Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary": A Review

[I am about a month late with the review I wanted to write about this book; a couple of weeks of emotional upheaval and the busyness of life intervened, followed by a couple of weeks of computer trouble. I chanced to run across the review I wrote of The Fall of Arthur exactly one year ago today, which has prompted me to finally fulfill my intention.]

The full title of the book is Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell, by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. It is the long-awaited version of the premier Anglo-Saxon epic by a great scholar of philology best known to the world as one of the greatest Fantasy authors of modern times. As such it may be asked: at whom is this edition aimed? The English scholar, or the fan of speculative fiction, or is it just the enthusiastic reader who wants to tuck into a good version of Beowulf? The answer, I think, is none of these in particular.

The person this book will appeal to most is someone with a great interest in Tolkien himself, and the history of his thought and creative processes. Christopher Tolkien, in his Preface, says as much: "The present work should best be regarded as a 'memorial volume, a 'portrait' (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own, hitherto unpublished." The book itself consists of a prose translation by Tolkien and commentary on the text extracted from a series of lectures; included is Sellic Spell, his imaginative reconstruction of the folk tale that Tolkien suspected lay behind the epic, and a couple of short(-ish) ballad re-tellings of the Beowulf story. For the Tolkien enthusiast and scholar a hearty banquet, for the casual peruser a hard garden in which to find the way.

Perhaps the most interesting (and by far the longest)section is the Commentary on elements of the poem itself. It is fascinating to watch Tolkien unpick and unpack the meanings of Anglo-Saxon words and phrases, revealing the implications and thoughts behind such terms as 'wyrd' or 'the whale-road,' of Grendel's relation to Cain and the giants of old, of the glimpses at life lived in another age revealed in simple metaphors like trouble 'denying men the ale-benches,' i.e., the simple pleasures of a stable life. Reading these notes, in the Professor's unmistakable voice, can give you the feeling of actually attending one of his lectures on one of those famous occasions when he turned the classroom into a mead hall. It would not surprise me if scholars of Beowulf would be mining this volume in years to come for insights and inspirations.

The icing on top of this rich cake and the part most immediately accessible to the casual reader is Sellic Spell ("Marvellous Tale"), the Beowulf story recast into what Tolkien imagined could be its original fairy-tale mode, followed by the two ballads. It would be easy to imagine the Spell extracted, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, and sold on its own as a children's book. Here we read Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon scholarship, love of fairy stories, and vigorous narrative skills once more combining to bring a "lost tale" to life, and the ballads Beowulf and Grendel and Beowulf and the Monsters are respectable contributions to the growing body of Tolkien's poetry (always underrated, in my opinion).

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is a significant addition to the corpus of Tolkien's work, and a beautiful book to boot, illustrated with three pictures from the author's own hand. As a source of insight into his creation of Middle-Earth it is at the same time peripheral and profound: the occasional reference to his own epic work is only to be found in Christopher's editing hand. But Beowulf and all the traditions behind it were a deep element in the "leaf-mould" of Tolkien's mind, and here you can sniff and handle the soil from which Arda sprang.


AlanDP said...

I'll have to get that.

Babel said...

Sounds interesting; particularly those ballads! Let's just hope Peter Jackson stays away from the movie rights...