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Customer Review

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.
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