) At the foot of the half-title page, another Tolkien-drawn dragon confronts a warrior who looks in imminent danger of being lunch. It all adds up to a book that's very handsome indeed, and more than beautiful enough to justify its premium pricing.
As for the text - which seems to be the same in both editions - the book begins with a seven page preface by Christopher Tolkien. Then there's Christopher's eleven page introduction to his father's translation. The crib-style prose translation itself, with marginal line numbers to aid reference to the original poem, occupies ninety-three pages, supplemented by twenty-four pages of JRRT's notes. Next we get Christopher's five page introduction to the commentary that he has assembled from his father's lectures, which, at two hundred and seventeen pages, is by far the biggest part of the book. Finally, as a dessert after the scholarly main course, we happily get some JRRT inventions: there's a sixty page section devoted to the great man's Sellic Spell, which is an attempt to imagine a folk tale that the Beowulf poet could have used as a source, and then nine concluding pages for JRRT's Beowulf Lays. Conspicuous by its absence, as noted by J. Grigsby, is JRRT's celebrated British Academy lecture, still in print in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, and neither do we get that book's chapter On Translating Beowulf or JRRT's unfinished rendition of Beowulf into modern verse.
Subjectively - and writing as an unscholarly hobbitomane less interested in Beowulf than in Tolkien - I rank this in the middle of JRRT's professorial output; it's distinctly more accessible than his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, but not as much fun as his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: With Pearl and Sir Orfeo or The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. JRRT's Beowulf is compelling, but it does suffer from being cast in prose instead of in verse. Reading it just hasn't been as engaging as listening to Seamus Heaney reading his own verse translation of the poem on Radio 4. (An abridged audio download of Seamus's recording is available from amazon - see Beowulf: A New Translation.)
JRRT's commentary, by contrast, is impossible to fault. His imaginative involvement in Beowulf's world is so deep that it animates his erudition with a wonderful vitality, and for those of us who love The Lord of the Rings, there are many passages that feel like premonitions of Rohan. Because of course, there would be no Rohirrim if the Anglo Saxons hadn't inspired them, and not the least of the pleasures of this book is the way in which it hints at the alchemy that turned Beowulf's culture into Théoden's. For serious students of Beowulf, this book is no doubt essential, but I'd expect that many a fan of The Lord of the Rings, OE specialist or not, would find plenty in it to enjoy.
on 24 May 2014
A few days ago we finally get a chance to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of classic epic ‘Beowulf’ but this edition besides it includes additional content which makes it interesting and definitely recommended purchase.
Though it was always difficult to compare translations especially when it comes to such masterpieces such as ‘Beowulf’ I would agree with fellow reviewer that Seamus Heaney's verse translation has its advantages in terms of emotional, while Tolkien’s is more complex, in a good sense.
I was amazed to learn how early in his writer career Tolkien decided to embark on such brave journey of Beowulf translation which cannot be seen in any way.
Besides beautiful translation in prose form this book excels in additional materials which come along. Inside reader will find footnotes made by J.R.R. son Christopher Tolkien about the translation process that started from the manuscripts J.R.R. had left behind; next, there are more than two hundred pages of writer’s lecture excepts about the poem, ‘The Lay of Beowulf’, a shorter story version made in verses made for kids to be used as a bedtime story and probably the most important, ‘Sellic Spell’ additional fiction piece J.R.R. wrote that tells a story about the previous Beowulf adventures.
Overall, speaking only about the translation though I cannot say that J.R.R. Tolkien translation is better or worse than Heaney’s, my suggestion would be to read it both to see which one suits you more. Though given how great both of them are in their own special way, maybe you will do as I did – have them both one next to the other on the shelf.
on 17 June 2014
This book is a real gem and a great literary feat. There is a lot of hidden treasure waiting to be explored is this book which Christopher Tolkien, son of JRR Tolkien, has expertly edited. JRR Tolkien's translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, is both scholarly and easy to read. I have read several English translations of Beowulf. I found this translation by JRR to be the most accurate literal translation in English of Beowulf. It may not sing as lyrically as Seamus Heaney's translation - but it is clearly more literal and accurate for helping modern English readers understand the story of Beowulf.
