Tolkien’s Beowulf

When I heard the news that J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was to be published, edited by his son Christopher, I was excited. (Counting this one, I own nine different editions of the poem.) Tolkien, most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was also a noted scholar of Old English, so an edition of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem by him carries some rather high expectations. But when I learned that it was a prose translation he completed in 1926, I became somewhat more cautious in my expectations.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014, hardcover, $21.17*

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I’ve finally obtained and read a copy, and I must, sadly, state that this is a book that no one should buy. The translation is stilted and unidiomatic at its best—and at its worst it is incomprehensible. The formatting and editorial choices make it difficult to use as an academic resource. And Tolkien’s commentary on the poem, which is perhaps the most valuable portion, is old, incomplete, and undated—this last a significant problem given that it is taken from lectures he gave across the length of his forty-year career.

The casual reader, a person who would be most attracted by the cachet of Tolkien’s name, who simply wants to read a version of the Beowulf story without learning Old English, will find little of value in this translation. Tolkien himself was not satisfied with this translation and never attempted to publish it. It is mainly a literal, word-for-word translation, which makes for incomprehensibility. Take this passage, which introduces the monster Grendel, lines 702–09 in the original poem:

There came, in darkling night passing, a shadow walking. The spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall. All except one. Well-known it was to men that, if God willed it not, the robber-fiend no power had to drag them to the shades; but he there wakeful in his foe’s despite abode grimhearted the debate of war.

The stilted and unidiomatic syntax requires multiple readings to make the lines comprehensible. The same lines from Roy Liuzza’s translation read:

In the dark night he came creeping, the shadow-goer. The bowmen slept who were to hold that horned hall—all but one. It was well-known to men that that demon foe could not drag them under the dark shadows if the Maker did not wish it; but he, wakeful, keeping watch for his enemy, awaited, enraged, the outcome of battle.

Or in Heaney’s verse translation:

               Then out of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift;
the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,
all except one; it was widely understood
that as long as God disallowed it,
the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne.
One man, however, was in fighting mood,
awake and on edge, spoiling for action.

Not only do these Liuzza’s and Heaney’s translations use conventional, modern syntax, but Tolkien often chooses odd words. For instance, here he uses spearmen to translate the Old English sceotend, literally shooter—Liuzza translates it as bowman, and Heaney renders it contextually as hall-guard. The word can carry the general sense of warrior, especially when it is chosen to alliterate, as it is here. But then why introduce spearmen, especially since it counts Beowulf, the one who is not sleeping, as one of them, when Beowulf does not use a spear, favoring rather his hands or a sword? Tolkien translates geþing as debate, and while the word can mean council or deliberation, it can also mean fate or decision, which is clearly the sense intended here—Liuzza translates it, outcome, while Heaney takes some liberty here with his spoiling for action. Tolkien translates bolgen-mod as grimhearted, but belgan means to swell with anger, and to be bolgen-mod is to have one’s mind (mod) swollen with anger, or enraged. Grimhearted, on the other hand, connotes a coolness and lack of passion. (This distinction may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but the difference is important and is an example of why old translations are not always the best choice. In her 2011 book, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies, Leslie Lockett outlines the Anglo-Saxon notion of the mind operating as something akin to a boiler, swelling and generating pressure as emotions run hot. Tolkien, obviously, knew nothing of this hydraulic metaphor, but no translation published today should ignore it.) And Tolkien uses the archaic verb abode instead of the comprehensible awaited. Archaisms like this one abound in his translation, giving the poem an antique tone that is not present in the Old English—translators of medieval works often do this, destroying the contemporary tone of the work; such works weren’t composed in outdated language, so why translate it that way? He also inserts anachronisms. For instance, knight is used throughout the translation instead of warrior or thane. Knighthood is a social rank associated with the later middle ages—the Old English word cniht means boy.

If you’re simply looking for a good, modern translation of Beowulf so you can read and appreciate the poem as a literary work, then there are several excellent choices available. Seamus Heaney’s verse translation conveys the rhythm, power, and tone of the Old English original. But in recasting it into modern verse, Heaney takes some liberties with the poem, so while it is in its own right a superb poem, Heaney’s edition sometimes strays a bit from the original.

Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, paperback, $9.60*

If you ‘re looking for a faithful translation, then you have to turn to prose versions. I’m partial to Roy Liuzza’s.

Liuzza, R. M., Beowulf, second edition, Broadview Press, 2012, paperback, $19.95*

Robert Fulk also has a fine, facing-page translation of the poem. The advantage of his edition is that it also includes the other works in the Beowulf manuscript: the poem Judith, a verse translation of the biblical book, and three prose works, The Passion of Saint Christopher, The Wonders of the East, and The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle. Each are fascinating texts in their own right, and can place Beowulf into a larger context. Scholars have seen the manuscript as a whole in different ways, notably as a manual on kingship or how to be a good ruler, or as a text on monsters and monstrosities.

Fulk, R. D., The Beowulf Manuscript, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 3, Harvard University Press, 2010, hardcover, $30.04*

Both Liuzza and Fulk are noted scholars of Old English. They know of what they are writing. Both of these editions contain good introductory material and are suitable for classroom use as well as for casual reading. They are not, however, full-blown critical editions with line-by-line commentary and textual notes.

If one wishes to go beyond casual reading of the poem, Tolkien’s version also is found wanting. The most obvious flaw is that his translation doesn’t use the original line numbering of the poem, making correlating the translation to the original text tedious and time-consuming. By the end of the work, the difference in line numbering is over five hundred lines—Tolkien’s prose translation has 2,669 lines compared to the original poem’s 3,182.

The edition does include textual notes on the original Old English, but it doesn’t include the original text itself. So to use the textual notes, one must consult another edition that contains the Old English. Fortunately, the textual notes do include both sets of line numbering.

By far, the largest section of the book is Tolkien’s commentary on the text. While insightful at points, it does not form a coherent whole. Not only does it not cover large portions of the poem, but the commentary has been gleaned from Tolkien’s lecture notes, spanning some four decades. No dates are given for the comments, so one has no way to correlate them to other contemporary scholarship. And in many cases, the comments reflect out-of-date scholarship. Tolkien, for example, states bluntly that the poem was composed in the mid-eighth century, when in actuality we have no idea when it was composed—only that it was sometime before c. 1010, when the extant manuscript was copied. Today, there is no dearth of scholars who will express an opinion on the poem’s date, but all will heavily caveat their claim and admit that no one really knows when it was composed. In another example, Tolkien refers to the Junius manuscript as the “Cædmonian manuscript,” reflecting a nineteenth-century view that the poems in it were composed by Cædmon. Tolkien denies the ascription to Cædmon, but he still uses the old nomenclature, something no one does today. So the scholarship here, while excellent for its time, is old and creaky now.

Since the book is not expensive, serious scholars of Old English and of Beowulf might want to pick up Tolkien’s edition for the commentary, but will find it of limited utility, something that they might dip into occasionally when considering the critical history of the poem.

And if you want serious and up-to-date commentary on the poem, the must-have, critical edition is Klaeber’s Fourth. This edition, however, contains no modern translation, so it’s not suitable for those who don’t have at least a basic proficiency in Old English.

Fulk, R. D.; Bjork, Robert E.; and Niles, John D.; Klaeber’s Beowulf, fourth edition, University of Toronto Press, 2008, paperback, $39.31*

Tolkien’s edition contains two other original works of his. The first is Sellic Spell (A Very Wonderful Tale), in which Tolkien attempts to recover what he supposes to be the original folk tale on which Beowulf is based. Tolkien wrote it in Old English, admittedly no mean feat, and then translated it into (idiomatic, this time fortunately) modern English. It is a mere curiosity, a fanciful exercise with no serious scholarly value. The second is The Lay of Beowulf, a short, modern-English verse encapsulation of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and his mother. These two works are mildly interesting in their own right, but in and of themselves not worth the price of admission.

In the end, one cannot escape the sense that Tolkien’s Beowulf is little more than an attempt to cash in on the writer’s legacy by foisting an version of the epic poem onto the general public that Tolkien himself was too embarrassed to publish. His legacy, both as a writer of fantasy and as a serious scholar, deserves better.

*All prices are those listed on as of 6 July 2014.

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