Review: Beowulf (Tolkien)

Previously on An Adventure in Tolkien: FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS UNHOLY, why can’t we write 10k word query letters anymore?

It seems almost tradition now to quote Christopher Tolkien’s introduction in my introduction to a JRR book, and we’re not about to break tradition now because the introduction for JRR’s translation of Beowulf is, as always, enlightening and hilarious.

He did indeed explicitly intend that the series of lectures on Beowulf which I have used in this book should be a ‘textual commentary’, closely concerned with verbal detail. In practice however he found this restriction confining: he was very often led from the discussion of a word or phrase to more far-reaching exposition of the characteristics of the Old English poet, his thought and his style and his purpose; and in the course of the lectures there are many short but illuminating ‘essays’, arising from specific points int he text. As he wrote, ‘I try to do it, yet it is not really possible or satisfactory, to separate one’s commentary into “legendary content” and “text”.

Preface, pg viii

JRR Tolkien, everybody, and the reason why he took forever to publish things–because he was a perfectionist that couldn’t make up his mind. Thus, what follows is the combination of three different vastly amended texts that Christopher has pieced together in order to create a cohesive translation & commentary from his father.

I feel like I should also note that I am a massive fan of Beowulf, and thus will probably go off the rails and start screaming at some point, turning this into a less than scholarly review (lately, for some reason, my Tolkien reviews have actually been normal and not totally bizarre?) and retreating back into how I normally review Tolkien. See my last review, from a couple of weeks ago, as an example of the first, and, well, here’s me trying to convince you to read The Silmarillion and mostly just dissolving into madness about Morgoth & Sauron, as should have been expected, for an example of the second. And, if you’re really curious, I’ve got an entire Tolkien landing page!

ALSO, I’m really sad about this, I wrote a fantastic essay about kennings in Beowulf while I was in college, but I’ve apparently misplaced everything I wrote in college, which is a true tragedy, and now I can’t share it with you.

manuscript of Beowulf  1000 a.d.

Gosh, those opening lines. I really wish that there was a recording of Tolkien reading them, and even if not, I wish there was a good rendition of the Old English, but alas, my college professor never did a recording, so we all have to suffer without it. But lo! I immediately started smiling, and I can just picture Tolkien brandishing his hand in the air as he began.

This first part of the review feels odd because, well, it’s Beowulf. I’ve read it probably four times now, so I know the story, but it’s not like I know the Old English and can compare the translation, or that I read it alongside Seamus Heanney’s, so um? It was great! Beowulf is always great. Tolkien’s translation was very well done, it held onto that original epic feel, and I definitely read it too fast because I’m more curious about his commentary on the translation.

Also, I’m going to quote a bit of Christopher’s introduction to the commentary because I am jealous:

At Oxford University, in the years when my father was the Professor of Anglo-Saxon, candidates for the degree of bachelor of arts in the English faculty were obliged to follow a course, or courses, of varying scope, in the oldest English literature (‘Anglo-Saxon’). Few indeed were those (‘the philologists’) who elected to take the course in which the emphasis was expressly and extensively ‘mediaeval’; the very great majority of undergraduates took what was known as the ‘general course’ in English literature. In this, one of the nine papers that constituted the final examination was concerned with Old English; and for this there was a requirement to read a substantial part of Beowulf in the original language, and translation of passages from it was compulsory in the examination.

Introductory Note to the Commentary, pg 131

I had to practically beg someone to let me read Beowulf in college again, why are we not still practicing these standards? To have been able to learn Old English would have been the coolest thing ever.

Also, I just appreciate how much care and attention Christopher obviously put into organizing books like this. He does a several-page introduction to explain what follows, how he’s compiled it all, and what, if any, alterations he has made to the text. It’s just really sweet.

Map of Scandinavia according to old English poem 'Beowulf'

My mom asked me if there was anyone else in the world that would understand why I’m excited about this next part, and I hope there’s at least one of you out there!

So, to quote it would be a lot, and I’m the worst and wouldn’t get up to find my book while I was writing out this part, so I also can’t remember which pages this bit is referenced on. Basically, Tolkien’s a genius, and I’m again feeling very sad and I wish people had just left him alone to write because I feel like we would have gotten SO MUCH more. He had to do so much extra work for the university just to make ends meet, and he constantly talks in his letters about he just wants to write, but has literally no time, and it makes me so overwhelmingly sad to think about. Because of that, I don’t think his genius was every fully realized while he was still alive. Otherwise, people might have actually left him alone.

