Sunday, June 8, 2014

TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF (First Impressions)

So, I've finally had a chance to start in on TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF, the latest and long-awaited publication of JRRT's translation of the earliest surviving major work in English.

This has been out for more than two weeks, but what with one thing and another circumstances have conspired, as they say, to prevent me coming to grips with it before. I knew I had a hardcover on the way (many thanks, H.M.H.!) but cdn't wait, so I also preordered it on the Kindle, where it appeared about ten o'clock of the night before it officially went on sale (I suppose Amazon adopts East Coast time).   Unfortunately, the very next day I had to fly down to California for a quick trip and found that despite my best intentions I was simply too busy to focus on The Beowulf the way I wanted to. I also found the Kindle version glitchy and hard to navigate, though I don't know whether that's an artifact of my Kindle getting rather long in the tooth or something wrong with the electronic version. In any case, the difficulty in reading and extreme deadline pressure (since alleviated) meant that I still hadn't made much progress by the time the actual book (hard copy) had arrived.

Which is, I must say, a thing of beauty. Deep blue-green cover, jewel-like reproduction of Tolkien's famous painting of Beowulf's Dragon on the cover, and two drawings (by Tolkien) of Grendel's Mere on the back cover and inside the back flap, respectively. The latter two in particular are reproduced here much better than has previously been the case, making them much more effective. Plus it's an unexpectedly hefty book: over four hundred packed pages. That Christopher Tolkien, who'll be ninety later this year, can put out such a substantial book is worthy of respect and admiration.

- - - 

So, what's here? First and foremost, Tolkien's prose translation of BEOWULF, which C.T. dates to no later than 1926 -- i.e., the Leeds period. That's a surprise, as I'd always thought Tolkien's prose translation dated from the 1930s. Next comes  a generous (200 page) selection from Tolkien's lecture notes, forming not a general overview of the whole poem but observations on specific points,
such as the kenning "whale's road" (which Tolkien disparages as an inept translation) and the question of whether Beowulf the Dane, Hrothgar's grandfather (who is mentioned early on in the poem but plays no part in it), should actually be called Beow -- the theory being that the scribes mixed up his name with that of the poem's hero, Beowulf the Geat.

After The Beowulf proper come two ancillary works of great interest. First of all comes SELLIC SPELL, Tolkien's reconstructed folk tale version of The Bear's Son's Story, which some (e.g., Tolkien's friend R. W. Chambers) believed underlay the figure of Beowulf as he appears in the epic.* I read this once, many years ago, and am delighted to have the chance to make its better acquaintance now. As an extra added bonus, Christopher Tolkien includes no just SELLIC SPELL in its entirety but also substantial extracts from the earliest draft version, which looks to have some interesting variants.

And then there's  THE LAY OF BEOWULF, which seems to have been written to the tune of "The Fox Went Out" (the same melody Tolkien used for 'The Root of the Boot' aka The Stone Troll). Here again there are two versions, one long and one short, retelling the tale as a ballad. Better than Myers Myers' Ballad of Bowie Gizzardbane, I thought, and overal Interesting Stuff.

And what's excluded? First off, this edition does not include Tolkien's famous MONSTERS & THE CRITICS essay, setting out his views on the poem as a whole (prob. because this is already available) in the essay collection BEOWULF THE MONSTERS & THE CRITICS AND OTHER ESSAYS). Similarly, Tolkien's his essay on translating Beowulf that appeared as the Preface to the 1940 Clark-Hall translation of BEOWULF (the project that first brought Allen & Unwin into contact with JRRT), is also absent; also being available in the aforementioned collection, it's thus prob. excluded here for the same reason.

More surprisingly, Tolkien translated BEOWULF not once but twice, into prose (the version printed here) and into alliterative verse. The alliterative translation is incomplete but substantial, covering about a quarter of the original. It's also quite good, if somewhat more archaic than the prose version, and I'm surprised not to find it included herein. Maybe once I have a chance to actually read through the whole of this new book I'll understand why.

And so, to the book!

--JDR, from Arkansas

current reading: TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF

*and also the figure of Bothvar Bjarki in King HROLF KRAKI's SAGA, the probable inspiration for Medwed Beorn.

1 comment:

Nelson said...

John, I wonder if your impression about the dating of the translation might have come from Drout. In his essay 'A Mythology for Anglo-Saxon England' he talks about

'Tolkien's later prose translation of _Beowulf_, which dates from the late 1920's to 1930's when Tolkien was at Oxford...'

I would guess that the letter to Kenneth Sisam, which provides the best direct evidence for dating the translation, hadn't been discovered in the OUP archives at that point. Since some revisions to the translation are certainly datable to Tolkien's time as Rawlinson and Bosworth chair, and there are aspects of the translation that can be associated with his lecture notes from that time, it was probably a fairly reasonable deduction on Drout's part to date the translation a little later than turned out to be the case.