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Summer 2014

A Marvelous Tale

book cover imageBeowulf: A Translation and Commentary
by J. R. R. Tolkien,
edited by Christopher Tolkien.
Houghton Mifflin, 2014.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $28.

Ben Reinhard

J. R. R. Tolkien’s newly published translation of Beowulf will be of interest to two overlapping groups: on the one hand, students of Germanic legends and the early history of English literature; on the other, the members of Tolkien’s literary cultus. Happily, it is long and varied enough to satisfy both camps, bearing witness to twenty years of increasingly precise thought on Beowulf. The volume falls into three main parts: the 1926 translation of the Old English poem, commentary drawn from Tolkien’s Oxford lectures in the 1930s, and a Beowulfian folk-tale written in the 1940s. Taken together, these make Tolkien’s Beowulf a valuable aid to understanding the Old English poem and a monument to the intellectual development of one the twentieth century’s great authors.

In terms of sheer bulk, the commentary comes first: it accounts for roughly one half of the book’s length. The mass of commentary might seem excessive, but it is a treasure in its own right. Unlike some other recent Tolkien publications, the commentary here is (almost) entirely the original work of J. R. R. Tolkien—and few modern scholars, if any, match the depth of his knowledge of Old English and related languages. Many of his notes shed fresh light on difficult passages; the brief discussion of the evangelistic purpose of the poem on 273–5 is especially illuminating. It should be noted that the commentary assumes both a thorough knowledge of the poem and its analogues and a passing familiarity with the Old English language, and may prove difficult at times for some readers. With that caveat, the only real complaint with the commentary is that it is incomplete, drawn from a selection of Tolkien’s Oxford lectures. I would gladly have paid for the entire corpus.

The second supplement is almost as valuable. “Sellic Spell” takes its name from the syllic spell (“marvelous tale”) of Beo (2109b). Along with the short lays that follow it, the “Spell” gives us Tolkien’s attempt to recreate the lost folk-tale believed to supply the main narrative of the Old English poem. To this end, Tolkien strips away all historical, heroic, and tragic elements from the story until only a bare narrative remains, populated by archetypal characters: Handshoe, Ashwood, and Unfriend; Beewolf the bear’s son and the monster Grinder. The resulting tale is both an enjoyable “fairy-story” and an aid to serious reflection on Beowulf. After all, only by understanding the raw material the poet worked with can we appreciate his real accomplishment. A marvelous tale, indeed.

For all this, Tolkien’s Beowulf has been primarily marketed as a translation, and it is on the quality of the translation that the volume will stand or fall. This is a critical point. As Tolkien himself wrote in “On Translating Beowulf” (1940), “No defence is usually offered for translating Beowulf. Yet the making, or at any rate the publishing, of a modern English rendering needs defence: especially the presentation of a translation into plain prose of what is in fact a poem, a work of skilled and close-wrought metre.” Yet here is a “new” translation of the poem, published nearly ninety years after its initial composition. How does Tolkien’s Beowulf stand up to his own criteria?

Not surprisingly, it stands up very well. In the first place, Tolkien’s translation gives a better feel for the poetry of the original than any other prose translation, and indeed most verse translations. While Tolkien does not follow Anglo-Saxon alliteration and stress patterns rigorously, a number of passages are evocative of them. “There the waters boiled with blood, and the dread turmoil of the waves was all blended with hot gore, and seethed with battle’s crimson. Therein doomed to die he plunged.” C. S. Lewis noted that the stresses and consonants of the Old English alliterative line crash forward like the “thunder of breakers on a beach.” In passages like the one above, we can here the echoes of that shore, however far off.

Tolkien’s sensitivity is not limited simply to poetic technique: it extends to diction and syntax as well. He uses a deliberately archaic register throughout the translation—so we find “speed” instead of “prosper” and “goblet” instead of “cup,” and so on. Tolkien would later employ a similar register in portions of The Lord of the Rings and, especially, the Silmarillion: the language will be familiar to readers of either work. The elevated language is even more persistent and noticeable in the translated Beowulf, however, and with good reason. The Old English Beowulf was written in a deliberately archaic register itself; its diction was out-of-date and decidedly “poetical” by the late eighth century. In preserving it, Tolkien has preserved an important part of the original poem.

