Tolkien translation of Beowulf published for first time
‘Lo!’, begins Tolkien’s long-awaited translation of the Old English epic narrative poem, Beowulf, which was published for the first time in May. This pleasingly archaic translation of ‘Hwæt!’, a formulaic entreaty for attention common in Anglo-Saxon verse, sets the tone for the rest of the work.
Like the anonymous Beowulf-poet, Tolkien’s translation is written in a deliberately antiquated style; in a typical sample, Grendel, Beowulf’s first opponent, is described as he enters Hrothgar’s hall: ‘He wrenched then wide, baleful with raging heart, the gaping entrance of the house’. Tolkien is also extremely faithful to the syntax of the original. While this occasionally sacrifices ease of understanding, it does so in favour of capturing the other-worldly feel of Old English in a way unmatched by previous efforts.
The Anglo-Saxon language exerted a strong influence upon Tolkien, even in his younger years. He reportedly began meetings of his childhood literary group with ‘Hwæt!’, a habit he also brought to his university lectures on Beowulf, impressing upon generations of students, among them WH Auden, the dramatic power of Old English poetry. References to Beowulf crop up continually in his letters to friends and publishers, often to illustrate a philological point or one regarding his own writing. It is always risky to identify one work as the direct inspiration for another. This said, it is hard not to connect Beowulf with Tolkien’s fiction, particularly with his most famous works, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). While Tolkien wrote in a letter that ‘[Beowulf] was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing’ The Hobbit, he went on to describe it as ‘among [his] most valued sources’. For example, Smaug’s rage at Bilbo’s theft of a cup strongly resembles a similar event in Beowulf: ‘Then was the keeper of the barrow swollen with wrath, purposing, fell beast, with fire to avenge his precious drinking-vessel’.
The publication contains more than a translation. A detailed critical commentary of the poem, collated by Tolkien’s son Christopher from Tolkien’s various lecture notes and annotations, is a fascinating read in itself. Tolkien’s immense scholarship becomes apparent; one word from the poem may receive several pages of etymological and aesthetic analysis. These notes were often intended only for personal use and so are remarkable for their demonstration of scholarly processes rarely seen in fully polished studies intended for publishing.
Indeed, Tolkien did not intend the volume to be published, leading some, such as Beowulf expert and emeritus professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Kevin Kiernan, to claim that the publication is, in fact, ‘a disservice to [Tolkien], to his memory and his achievement as an artist’. I disagree. The material is extremely well edited by the experienced Christopher Tolkien, and gives Tolkien’s many fans new insight. This volume honours Tolkien’s memory not only as a scholar and creator, but also as a father (the volume ends with two versions of Tolkien’s short poem ‘The Lay of Beowulf’, said by Christopher to have been sung to him as a boy by his father). Moreover, the publication of a new translation by Tolkien will bring a new generation of readers to Beowulf, surely something to celebrate.