Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell / J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Several years ago, I heard a rumor that a translation by Tolkien of Beowulf was found in his papers and that an eminent Tolkien scholar was working on editing it for publication.  Later, I heard that the scholar had abandoned the task.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's translation of Beowulf on sale at my campus bookstore, edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher.  Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship is legendary.  In 1936, he published an influential study of the entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  More than anything, that study elevated the reputation of Beowulf to the preeminent literary status that it has today.  Prior to that, Beowulf was seen mostly as a hotch-potch of story fragments which W.P. Ker described as putting peripheral matters at the center and central matters at the periphery.  According to Tolkien, the tangential narratives and allusions to other histories and legends lent depth and context to the story and that the centrality of the monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) and how they were treated by the author offered an important insight into the poem and its telling.  For example, the reference to Grendel as being of the race of Cain and the connection between the dragon and Satan showed that Beowulf was neither fully a pagan epic nor a Christian homily.  Instead, it was a retelling of an earlier pagan legend by a Christian author.  The author's Christian world view could not help but make him (or her?) include a Christian slant on the drama.

It is clear that Tolkien's understanding of Beowulf is first rate if not second to none and so his edition of the poem can not be ignored.  Tolkien was also the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and so his mastery of Old English verse is also of the first order.  At one time in his life he wrote a poem entitled The Fall of Arthur in the alliterative verse form of Old English.  This form is composed of verses made up of two phrases each usually made up of two stressed and two unstressed units of the form:  x / x / | x / x /.   The alliteration occurs when the third stressed unit is the same sound as the sound of the fist stressed unit and sometimes also the second unit.  For example: "the Geat prince went / for Grendel's mother" or "funeral fires / fumes of wood smoke."  Of course, every line in Old English meter is not slavishly fitted to these forms, but any attempt to capture the sound of the Old English poetry would tend to follow these patterns.  Tolkien, however, chose not to write his edition of Beowulf in verse.  Instead, the narrative is presented in prose.  This permits him to more easily capture the meaning of the poem since he is able to choose Modern English expressions that do not alliterate, but what is lost in poetry is gained in semantic accuracy.  At the same time Tolkien's rendition of the story is colored by his sense of drama.  His diction and word order make the work suitably archaic and often quite stirring.  Anyone with an appreciation for his prose will thoroughly enjoy his rendition.

In addition to the rendition of the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien has included a commentary on the text that was taken from Tolkien's lecture notes.  The commentary is nearly twice the length of the poem and this more than anything will provide the reader with deep insight into the poem and to the pagan times about which the poem is written.  For example, Tolkien explains the passage, "Leave here our warlike shields" with the annotation: "Note the prohibition of weapons or accoutrements of battle in the hall.  to walk in with spear and shield was like walking in nowadays with your hat on.  The basis of these rules was of course fear and prudence amid the ever-present dangers of an heroic age, but they were made part of the ritual, of good manners."  The annotation goes on further to point out that this custom was appropriate to a king's hall and that "It was death in Scandinavia to cause a brawl in a king's hall."

The presence of the commentary in the same volume as the rendition gives a reader three extremely attractive options:  (1)  Read the narrative strait through without reference to the commentary.  This allows you to best appreciate Tolkien's own literary techniques.  (2) Read the the commentary along with the narrative.  This provides you with a deep understanding of the story with Tolkien as your guide.  (3) Read the commentary alone.  This provides you with a fascinating study of Old English and the customs of pagan Northern Europe.  It's hard to decide which of these approaches is best.  Perhaps three readings of the work would be ideal.

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