Review: Tolkien’s Beowulf

A Translation and Commentary
together with
Sellic Spell
by J.R.R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Harper Collins 2014

The Tolkien Estate has finally published Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf. The translation is accompanied by an extensive commentary constructed by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s lecture notes. Also included is a fairy-story version of Beowulf by JRRT, called Sellic Spell, in modern English as well as a significant proportion (7 pages) of the same story in Old English. But that’s not all. We also get two versions of JRRT’s verse Lay of Beowulf in modern English.

For a student of Old English, this is pretty heady stuff. The commentary runs to more than 200 pages and is full of fascinating insights from the 20th Century’s most famous Beowulf scholar. The translation is in prose, but it’s Tolkien’s prose, which is charming and pretty rhythmical (think Ride of the Rohirrim). The fairy story is interesting. Tolkien’s view is that Beowulf is the result of the skillful insertion of a fairy story about Beowulf into the cycles of legends surrounding the Royal House of Denmark. Sellic Spell is his attempt to reconstruct what the fairy story would have been like. This is a wonderful feat of imagination which only JRRT could get away with.

The Old English version of the fairy story flows very nicely and is a testament, if any is needed, to the author’s exceptional ability. I sincerely doubt many other scholars could have composed such a piece.

Tolkien uses all his imagination and skills to tease out the motives of the characters, especially Beowulf and Hrothgar, in a way which brings the piece even more to life. It is rare to find a major literary figure commenting in such detail and with such passion on the work of another artist.

Naturally not all of Tolkien’s views are uncontroversial. His interpretation of lines 166-171 I find hard to swallow:

[Grendel]… Heorot eardode,
sincfage sel sweartum nihtum;
no he þone gifstol gretan moste,
maþðum for metode, ne his myne wisse.
þæt wæs wræc micel wine Scyldinga,
modes brecða…….

Tolkien views lines 168-169 as an interpolation by a late hand, which makes sense. The gifstol is interpreted as an analogy to the throne of God, which once again is a solid interpretation. But he reads the he in these lines as referring not to Grendel, the subject of the previous line, but to the pagan Hrothgar, who is not identified (wine Scyldinga) until the following line. This interpretation is intended to lend the passage more logical consistency, as Hrothgar’s wræc now derives from his inability to appeal to the Christian god. But the jump in subject is confusing and implausible and the passage makes enough sense by taking Grendel (an outcast from God) as the person unable to approach God’s throne. Hrothgar’s wræc then refers back to the earlier attacks by Grendel. The remaining awkwardness is what you would expect from a clumsy interpolation.

Tolkien junior has done a very creditable job of editing what must have been rather difficult textual material into a format which will be of interest to readers of Old English and to those who only wish to read the translations.

Highly recommended.


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