Approaching Tolkien – Beowulf: A Translation & Commentary

The Anglo-Saxon Epic Receives Treatment from the Anglo-Saxon Professor

If you’ve read your fair share of Tolkien, at some point in your reading you would certainly have comes across numerous references highlighting the author’s fascination towards Anglo-Beowulf cover by JRR TolkienSaxon culture and literature.

Beowulf, made up of three thousand lines written in the Old English metre, remains the single most important work of the period.

But as expressive and fluent as the language is in the original language, many scholars have attempted to translate it into Modern English in the hope of capturing the same spirit and style of the poem: as it was intended to be read.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is a massive tome containing the entire poem in prose form – as carefully written by Tolkien.

As is now customary with these posthumous publications, Christopher Tolkien includes detailed notes and a commentary to accompany the text; along with three shorter works by his father.


The Poem

Beowulf ManuscriptTo begin with, I was misled by the whole concept of this book.

The beauty of Beowulf lies in the alliterative verses of the poem, the way they create a structure and sense of rhythm in the overall narrative.

Unfortunately, this was lost in the book – due to the fact that this was a prose translation, and the systematic arrangement of verses is replaced by lengthy sentences.

This prose version is, nonetheless, a fascinating piece of work that brings out the essential qualities of the original Beowulf and continues to reinforce the statement that Tolkien was at the forefront of Anglo-Saxon studies.

It would have been a truly singular translation to see Tolkien’s translation into Old English metre: a craft he was so skilled in; providing us with a rendition of Beowulf in the same style as the alluring and exquisite verse construction in The Fall of Arthur.

Descriptions of characters and locations are given indirectly, through visual metaphors (knows as kennings) – transforming a reading experience into a collage of images and a sense of flow to the words.

Nevertheless, as sophisticated as Tolkien’s writing is, at certain moments it is rather difficult to get to grips with the story.

Dialogue scenes between two or more individuals tend to become muddled in the overall structure of the text, and comprehending what is happening is not always an easy feat.

Prior knowledge of Beowulf (perhaps through more accessible translations) will certainly help a reader to focus on Tolkien’s style of writing, rather than having to concentrate on grasping the elements of the narrative.

That being said, I cannot stress how alluring and beautiful this particular translation is.

Notes & Commentary

With every posthumous publication, Christopher Tolkien has always endeavoured to provide the best possible information to accompany the main text.Beowulf (deluxe edition)

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is no different: boasting a large chunk of Tolkien’s own observations in translating the work.

The notes are nonetheless of an academic nature; fairly accessible, if slightly intricate.

Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Anglo-Saxon history and Old English, this section of the book will prove to be indispensable. 

Sellic Spell

The short story Sellic Spell provides a rather intriguing  take on the Beowulf mythos.

Tolkien attempts (successfully) to recreate the telling of the narrative as if it was written from a non-historical perspective: hence, during the Anglo-Saxon period.

One immediately recognizes Tolkien’s confidence in rewriting a complex and timeless epic, but at the same time, adding his own narrative elements and creations.

The result is a neatly-constructed tale that continues to shed new light on the poem.

Sellic Spell is an essential accompaniment to the original text, providing fresh perspectives on this piece of literature: whether you’re an expert in the field, or merely an eager reader.

This same effect appears to replicate itself in poetic form, through the other two short works: The Lay of BeowulfThe Lay of Grendel.

Once again, Tolkien gives us a different (much shorter rendition) of Beowulf  through his poetic skills.

And whilst they are not in the Old English alliterative meter, they follow the same rhyming composition of many The Lord of the Rings poems.

Readers will be familiar with the flowing style of Tolkien’s visionary story-telling, and the final results are rather remarkable.


My Thoughts …

For the casual reader not aware of the back-story and particular details behind the Beowulf narrative, I strongly suggest you either read a less-complex translation or back yourselves with some research, before embarking on this reading venture.

To all Tolkien readers and collectors, this is an obligatory addition of the author’s repertoire.

Ultimately, whether you’re a fan of Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon poetry or not, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is an undisputed fragment of gold that shines a fine light on one of the most intriguing and puzzling works in English literature.