Our resident genius/psycho was fluent in Old English, though, and because of that, Tolkien argues that the version of Beowulf that we have to translate from was tampered with because the meter of some lines don’t match the meter in others and the specific form of some of the Old English words don’t match others. He argues that this was in order to make the story more Christian because it was pretty heavily Pagan, and I just? That makes so much sense, and I am absolutely freaking out about this possibility. First of all, the fact that Tolkien recognized the meter was changing in basically a dead language while he was translating is just amazing. Second, the fact that someone possibly de-Paganized Beowulf to basically make it more palatable to Christian readers? WOW.

I could launch a thousand ships just on a dissertation about how truly awful Christianity is and how little we ever see evidence of it in general knowledge. Because yeah, there are some great sides to Christianity, they have some really positive beliefs that no one follows, but they also literally massacred thousands of people. Just the fact that they use the word “convert” makes me want to hide, but the fact that someone also possibly altered a classic text because it touted beliefs that weren’t theirs? Beliefs that were historically accurate of the time? Tolkien, you slay me.

Norse Magic: 101 | Pagans & Witches Amino

Okay, that’s it, I’ve found my favorite part of the book. Tolkien’s going on and on about something, but he apparently gets sick of trying to explain the exact nuances of Old English to people who he thinks are probably a bit too dull to get it, so he goes, “He replies, in modern terms:” and then does this thing, which I do ALL THE TIME, and rambles off in the longest sentence ever about what the character is actually saying beneath all of the veneer and politeness, but, like, inflects it with his own sarcastic voice, and I just?

Whenever I’m summarizing something for someone, it’s always turns into basically a soliloquy with occasional shouting, and I really appreciate seeing Tolkien do the same thing.

And then, because what comes next always comes next, Tolkien gets fed up with himself for getting fed up with not explaining this part in full, and thus decides to break down what he was saying in modern terms, but now in the way he always meant to, and basically says screw it if no one gets it, he wants to ramble about it. I feel you, buddy.

There are more extant solutions and proposals concerning this troublesome passage than there are words in it,–to mention only the better.

pg 251
Viking ship on Naeroyfjord - Norway

Not gonna lie, I’m vibing on this Sellic Spell section a lot. Tolkien basically decided he wanted to rewrite Beowulf the way he envisioned it and how he thought it could be made better, and it’s very interesting. Obviously, the original Beowulf is kind of piecemeal because parts of it were destroyed, but I appreciate seeing Tolkien’s full vision rather than just his translated Frankenstein. Because that’s truly what it is when people translate Beowulf. There’s no way to translate it fully because so many pieces of it are missing, so it becomes this kind of struggle to find a narrative. Thus, his version, Sellic Spell, is quite interesting.

Okay, and not only that, but in order to make it a genuine version, he first wrote it in Old English and then translated his Old English version into Modern English. I just? I love this man so much, please send help.

As mentioned in the Preface I remember his singing this ballad to me when I was seven or eight years old, in the early 1930s.

pg, 416
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So Tolkien also wrote a lay/song version, and apparently sung it to Christopher, and it’s fine, I’m just weeping into my book.

Honestly, overall, this was a fantastic read. I really enjoyed the different variations of translations that Tolkien did, and his nearly 250 pages of commentary were just so interesting. I’m always excited to see a little deeper into this incredibly brilliant man’s mind, and this was no exception. Definitely recommend for any Tolkien fan, and especially for someone who’s also a big Beowulf fan. Although, honestly, the two feel like they come hand-in-hand.

Previously: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien | Next: The Fellowship of the Ring

11 responses to “Review: Beowulf (Tolkien)”

  1. cryptomathecian Avatar

    His greatest accomplishment as a novelist was the way how he managed to keep his narrative accessible for those who were not as erudite as he was. There are different layers in his work, but on its most basic level, it could be read as an entertaining epic fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      Yes! He truly was one of a kind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wicked Good Reads Avatar

    Beowulf still haunts me to this day because I was one of 3 people in our AP English class that failed the test and had to come back the last week of school to take the final exam. Ugh! -_-

    Liked by 1 person

  3. May Wrap-Up – Mary and the Words Avatar

    […] was an absolute delight! My full review is linked here, but overall, I really enjoyed this. Tolkien provided a few different versions of his translation […]


  4. Jenna @ Falling Letters Avatar

    This post is inspiring, haha. I have only read Beowulf once (Heaney’s translation a few years back) and that was with the intention of preparing myself for Tolkien’s translation. But I never got around to it. Your review here makes me think I would enjoy it more than I originally thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      It’s really quite excellent! His actual translation is well done, but it was definitely the commentary that I stuck around for.

      Liked by 1 person

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