Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

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Overview


The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form ...
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Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

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Overview


The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.

But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is "the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history" that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure’ is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination."

Sellic spell, a "marvellous tale", is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the "historical legends" of the Northern kingdoms.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/26/2014
More than a decade before writing The Hobbit, Tolkien completed his translation from the Old English of this epic poem, whose influence on his Lord of the Rings Trilogy is well known. Tolkien continued to refine the phrasing even after 1926, but this rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans. Tolkien conveys both the pageantry of the fifth-century Danish court and the physicality of the battle between Geat hero Beowulf and man-eating monster Grendel. His alliterative phrasing—"biting the bone-joints...great gobbets gorging down," "a dragon, even he who on the high heath watched his hoard"—finds some of the same poetry in the archaic prose as Seamus Heaney's celebrated 2000 translation. In Beowulf's fight to the death with a gold-hoarding dragon, readers familiar with Tolkien's fiction will see a precursor of his dragon nemesis Smaug. Editor Tolkien includes lengthy commentary extracted from his father's lectures at Oxford University, as well as "Sellic Spell," a previously unpublished fantasy that imagines Beowulf's biographical backstory, and "The Lay of Beowulf," two versions of a poem on the epic's theme. Scholars will no doubt continue to debate Tolkien's interpretation, but lovers of Tolkien's work will agree that this is a book long overdue. (May 22)
From the Publisher

"A thrill . . . “Beowulf” was Tolkien’s lodestar. Everything he did led up to or away from it . . . Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love." -- New Yorker

"Both scholars and lay readers have long awaited Tolkien's "Beowulf" translation and its related materials, and everyone will find something of enduring interest in this collection. For Tolkien, "Beowulf" was both a brilliant and haunting work in its own right and an inspiration for his own fiction. It is a poem that will move us as readers, not forever but as long as we last. Or as Tolkien says, "It must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes." -- Wall Street Journal

"Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold . . . His learning and Beowulf’s patterns of gloom and fragile light feel intimately related . . . his noble translation joins the ranks of the narrowly saved." – Slate

"This rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans . . . lovers of Tolkien's work will agree that this is a book long overdue." – Publishers Weekly
"A marvel of vigor and economy . . . Essential for students of the Old English poem—and the ideal gift for devotees of the One Ring." — Kirkus

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-05-17
Hwaet! A sparkling revisitation of Danish meadhalls and boggy monsters' lairs by Hobbitmeister Tolkien.Before he became world-renowned for his tales of the Shire, Tolkien (The Children of Húrin, 2007, etc.) taught Old English, Old Norse and medieval literature at Oxford. At the core of his teaching lay Beowulf, that great, exceedingly strange eighth-century poem of the eponymous, ill-fated hero and his nemesis, the unfortunate monster Grendel. His prose translation of the poem into modern English dates to 1926, and it's a marvel of vigor and economy that doesn't suffer from not having been set in verse. The text against which to compare it is Seamus Heaney's 2000 verse translation, and the answer to the question of which version is essential is: Both. Here are Heaney's closing lines, the paean to the departed hero: "They said that of all the kings upon earth / he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame." Tolkien's are: "Thus bemourned the Geatish folk...crying that he was ever of the kings of earth of men most generous and to men most gracious, to his people most tender and for praise most eager." Which is the more poetic rendering is a matter of taste, but Tolkien's has the virtue of being accompanied by more than 300 pages of commentary on the poem, Anglo-Saxon society and Old English literature generally, with a bonus effort at a reconstruction of the Ur folk tale that underlies the poem. The commentary is thoroughly illuminating, touching as it does on such matters as the author's critical attitude toward "the aristocratic class, its values and assumptions" and "the whole business of the Heathobards and their feud with the house of Healfdene." The careful reader will also find hints between the lines of Tolkien working out bits and pieces of his own story, not least when he turns to a certain dragon, "on fire now with wrath," and the fabulous hoard it guards while awake and asleep.Essential for students of the Old English poem—and the ideal gift for devotees of the One Ring.
Library Journal
06/15/2014
Given the seminal role of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in transforming our reception of the Old English epic Beowulf from linguistic artifact to serious literature, it is a noteworthy occasion when Tolkien's own translation appears in print. The author's son and literary executor has edited this translation, which includes textual notes and commentary drawn from his father's unpublished lectures. The translation dates around 1926 and is written in prose, providing handy crib notes for those with access to the Old English version. Invaluable is the lengthy commentary provided, which draws from 40 years of reading, thinking, and teaching. It reflects less a scholarly apparatus than the book's series of reflections in which the elder Tolkien reveals that he felt he had something personal to add to our understanding of the narrative, the language, or the culture. Also included is the text of "Sellic Spell," an imaginary Beowulf story composed in the spirit of the folk material by Tolkien. VERDICT For Tolkien aficionados this is an important addition. Readers seeking a literary verse translation of Beowulf, however, are better served reading those by Dick Ringler, Seamus Heaney, or Michael Alexander. For the scholarly reader the commentary represents a rich resource.—Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544442788
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/22/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 17,491
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (1892–1973) is the creator of Middle-earth and author of such classic and extraordinary works of fiction as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. His books have been translated into more than fifty languages and have sold many millions of copies worldwide.

