J.R.R. Tolkien’s Translation of ‘Beowulf’ Is Published
By Ethan Gilsdorf
May 18, 2014
There’s more to J. R. R. Tolkien than wizards and hobbits. The author of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” was also an Oxford University professor specializing in languages like Old Norse and Old English.
“Beowulf” was an early love, and a kind of Rosetta Stone to his creative work. His study of the poem, which he called “this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,” informed his thinking about myth and language.
But Tolkien was skeptical of converting this Old English poem into modern English. In a 1940 essay, “On Translating Beowulf,” he wrote that turning “Beowulf” into “plain prose” could be an “abuse.”
But he did it anyway. Tolkien completed a prose translation in 1926, while declaring it was “hardly to my liking.” Given his reputation as a perfectionist and his ideas about “Beowulf” and translation, his dissatisfaction is not surprising. Tolkien, then 34, filed his “Beowulf” away, and barely revisited it for the rest of his career.
Now, 88 years after its making, this abandoned translation is being published on Thursday as “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.” From its first word — “Lo!” — to the death of the dragon and Beowulf and the lighting of the funeral pyre, described as “a roaring flame ringed with weeping,” Tolkien’s translation of the poem comprises some 90 pages of the book. Selections from his notes about “Beowulf,” and a “Beowulf”-inspired story and poem, take up 320 pages more.
Advance buzz and some grumbling have been building since March, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tolkien’s American publisher, announced that this “Beowulf” was coming. Scholars and fans are eager to get their hands on another “lost” Tolkien relic. But some worry that his version may seem old-fashioned, while others grouse about the ethics of publishing something that Tolkien had not intended to see the light of day, at least in this form. In a statement, Tolkien’s son Christopher, 89, the editor of the translation, said, “He returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication.” (Neither the press-shy Mr. Tolkien nor the Tolkien estate, which handles Tolkien’s literary property, made themselves available for comment.)
Since Tolkien’s death in 1973, Christopher Tolkien has edited and published many of his father’s unfinished works. Why the long delay for “Beowulf”? Wayne G. Hammond, an author of the “The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide,” said that Christopher Tolkien “naturally concentrated” on first publishing long-promised books, like “The Silmarillion” and that “Tolkien’s own writings, especially his fiction, presumably took priority.”
Not all Tolkien scholars know “Beowulf,” but all “Beowulf” scholars know of Tolkien, whose influential 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” has been credited with restoring the poem’s value as a work of art. Tolkien was himself a poet and sometimes wrote imitations of the Anglo-Saxon meter in which “Beowulf” was composed.
“The formal rules of Old English poetry are very demanding,” said Daniel Donoghue, a professor of English at Harvard who edited the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s well-regarded “Beowulf: A Verse Translation.” “Tolkien knew this very well. This was part of his suspicion of translations in general.”
For this edition of “Beowulf,” Christopher Tolkien combined and edited three manuscripts of his father’s translation. Selections from Tolkien’s 1930s classroom lectures on “Beowulf” become the poem’s commentary. Notes by Christopher show the discrepancies between the versions. He recalls in the notes that his father sang “The Lay of Beowulf,” the poem included in the new book, to him when he was young.
That “Beowulf” influenced Tolkien is not news. From King Hrothgar’s mead-hall Heorot to a thief who steals a golden cup from a dragon, elements of “Beowulf” are echoed throughout Tolkien’s work. “Knowledge of his interest in and love for ‘Beowulf’ is essential to understanding ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” the Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, wrote in an email. “Battles with monsters (Grendel, the dragon) are the heart of Beowulf, and reoccur in Tolkien’s work.”
John Garth, a British critic and the author of “Tolkien and the Great War,” who has read an advance copy of the Tolkien “Beowulf,” wrote in an email, “There is a great deal in this book to keep us busy.” He called the translation’s tone “distinctively Tolkienian” and its style “consciously archaic.”
But, Ms. Flieger said, whether Tolkien’s rendering will prove a significant work of translation “in the world of ‘Beowulf’ scholarship” remains to be seen.
Rather than considering Tolkien’s interpretation a work of art to take its place aside other respected translations — like the 1966 E. Talbot Donaldson version that was replaced by the Heaney in the “Norton Anthology of English Literature” — many scholars will mine it for Tolkien’s comments on “Beowulf” and glimpses into his decision-making as he waded into gray areas of translation.
For Tolkien fans, the new volume’s biggest reward may be the previously unpublished story, “Sellic Spell.” Written in the early 1940s, Tolkien described it as “an attempt to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in ‘Beowulf.’ ”
Still, some say that Tolkien would have protested his translation being published at all. “If Tolkien knew that was going to happen, he would have invented the shredder,” said the “Beowulf” authority Kevin Kiernan, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Most scholars of Anglo-Saxon try their hand at “Beowulf” translations to better understand the poem, he said, but that does not mean theirs, or Tolkien’s, deserves a wider audience.
“Publishing the translation is a disservice to him, to his memory and his achievement as an artist,” Mr. Kiernan added.
For others, the objection isn’t that Tolkien’s “Beowulf” is appearing in print, but that it’s not the version they had expected. Tolkien had also taken stabs at writing a faithful version that mimicked Old English prosody — no easy feat, and an undertaking he didn’t finish. Only a couple dozen lines of this alliterative version have been published, and they are reproduced in the introduction to the new book. Mr. Donoghue called Tolkien’s efforts “a kind of tour de force” but said he doubted that “even someone with Tolkien’s imaginative genius could sustain it over 3,000 lines.”
By publishing this “Beowulf,” his heirs and publisher may be seeking to further secure his literary and scholarly reputation. Or they may simply be accommodating what Ms. Flieger referred to as an audience “eager to read” any and all fragments from their beloved author. Or possibly both. As for Tolkien, displeased with his “Beowulf,” he would have surely wanted more time to edit, more time to revise. But he had other things to do.
“It’s like Gandalf says, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,’ ” Mr. Kiernan said. “He decided he didn’t want to waste it on a translation. He worked on ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord the Rings’ instead.”