So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.
Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.
A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.
Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.
Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf