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.


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