In addition to creating the first fantasy epic, inventing a complete and insanely, thoroughly detailed world, and even making up its own language and alphabet, as well as teaching for decades, the great J. R. R. Tolkien also wrote a translation to the famous epic Old English poem “Beowulf.” Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, reveals this translation in its entirety for the first time, and so much more.
Tolkien completed his first translation of “Beowulf” in 1926, but he was by no means done with the poem. Over the ensuing years and decades he continued to make changes and updates and lectured greatly on the epic alliterative poem. Christopher Tolkien presents this ideal translation from Tolkien, and then includes his father’s vast commentary painstakingly collected and organized. The book features notes on how Tolkien translated specific words and stanzas with plenty of additional notes. Included are also lectures and lecture notes Tolkien gave on the epic poem. Finally, the great author even penned his own poem (in both modern and Old English) that acts as a precursor to “Beowulf” as a sort of fairytale written in the same style, but not within the history.
Compared to Seamus Heaney’s very well known and popular translation of the same poem, Tolkien goes for a much more literal adaptation, where some of the moving alliteration is perhaps lost, but the true sense of the poem and the meaning the author or authors were intending is possibly better comprehended. With the description and vocabulary, Tolkien does a great job of making the reader feel as if they are there at Heorot with Beowulf and Hrothgar and the comitatus. He uses an older language of “doths” and “thines” because of the time he is writing in, but also to give a sense of age to the poem, which can be a helping or a hindrance for the reader. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is a very welcome one that will be enjoyed by many and likely taught and studied in future medieval and Old English classes to come.
Originally written on November 18, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.
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