Freitag, 4. Juli 2014


Seamus Heaney’s poetic translation or rendering of Beowulf has garnered the nickname Heaneywulf; but I will immediately concede that J. R. R. Tolkien probably did not infuse equally much original invention into his prose translation to merit the analogue Tolkienwulf. (Whether this would or will stand for his own fragmentary poetic translation remains somewhat unclear – that translation is not included in the present edition, without comment on reasons for its exclusion.)

To my knowledge, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary has not made a big splash (yet?), one month after its publication. Which is perfectly understandable: It is a dense matter, necessitating close reading, and is most properly evaluated by Anglo-Saxonists. To be clear: I am not yet through with it, and this is not a full review. But I can give an idea of what this edition has to offer.

The book includes a complete prose translation of Beowulf, commentary on its first half drawn from lecture notes, Tolkien’s ‘reconstruction’ (titled Sellic Spell) of the fairy-story he assumes to underlie Beowulf, and a (in relation very much shorter) adaptation of the matter of Beowulf into a ballad.

To address a plausible concern: Can this edition be enjoyed without prior knowledge of Beowulf and Old English? Well, I very much guess so. All passages not in Present-Day English are provided with a translation. The commentary actually is quite accessible, and allows to really dig into the background of the poem. It clarifies the connections behind the text both in major and minor matters.
A prose translation of Beowulf has the obvious (at least, potential) advantage of being more readable – and it is! The non-truncated presentation of a flowing text, mostly even in quite ordinary syntax, can be followed. Furthermore, according to the Tolkiens, Old English poetry was syntactically quite close to prose, which is then adequately reflected in this translation. Nevertheless, the text is still deeply rhythmic.
Another remarkable feature is how this edition demonstrates and reflects on the variety of poetic styles which were Tolkien’s trade. I have remarked before on Tolkien’s description and mastery of the different characteristics of Old English and Norse poetry; here, it is again superbly elucidated and exemplified.
As ever, the editor [Christopher Tolkien] lets glimpses of his personality shine through. At 90 years of age, this becomes rather touching: he clearly recalls his father singing the ballad to him “when I was seven or eight years old” (p. 416) — “my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot” (p. xiii). I could go on and on about the unique symbiosis of Tolkien sen. and jun.!
The book design of this edition fits well enough with the informal series of epic poetry editions (Sigurd & Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur). Basing the cover and interior artwork on Tolkien’s own drawings adds unique charm, and the blue cover and burgundy endpapers combine into a goergeous flair of luxury. A major quibble with the typography is that line references to the original poem and to the translation are disambiguated by font size; hence, the commentary is littered with incongruous-looking digits.

Obviously, in this scholarly work one does not encounter Tolkien’s tendency of appropriating legendary matter into his legendarium. But true to form, Sellic Spell exhibits Tolkien’s tendency to creatively fill the gaps in our understanding of ancient lore. As has been pointed out before, he brought nearly as much poetic intuition as scholarly erudition into his work. Or, to state it in a manner more compromising to the science of philology: With poetic intuition, he brought unique visions out of his scholarly work.

I wonder, though: who’s the audience of this peculiar book?


Anubis hat gesagt…

Fascinating. I wasn’t aware yet that Tolkien believed the fairytale he thought was underlying Beowulf could be reconstructed. I find it a fascinating idea that some of the great epics of humankind could have evolved out of fairytales (e.g. Uvo Hölscher’s hypothesis that the Odyssey is based on a fairytale, or a cycle of fairytales), though it is, of course, hardly provable.

Eosphoros hat gesagt…

Then you might be interested to hear that Tolkien thought that fairy-tales (or sellic spells) were common literature in Anglo-Saxonia – according to Beowulf, it was fitting even for the king to tell marvellous tales.

(Btw, come to think of it again, it seems to me that Tolkien tried to reconstruct the version of the tale on which he thought the Beowulf-poet immediately based the first part of their poem. Sellic Spell reads a lot like a retelling of Beowulf, down to many particulars. It could have been way more stripped down to the bare bones of the fantastic plot.)


Das Foto im Blog-Header wurde freundlicherweise von Sandra Rugina zur Verfügung gestellt. Es zeigt den Bâlea-See in den rumänischen Karpaten. Alle Rechte liegen bei der Autorin.