In honor of the new Tolkien translation, we present the Thug Notes for Beowulf.
JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is like the hero himself — flawed, yet triumphant. In his introductory material, the translator’s son, Christopher Tolkien, strikes a defensive tone, and seems to anticipate a negative scholarly reception, yet that tone is unfair to medieval scholars. JRR Tolkien was not only a member of that band of medieval scholars himself, but a chief in his generation, and when “the leader of the company […] opened his store of words,” [Tolkien 209-10, Beowulf 259] you should expect his band to listen with glad hearts.
First, some caveats — this is intended to be a flash review after the first reading. I have not yet read all of Christopher Tolkien’s extensive notes. Also, in order to get immediate access, I read the Kindle version of the translation, which has a few differences. C Tolkien mentions some illustrations his father drew, which unfortunately (and inexplicably) are not in included in the e-book edition.Â Also, as JRR Tolkien was doing a semi-prose translation, the line numbers do not match up between Tolkien’s version and the Old English original, and although C Tolkien mentions side-by-side line references to the original, those references do not make it into the Kindle edition. This review is very much my first impressions.
As a writer, JRR Tolkien has two distinct voices in his fantasy fiction — epic voice, of the highborn characters one finds in The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, and fairy-story voice, more characteristic of The Hobbit and “Leaf by Niggle.” His translation of Beowulf and shorter “The Lay of Beowulf” are both very much of the epic voice — intentionally anachronistic, heroic, and high-minded. “Sellic Spell,” on the other hand, is a retelling of Beowulf in the fairy-story voice. When reading his epic voice, it is hard not to feel as if Tolkien is trying to translate in the style of Lord of the Rings, when we certainly know that since he started Beowulf years before LotR, he was trying to LotR with the voice he heard in Beowulf.
And that voice is (mostly) beautiful. The translation has a few flaws, but Tolkien was writing without the benefit of so many talented translators who came later, and in any case, the flaws are few. For example, early on in the poem , we read this puzzler:
[…] Thereafter not
far to seek was the man who
elsewhere more remote sought
him his couch and a bed among the
lesser chambers, since
now was manifested and declared
thus truly to him with
token plain the hatred of that hall-
keeper [….] (Beowulf l. 138-143, Tolkien l. 111-114)
Huh? Not only couldn’t I figure out what this meant, but it took me a while even to find the lines in Old English he’s translating. To give you a sense of what it’s supposed to mean:
Then it was easy to find a few men
who sought rest elsewhere, at some slight distance,
slept in the outbuildings, once the full hate
of the mighty hall-server was truly told,
made clear as a beacon by signs too plain. (Trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr)
Ah, OK, that makes a lot more sense. I would guess that one reason Tolkien never felt ready to publish was difficult sections like this.
But bits like that are the exception. Mostly it is beautiful, in my opinion far more pleasing than Seamus Heaney’s famous translation. Take, for example, the lines describing Grendel’s attack:
[….] And that the slayer was not
minded to delay, not he,
but swiftly at the first turn seized a
sleeping man, rending
him unopposed, biting the bone-
joints, drinking blood from
veins, great gobbets gorging down. (Tolkien 601-607, Beowulf 739-744.)
This has been wonderfully translated by others, but the alliteration of “biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down” is visceral in its imagery. Most of the translation is like this, masterful.
So, if you are a Tolkien fan, but not particularly a scholar, how should you read this? You can skip Christopher Tolkien’s preface and all his notes — they are surprisingly good, but I cannot imagine would interest any but scholars — and get right into the poem itself. Read it slowly, lovingly. If the situation allows, read it aloud to yourself or a friend. That epic voice of Tolkien’s fantasy lends itself to a powerful translation.
Young Justice, the animated series about D.C. comic book sidekicks getting their own covert Junior Justice League, had a throw-away Beowulf reference in episode 19, “Secrets.”
In that episode, a villain named “Harm” (who obnoxiously always referred to himself in the 3rd person) steals Beowulf’s sword, which can only be wielded by the pure of heart — and as his heart is pure evil, it counts. Once he has learned the incantation to make the sword work (which is vaguely-Old-English sounding gibberish), he uses it to wreak a bit of havoc.
Beyond that, it isn’t really clear what sword this is supposed to be, since in the Old English poem Beowulf fights Grendel unarmed (heh heh), and in the battle with Grendel’s mother Unferth’s sword Hrunting fails, and the Beowulf has to kill her with a giant sword she happens to have lying around her lair.
One cool potential reference to Grendel, though — the sword is actually sheathed in what looks like a mummified arm. Not exactly canonical to the medieval poem, but cool nonetheless.
When the news broke that J.R.R. Tolkienâ€™s translation of Beowulf would finally be published this May, fans of Tolkienâ€™s fantasy joined scholars of medieval literature in rejoicing. There had been rumors for years that it might soon be published since its rediscovery in 2003, but as the years passed, rumor threatened to become myth. Nearly 90 years had passed since Tolkien translated it, and given his estateâ€™s tight grip on his documents, it seemed that the translation might never be published — and now, over four decades after his death, Tolkien fans will have a new piece of his work to enjoy.
It might be easy to categorize this along with other posthumous finds — such as the recent discovery of lost poems by Douglas Adams or lost recordings by the Beatles. The joy is like finding money you had forgotten about in a jacket pocket; it feels like a gift of something youâ€™ve always had, and is in some way all the sweeter for it.
Unlike those other finds, though, this one is IMPORTANT. I do not wish to diminish the joy in finding a new Adams poem, but realistically very little will change about the way we understand Adams, the Beatles, or any other art by these finds. In fact, I would argue that is true for most of the other posthumous texts of Tolkien himself, such as The Children of HÃºrin or The Legend of Sigurd and GudrÃºn. These were wonderful to have, but in the grand scheme of things they arenâ€™t particularly important.
Beowulf is different. Although this might be hard to believe in 2014, a century ago the poem was not generally well-regarded. When scholars looked at the poem, they found it to be a poor imitation of the great classical epics, and mostly interesting for study as a cultural artifact that told us something about Germanic culture, but not really as great literature. Beowulf as a hero was not as interesting as Achilles or Aeneas, he just goes around killing monsters, and at the best it might be a kind of muddled Christian allegory. In other words, the consensus was mostly that it sucked.
Then in 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien came and tore off the arm of the academic world with the publication of his address, â€œBeowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.â€ (You can read it for free here). In a lecture that has Tolkienâ€™s recognizable wit and humor interlaced with deep scholarship, Tolkien argued that the critics were all focusing on the wrong things. Of course Beowulf isnâ€™t a great classical epic; itâ€™s not an epic at all. Instead, it is more akin to the Viking sagas and elegies, so itâ€™s rather like complaining that your watermelon doesnâ€™t have a strong enough banana flavor. And those monsters arenâ€™t some kind of distraction from an examination of the character of the hero Beowulf; they are the point. In many ways, the book is about the monsters more than the hero.
Basically what happened at this point was the entire academic establishment collectively smacked itself on the forehead and said, â€œWell, duh. Why didnâ€™t I think of that?!â€ Beowulf went from being this awkward poem that was too long to ignore even though it might deserve it, to being at the center of Old English literature, even eclipsing Caedmonâ€™s Hymn. Many people have argued that Tolkienâ€™s â€œBeowulf: The Monsters and the Criticsâ€ is the most influential thing ever written about Beowulf, but I would go further; I think Tolkien essentially saved Beowulf. If not for him, the poem might have languished for another century or two. And now, we have a translation of Beowulf that Tolkien did a decade before saving it. In that translation, we will likely be able to see how he grappled with it early on.
Yeah, OK, but how is that important for everyone who isnâ€™t a medieval language nerd? Tolkienâ€™s Beowulf is likely to become the standard translation that students read in high schools and universities, and I suspect that change will happen fast. For many years poet Burton Raffelâ€™s translation ruled, but about a dozen years ago it was replaced by Seamus Heaneyâ€™s translation. And truthfully, Seamus Heaneyâ€™s version became the standard more because of his celebrity than because of the quality of the translation — even versions intended for students (like Edward Risdenâ€™s great translation) canâ€™t quite demand the kind of attention of a Nobel Prize winner, regardless of accuracy.
Why is Tolkienâ€™s Beowulf a contender right out of the gate? First, publisher HarperCollins has the juice to make that happen, not just with big marketing bucks, but also by putting Tolkienâ€™s version in every relevant anthology they make. Second, Tolkien has got the scholarly chops that make it hard to question his translation choices. There will probably be words, phrases, or entire lines that others will quibble over, but it will be the kind of quibbles where people will say, â€œHmmm, I would have done that differently,â€ not â€œHey, thatâ€™s just wrong!â€ Tolkien knew his stuff about language in general, and understood Beowulf like nobody else. This translation starts off backed by a scholarly reputation that even the super-respected Burton Raffel canâ€™t match.
But perhaps the biggest reason is that no one else can match Tolkienâ€™s celebrity. Seriously, can you imagine anything more helpful to a high school teacher than being able to say a text was translated by Tolkien? We will go from this …
Teacher: In this class, weâ€™ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by Seamus Heaney. You know, the Nobel Prize winning poet who wrote â€œDigging.â€
Student: *pulls out a cell phone and starts texting*
â€¦ to this.
Teacher: In this class, weâ€™ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by JRR Tolkien. You know, the guy who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Student: *Looks up from their cell phone suspiciously* Really? Well, whatâ€™s it about? Itâ€™s not going to be like A Separate Peace, is it?
Teacher: Oh, itâ€™s about a guy who goes around fighting sea monsters, trolls, and dragons.
Student: Yeah, but maybe itâ€™s like Crime and Punishment, which start out with an axe murder, but then just turns into a bunch of talking.
Teacher: Nope. Heâ€™s pretty much killing stuff the whole time. And when they arenâ€™t killing stuff, theyâ€™re partying and talking about great battles.
Student: My entire life until this point has been a sham. I now know my true destiny â€¦ to read Beowulf.
My prediction: In the future, young people will mistakenly believe Tolkien wrote Beowulf as his own work of fiction. And I for one look forward to the day when I am regularly correcting that point on my studentsâ€™ papers.