"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
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lengthy commentary extracted from his father's lectures at Oxford University, as well as "Sellic Spell," a previously unpublished fantasy that imagines Beowulf's biographical backstory, and "The Lay of Beowulf," two versions of a poem on the epic's theme.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)
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
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.