Wednesday, April 9

Tolkien's "Beowulf"

J.R.R. Tolkien’s never-before-published 1926 translation of the 11th century epic poem Beowulf will at long last be released this next month by HarperCollins.  The work was edited by his son Christopher, who has also added textual commentary and historical background.  According to Christopher, the elder Tolkien “seems never to have considered its publication.” He left it among his papers and notebooks along with numerous other unpublished manuscripts at the time of his death in 1973. 

This new volume will also include a story called Sellic Spell and excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf Tolkien delivered at Oxford during the two decades between the First and Second World Wars. Of course, avid readers will remember that Tolkien did publish one of those lectures, “The Monsters and the Critics,” in 1936. Indeed, that short monograph was described as “epoch-making” by no less an authority than Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his own hugely popular 1999 verse translation of Beowulf.

Tolkien treats the Beowulf poet as “an imaginative writer,” not a historical reconstruction. According to Heaney this “brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem has been valued and therefore initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.” 

Beowulf has been perhaps the most revered poem in the English language, at least since the 18th century, when the sole manuscript was rescued from fire and and translated and disseminated widely. This is more than a little ironic given the fact that Beowulf was not actually written in English—or at least, not in an English we would recognize—but rather in Old Anglo-Saxon. More akin to German than to English, the language was rendered entirely in runes.  Moreover, the story is not even set in England, but instead in the Norse homelands of Scandinavia

Tolkien’s almost universally beloved body of mythopoeic fiction was deeply influenced by Beowulf. So this translation will be a cherished gem for all serious readers of his work.

Just to whet your appetite, here is a brief comparison between Heaney's translation and that of Tolkien:

Heaney’s versification:

Time went by, the boat was
on water,
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the
sand churned in surf, warriors
a cargo of weapons, shining
in the vessel’s hold, then
heaved out,
away with a will in their
wood-wreathed ship.

Tolkien’s versification:

On went the hours:
on ocean afloat
under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely
brave man aboard;
breakers pounding
ground the shingle.
Gleaming harness
they hove to the bosom of the
bark, armour
with cunning forged then cast
her forth
to voyage triumphant,
fleet foam twisted.

1 comment:

Scribbler said...

This is a BUY.