The “Which Five Armies?” Debate: Settling It Once and for All …

Orc Army (Dol Guldur)

**SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t read the book yet (really?!), you might want to avoid this article to keep your final film experience intact. To all the rest, carry on!**

- Case Closed

I can start this post by saying, it’s a needless post. The case is pretty much closed as the answer to the question, “Which Five Armies is Tolkien referring to in the Battle of Five Armies?“, can’t be more plainly given than it is in the book.

I’m not sure why the question keeps cropping up, and why people tend to give a variation of solutions to it (most of which, are wrong … seriously wrong).

So I’m hoping to settle this debate once and for all.

Dwarves (on rams)

- What Tolkien said

In the chapter that introduces us to the battle, Tolkien wrote a distinctive image of what the five armies consisted of:

So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible.

The Hobbit; ‘The Clouds Burst’, Chapter 17

So far so good. We’ve established the name of the battle and how horrible it was.

The next sentence goes like this:

Upon one side were the Goblins and the wild Wolves, and upon the other were Elves and Men and Dwarves. 

The Hobbit; ‘The Clouds Burst’, Chapter 17

See, case closed.

- So why does this debate exist?

No doubt that one of the major contributors to people believe that the Orcs and Wargs (wild Wolves) constitute a single army, stems from The Hobbit trilogy.

Peter Jackson’s adaptation has introduced us to the concept of orc hunters riding Wargs in order to travel light and cover great distances whilst hunting down their enemies.

One can quite excuse such a reason. Quite. It makes sense to believe that the two creatures assisted each other; the way we humans might associate ourselves using horses as a means of Wargstransport.

However, if you’ve read your Tolkien well (and I’m referring to The Hobbit), you would realize that the author made a clear distinction between the two.

Whilst they may have assisted each other and had similar motives to capture the Dwarves, they were nonetheless two separate races with their own way of life.

The Wargs and the goblins often helped one another in wicked deeds [...]  They often got the Wargs to help and shared the plunder with them. Sometimes they rode on wolves like men do on horses.

The Hobbit; ‘Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire’, Chapter 6

It just so happened that when the event of the Battle of Five Armies was brooding, the Orcs and Wargs shared their rivalry and hate for the Dwarves and decided to assist each other once again; arriving on the battlefield as two distinct armies – THE two armies from the five.

- What about the Eagles?


What about them? Oh yes, now I get it. I’m sure you’re thinking about the Eagles-save-the-day moments in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.

More apparent in The Lord of the Rings, some of those who refuse to believe Wargs are a separate army, are insistent on defining the arrival of the Eagles at the Battle of the Five Armies as one of those armies.

First of all, I doubt you could call a flock of birds an “army”. And even if they were, they were not part of the famous Five. For further information, re-read Tolkien’s quote above.

- Final Remarks

And thankfully, that’s the end of the debate. Naturally, you might have other opinions in mind – which I would be very pleased to read about in the comments below.

Otherwise, I think the case of the Five Armies is pretty clear and does not need further analysis.

However, I do urge you to help share this article and spread the word. Let’s banish the erraneous thoughts on this subject forever! :D

The Shire’s Military Structure?

Sam Gamgee (Hobbits)

Raising the Shire

They are (or were) a little people, about half our height [...] have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs

- The Hobbit, ‘An Unexpected Party’, Chapter I

Ranks of skilled archers cleverly readying their bows. Organized groups of infantrymen waiting for the signal to attack. One word and any intruders will find themselves facing serious consequences.

It is hard to conjure up the imagery of an army within the Shire, based on the rather rustic and easy-going characteristics of the above quote.

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The Middle-earth Box Set: Ultimate Edition *speculations*

Deleted Scenes (Header)

- You’ve probably heard it in passing, like a glimmer of hope beyond reach. You may have craved for it, but were left empty-handed. Continue reading

The Battle of the Five Armies Teaser: My Reactions

The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies (Official Poster) Header

We’ve had just under a week to savour it and now, here are my thoughts on the teaser trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies …

Overall impressions?

Moving, emotional, sweeping and epic. Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Ring celebrates 60 years!


The Fellowship of the Ring - the first title of the epic story, The Lord of the Rings - was unleashed on the world way back on 29th July, 1954.

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