The OF Blog: J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Friday, August 01, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Lo!  the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.  Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute – a good king was he!

To him was an heir afterwards born, a young child in his courts whom God sent for the comfort of the people:  perceiving the dire need which they long while endured aforetime being without a prince.  To him therefore the Lord of Life who rules in glory granted honour among men:  Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang – the heir of Scyld in Scedeland.  Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deed and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father's bosom, that after in his age there cleave to him loyal knights of his table, and the people stand by him when war comes.  By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled. (p. 13)

Ever since I read extended excerpts of the poem in translation when I was a high school senior over twenty years ago, Beowulf has fascinated and frustrated me.  It contains a depth of character and theme that is uncommon even among the best epic poems of the past three millennia.  Yet there is a remoteness to it, perhaps due to the distance between Old English and its modern descendent and the attendant difficulties in rendering idioms precisely, or maybe it's because it is difficult for teachers to convey adequately the poem's riches to students who struggle with its form.  Whatever the reason, each time that I've revisited the poem, whether it be in prose or poetic translation/adaptation, it has been akin to staring at bright wonders through a smoky glass screen.

Therefore it was with great interest that I received the news that after decades of delays, J.R.R. Tolkien's translation notes on Beowulf would finally be published in book form.  I have been long aware of Tolkien's expertise on Beowulf and the Old English language in general and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I found to be entrancing when I read it around twenty years ago.  But there was some trepidation as well.  Having dabbled in translations ever since a college Latin course on The Æneid twenty years ago, I am well aware of the distortions that occur when going not just from one language to another, but also from the metered poetic lines to prose.  The sense of the lines may be preserved better in prose, but the elegance is almost certainly lost. 

Tolkien's Beowulf was originally done as a sort of extended notes, one that would allow Tolkien to make easier references to specific lines in modern English without needing to translate repeatedly to suit the context of the cited passages in his lectures.  Completed by 1926, when Tolkien had recently accepted the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, his Beowulf translation largely remained locked up in his study, only updated occasionally in light of new research that indicated different ways of restoring and reading the burnt original manuscript.  Although in the intervening decades Tolkien became one of the foremost experts on the poem, there never really was any intent on his part to have his prose translation published.  Yet it still played a role in his research, serving as a point of reference whenever he would write commentary notes for his lectures on the poem, particularly its first half (which was the part studied by English students who were intrepid enough then to complete their degree through the Anglo-Saxon path).

So what value does this translation have in 2014, besides showing how one of its foremost mid-20th century experts approached the material?  Sadly, not much at all, except as a curio.  The translation itself is decent enough and after having read three 1990s-2000s verse translations (Rebsamen, Liuzza, Heaney), Tolkien's rendering of certain expressions (such as "Lo!" for "Hwæt!") certainly stands its ground with these translations (of which, I found the Rebsamen to best capture the alliterative poetic structure of the original).  There are moments of livelihood in Tolkien's translation, and he certainly utilizes the original's use of stock expressions (under the clouds, under heaven) to great effect when establishing scene and mood, but there are some flaws to his approach.  In particular, his use of now-archaic expressions, such as the above-quoted "throve in honour" or "thus both a young man bring it to pass," while occasionally bestowing a sense of ancient grandeur, often creates stilted dialogues that weaken the effectiveness of pivotal scenes.  But these lapses can be forgiven, especially considering the apparent intent behind writing this prose translation.

I am less charitable when it comes to the remainder of the book.  The commentary section, comprising roughly half of the 425 page book, is interesting enough at times, but it lacks enough editorial framework to make it readily accessible to general readers.  While it was mostly clear for myself, I have had some background in academic discussion of texts.  Readers who have not can easily find themselves skipping over this section, as it is not worth their time trying to decipher what exactly Tolkien is referring to in quoting certain passages and explaining their word meanings.  Christopher Tolkien could have done a better job in providing more context for these discussions instead of just posting the poem commentaries whole cloth.  The remaining two sections, "Sellic Spell" and "The Lay of Beowulf" serve little purpose beyond illustrating how the poem sparked some playing around with the language and structure of the original poem in his creation of two (or three, counting a revision) minor poems.  Even worse, Tolkien's famous 1936 essay on the poem's monsters is left out of this book.  The structure of the sections is just very poorly-done.

Yet despite this lack of interesting material outside the translation itself, I mostly enjoyed reading Tolkien's translation.  Yes there are flaws in this 1926 prose rendering, but as I noted above, these are interesting not just because they show a writer trying to render as literally as possible words constructed in a different language and in a different medium, but because the care with which Tolkien had done this appeals to me as an occasional translator.  But outside of reading it as a look in how a 20th century expert approached his subject, there is little to recommend Tolkien's translation to those who are already familiar with the story.  It is a good prose translation, but there are other, better translations, especially into verse, that reflect the changes in Beowulf scholarship since Tolkien's 1973 death.

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