The real rich treasure lies buried in the copious footnotes and rich commentary on Beowulf taken from JRR Tolkien's lectures which he gave to students at Oxford University. The third treasure is a poem written by JRR Tolkien as a prequel to the original poem, Beowulf.
You get more than your money's worth in this rich book.
on 23 May 2015
Did the publishers really think this was going to be a book that was going to be soon forgotten and didn't deserve to be printed on good paper or to be given the dignity of a sewn binding? Shame on them and all the many publishers like them who only think of their costs and profit margins.
Because of course the answer to my question is that the publishers knew they were assured of all public and University libraries having to buy a copy plus a good many serious Tolkien fans who always meant to get round to reading Beowulf, some of whom may also have been softened up by the publicity given to Heaney's verse translation (plus some who were disappointed by it). All in all they knew they couldn't fail no matter how badly produced it is.
How many times have I heard or read discussions about contemporary publishing in which I've heard the interested parties say that the future of publishing in the digital age will be in publishing handsome books that people will be proud to own permanently (or as permanently as life allows)?
So when will we see this new, particularly British, publishing which has some self respect and respect for their customers? I see no sign of it in so many books that are obviously of permanent value, although I often come across luxury books of dubious literary/historical/bibliographic value, or books which have only temporary or topical value but which are produced up to far higher standards than you would expect, and often cheaper than you would expect.
Which makes it even more offensive that a book like this, which most of us interested in buying would expect to keep and cherish, should be produced in a form that in a few years will look very browned at the edges and unless handled carefully will develop a weak or cracked spine. And I might also add that once it loses its paper jacket the underlying hard cover will start to wear at the hinge edges, and the paper surface of the boards will look progressively more furry and unpleasant the more it is used, instead of ageing gracefully as cloth can do.
At the very least we had the right to expect it to be printed on decent quality paper, and with pages that would stay together with easy handling and normal use over time
Frankly, it's enough to make you want to convert to the digital book, and I can't say worse than that.
Many other reviewers here have reviewed this for its content, and if I need to say anything at all, then all I need to say is that this should be bought by those who are interested in a close prose translation and in Tolkien's commentary which takes up half the pages,.The importance of the commentary should be obvious to anyone who is aware of his eminence in this field. Tolkien's work on Beowulf is the foundation of scholarship in the subject and it is Tolkien's work one needs to study before anything else. Everyone should read his essay 'The Monsters and the Critics' whether they are studying Beowulf or not, along with the essay 'On Fairy Stories', if they are interested in Tolkien's literary manifesto which applies to Beowulf as well as his own stories of Middle Earth.
The prose translation is not intended to be a pleasure to read, or even easy to read, but it does serve as a useful reference against which to measure the numerous verse translations for their closeness to the original.
5 stars for the text, three stars for the book as product.
But since writing the above I have discovered that the same publisher has also put out a deluxe edition of this book at the considerably higher price of £59. That of course still does not justify what passes for the standard hardback edition being of such poor quality and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion the publishers are trying their best to force customers to spend considerably more than should be necessary.
on 15 October 2015
Great material for a study of Tolkien. Pity that it doesn't have the original text to compare.
Given his passionate love for all things Anglo-Saxon, it's hardly surprising that the famed writer/philologist J.R.R. Tolkien did his own translation of the Old English epic, "Beowulf."
And since Christopher Tolkien is apparently determined to release every scrap of paper his father ever doodled on, the public is finally getting to see Tolkien's "Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary," along with an original piece based on Beowulf known as "A Sellic Spell." The translation is pretty good (if slightly clunky at times), but the real magic exists in Tolkien's own verse, which glimmers with the starlit beauty that he was so well-known for.