CHRISTOPHER TOLKIEN is the third son of J.R.R. Tolkien. Appointed by Tolkien to be his literary executor, he has devoted himself to the editing and publication of unpublished writings, notably The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth.

Biography

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on the 3rd January, 1892 at Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, but at the age of four he and his brother were taken back to England by their mother. After his father's death the family moved to Sarehole, on the south-eastern edge of Birmingham. Tolkien spent a happy childhood in the countryside and his sensibility to the rural landscape can clearly be seen in his writing and his pictures.

His mother died when he was only twelve and both he and his brother were made wards of the local priest and sent to King Edward's School, Birmingham, where Tolkien shine in his classical work. After completing a First in English Language and Literature at Oxford, Tolkien married Edith Bratt. He was also commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought in the battle of the Somme. After the war, he obtained a post on the New English Dictionary and began to write the mythological and legendary cycle which he originally called "The Book of Lost Tales" but which eventually became known as The Silmarillion.

In 1920 Tolkien was appointed Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds which was the beginning of a distinguished academic career culminating with his election as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Meanwhile Tolkien wrote for his children and told them the story of The Hobbit. It was his publisher, Stanley Unwin, who asked for a sequel to The Hobbit and gradually Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, a huge story that took twelve years to complete and which was not published until Tolkien was approaching retirement. After retirement Tolkien and his wife lived near Oxford, but then moved to Bournemouth. Tolkien returned to Oxford after his wife's death in 1971. He died on 2 September 1973 leaving The Silmarillion to be edited for publication by his son, Christopher.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins (UK).

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 3, 1892
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (South Africa)
    1. Date of Death:
      September 2, 1973
    2. Place of Death:
      Oxford, England

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 18, 2014

    an excellent addition to Tolkien's published works

    As with everything Tolkien touches, this book is golden. I have read several translations/interpretations of Beowulf, and this one is by far the best. Tolkien combines his solid command of English literature, and his comprehension of numerous European languages both modern and archaic, to produce an outstanding product. After reading this book, you will gain a better understanding of why he is considered one of the finest etymologists/philologists in modern history. One can only hope that Christopher Tolkien will continue to posthumously publish additional works from his father's notes.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2014

    I love this book!

    This is the story that Lord of the Rings etc. was inspired by! The time period, the mead halls, fighting garish monsters, bragging before a quest, impossible feats, and of course magic! Amazing, you'll see some connections. But general things. Tolkiens storiearall his own. It's even got Christianity, another thigs that were quietly woven into his stories. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were friends! They'd share their ideas but they didn't think anything would ever come of them! Anyway. Read Tolkien's translation of Beowulf the epic. (For some reason his name means bear. Go figure.) I wish i could give you the whole history but can't, you'lk have to read it yourself.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2014

    ||HETALIA CAMP||

    Is res 3!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2014

    Ag&alpha|ä

    Introduction:
    <br>
    Agal&#228 was once a place ruled by man. Man hunted themselves to extinction, leaving the world to the dragonkind and lesser beings. The dragon population flourished, new customs and traditions appearing like wildfires. Agal&#228 returned to its former glory, unhindered by the scars of mankind.
    <p>
    The Culture and Traditions:
    <br>
    The king was orginally decided by a competion. Two male dragons fought to the death, the victor showing his dexterity and power. If the bloodline of the royals now ends, the same competion ensues, though the competators have the chance to give up and withdraw instead of being killed. Fatilities are still common.
    <br>
    The Bloodmoon is marked as a time of rememberance, as it signifies the time the great Aergana, son of Aerfae, fought the black lord, Kukan. No prey is killed; no blood is spilled until the time of the bloodmoon has passed.
    <br>
    The Champion, the trainer and general of the dragon army, is chosen by the taming of the white eagle. This only occurs if the current Champion is either killed or after a thousand years has passed.
    <br>
    The Summermoon marks the longest day. A great feast and celebration is held.
    <br>
    The Wintermoon marks the shortest day. It, too, is celebrated with a feast, though the feast serves as a purpose of gorging enough to last through the winter until spring, as prey is limited.
    <br>
    In the courting of a female, the males collect and display objects that catch the desire of the female.
    <p>
    Rules:
    <br>
    1) No godmodding.
    <br>
    2) Be active and try to have decent grammar.
    <br>
    3) If you have multiple characters, be sure to use both consitently.
    <br>
    4) Do NOT be an attention hogger.
    <br>
    5) You cannot waltz in and declare yourself king/queen. You MUST win the specified competition.
    <br>
    6) Your flames (nothing besides flames; no poisonous breath or whatnot) are the color of your scales.
    <br>
    7) The king's word is law.
    <br>
    8) You CAN be a villian.
    <br>
    9) No outrageous colors. No neons or crazy patterns, either.
    <br>
    10) Have fun!!!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2014

    Is is worth 15 bucks?

    Beowulf is a classic. I havent read it yet, but Im going to. I just want to know if it is worth 15 dollars.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2014

    Want a free ipad

    Kiss your hand 3 times,post this on 3 different books, and look under your pillow

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2014

    :o

    First to write here :o!!!

    0 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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