After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)
With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.
What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”
But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:
The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein. 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; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.
There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.
Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.
To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:
“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”
That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?
The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.
Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.
I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”
So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.
Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.
Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.