The same is true of syntax. The sentences in Beowulf are notoriously complex; so too in the translation. Thus, “God knoweth that for my part far sweeter is it for me that glowing fire should embrace my body beside the lord that gave me gold.” The sentence seems difficult at first, and needs to be read slowly—and it is this deliberate pace that justifies the difficulty. Old English (especially of the poetic variety) is a slow language, deeper, denser, and more resonant than its modern descendants. If a translation is to recapture the sound of the original, as well as the sense, it must do the same.

All in all, the effect is one of remarkable fidelity to the original poem—in tone, style, and substance. For all this, some of Tolkien’s choices are not entirely successful. The gentle and chivalric connotations of certain words—herald, esquire, chamberlain, for example—seem out of place in the harder heroic world of the poem. “Knight” is the worst offender of all. Part of the problem is the persistent recurrence of the term—it peppers nearly every page of the translation. The problem is aggravated by the number of terms it is adapted to translate. As any beginning student of Old English knows, Beowulf contains a bewildering number of terms that mean roughly “man” or “warrior.” Modern English lacks a sufficient number of synonyms, so “knight” becomes Tolkien’s catch-all translation for many of the Old English terms (þegn, hæleþ, eorl, and secg, to name a few). But this results in a poorer, flatter narrative. After all, a þegn is not a secg—and neither can be accurately represented by Modern English “knight.”

And here we come to the real problem. Even setting aside the linguistic flattening, the word simply will not do: it is the wrong word in the wrong poem. To nine out of ten modern readers, the English “knight” is more or less semantically equivalent to the French “chevalier” or the German “Ritter.” It suggests a warrior in plate armor, probably armed with a lance and shield, and certainly mounted. Jousting and quests are his main occupations, and the vague picture of Camelot fills the background. But we are not in Camelot. We are in Heorot, where members of the war-band wear mail, swear oaths, and fight on foot; Gawain and Lancelot cut a ridiculous figure against the thanes, retainers, and champions of Beowulf. In fairness, none of this would have been news to Tolkien. He acknowledged the problems with “knight” in “On Translating Beowulf”—but in the end decided to retain the term anyway. One wishes that he had not. If no familiar word adequately represents the original, an unfamiliar word should be used. A sense of alienation is better than a false familiarity.

The other major criticism of the translation centers on its cautious use of the poetic compounds known as kennings. The Old English kenning is a compound of two nouns used to give a picture of a third; the success of the kenning depends on the relationship of the picture provided by the compound and the sense of the thing that is signified. So, for instance, an Anglo-Saxon poet will say mere-hengest (literally, sea-stallion) and mean “ship”—but not simply “ship.” He means “that thing that surges through the waves in the same way a stallion gallops over a field.” The reader forms a momentary picture in his mind and, on brief reflection, discovers that this is exactly what the word “ship” means. But we get little of that in Tolkien’s translation. Ganotes bæð (the bathing-place of seabirds, the sea) is merely “where the gannet dives”; banhus (bone-house, body) becomes, lamely, a “frame of bones.” In both cases, word-picture is destroyed. The difficulty here is regrettable. As Tolkien noted elsewhere, the kenning is one of the “chief poetic weapons” of the Old English language. A fully successful translation—if ever there is such a thing—would have to give them more strongly than they are here.

There are other, smaller problems with the edition as well. Some of Tolkien’s translations (as at 1515 ff.) are incorrect, based on now-outdated readings of a difficult manuscript; others contradict his later, more developed commentary. Finally, the lines of the prose translation do not match up with the verse lines of the original. In such cases, it is customary to provide some indication (usually at the top or bottom of the page) of corresponding verse lines. Despite the care lavished on the edition elsewhere, Tolkien’s Beowulf does not. For readers who like to compare translations with the source, or one translation with another, this will quickly become a nuisance.

None of these criticisms should be taken to devalue the translation as a whole. No modern English translation, poetry or prose, can adequately represent the full meaning of the Old English text. It is the translator’s job to decide which meanings he can convey, and it is impossible that those decisions will always be pleasing. On the whole, Tolkien’s is a remarkably pleasing translation. The criticisms should, however, be taken as a warning: as Tolkien noted, no translation should be followed slavishly. However, read against other translations, a good translation can help a careful reader to better understand the original. For this reason, Tolkien’s Beowulf deserves its place in the great stack of translations—and that near the top. Bruc ealles well: use it all well.  

Ben Reinhard is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College, where he teaches courses in classical and medieval literature. His current research interests include Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, medieval saints’ lives, and modern translations of Old English poetry.

Posted: August 3, 2014

To live with a gnawing grudge against one’s own civilization is the way to a personal Hell, not to a Terrestrial Paradise.

Russell Kirk

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