A creature named Grendel is attacking the beautiful mead-hall of Heorot, sneaking in at night to carry off and/or kill innocent people. King Hrothgar is powerless to stop the monster. But then Beowulf, an already-legendary hero from Geatland, arrives at Heorot specifically to kill Grendel -- and using only his superhuman strength, he is able to arm-wrestle Grendel to death. Not joking.
But that isn't the end of his troubles. Grendel's equally grotesque mother is enraged by her child's death, and attacks Heorot to lure Beowulf out. This time, he'll be fighting on HER turf, a toxic swamp where only he can go, and the legendary hero must marshal all his strength to stop the monster once and for all. And as the years go by, he's faced with a terrible new enemy, one that threatens his homeland and everyone in it.
Tolkien's translation of "Beowulf" is probably one of the more accurate, loving ones that is easily available, since the man had encyclopedic knowledge of Old English and its literature. And he clearly made an effort to maintain the meaning of everything he translated, giving it the rough, earthy flavour of Old English literature -- as lovely as some passages are, it's a story awash in blood, mead and noble warriors threatened by "billows of destroying fire."
The translation can be clunky at times, with a few lines feeling like they were translated by Yoda ("Thereafter was fortune in war vouchsafed to Hrothgar"). This is not a work to be read casually. Instead, it seems to be Tolkien's attempt to stick as closely to the original text as possible, complete with kennings ("warriorking," "ring-mail," "hearth-comrades") and a tendency to splinter sentences into a string of connected phrases. He did abandon the caesura (which split every line rhythmically), instead making long, songlike stanzas that flow like streamwater.
The biggest problem is perhaps that this is a translation, and as such does not allow Tolkien's writing skills to fully emerge. A few moments suit his rich leaves-and-starlight style of writing ("He set the radiance of the sun and moon as a light for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the world with boughs and with leaves..."), but not as often as I could have wished.
That is saved instead for "A Sellic Spell," which was Tolkien's attempt to recreate what he imagined the original story may have been like, based on his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. Here, Tolkien's imagination and linguistic skill are freer and smoother -- he presents "Beewolf's" story like a mythic fairy tale, with moments of luminous beauty ("they saw the King’s house standing in a green dale; and all the valley was lit with the light of the golden roof") mingled with gory violence (" the hide split, and the bones burst, and her head rolled off down the passage into the water below, dripping with blood").
By Tolkien's own admission, "Sellic Spell" does not exactly mirror the plot of the actual literary "Beowulf." Instead, like so many of his works, it seems to be an intersection between literature, fantasy and myth -- he speculates on the original names of various characters ("Unfriend," "Grinder," "Beewolf"), while also streamlining out some of the filler and adding a more magical, almost ethereal quality to the prose.
And finally, Tolkien attempted to rework the story into "The Lay of Beowulf," which is more of a medieval-style ballad than an epic poem. Anyone who has read Tolkien's poetry will recognize his lovely style here, with many references to the moon, the sea, flames, jewels, swords and gold. It echoes of the songs and poems that he wove into "Lord of the Rings" (" Far over the misty moorlands cold/where the wild wolf howled upon the wold,/past dragon’s lair and nicor’s hold/and far from the lights of Heorot").
"Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary" is not the easiest translation of this classic work for casual readers, but it may be one of the most loving -- especially with the original retellings that Tolkien himself created, both in song and in prose. A long-lost treasure, at last revealed.
on 4 November 2015
I can only comment on The Sellic Spell at the moment as I've only read that - but it is wonderful. Taking away the christian influence of the poem and delving into where the poem might have come from as a pagan folk tale. Really wonderful. I can't wait to get stuck into the poem now.
on 13 July 2014
There's no question, Professor Tolkien's translation is less than engaging, but his commentary is superb Buy the book for his painstaking and thorough approach to problems of meaning in Anglo-Saxon, enlivened here and there with touches of humour. Erudition at its finest.