“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)


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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“The Death of King Arthur” translated by Simon Armitage (Norton, 2011)

Death of King Arthur

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delight to read and well-received by many readers (it remains one of the top read reviews on BookBanter), and now Armitage is back with his new translation of The Death of King Arthur, appearing in 1400, also known as The Alliterative Morte Arthure; it is imbued with the passion and panache of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

The story opens at a Christmas day feast where King Arthur is entertaining his round table of knights and the people of his court.  It is rudely interrupted by an emissary of the emperor Lucius Iberius, who is demanding Arthur pay taxes and tributes owed to the emperor.  Thus begins Arthur’s journey across Europe, as the reader learns of the extent of the king’s lands, as well as his power and ability as a leader and knight in these descriptive and alliterative scenes of conquest.  The Knights of the Round Table will eventually reach their destination, where Arthur will confront the emperor, but also meet his inevitable end.

Armitage does a fantastic job of creating a translation of this tale that is both entertaining and addictive to read, but still maintains its alliterative originality.  Published in a bilingual edition, readers can enjoy glancing over at the original Middle English text and see the original lines and stanzas, and also see how Armitage has masterfully crafted this text to be alliterative as well as encompass the modern English language.  Both King Arthur fans and fans of Armitage’s work will not be disappointed.

Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Death of King Arthur from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  Beowulf

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 3: Paradiso” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Part Three of Three


Released in hardcover in January of 2011, Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez present their translation and editing of the final volume in the epic trilogy of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, with Paradiso.  After the success of the first two volumes – Inferno and Purgatorio – with readers and scholars alike, fans will now be able to complete their collection.

After reuniting with his love, Beatrice, Dante now travels with her through the heavenly spheres, experiencing “the state of blessed souls after death.”  With paradise depicted as a series of concentric heavenly spheres surrounding the earth, they consist of the planetary bodies: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, then on to the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile, and finally the Empyrean.     Allegorically, this volume represents the soul’s ascent to God.  Like in the previous volumes, each of the heavenly spheres bears a title and important messages, in this case associated with the angelic hierarchy.  Dante continues with what he’s done previously, providing historical setting and characters based on real people, along with an important lesson to be learned with each sphere reached.

In the introduction, Durling discusses when the text was likely written, exploring the setting for it, as well as investigating a number of interpretive issues surrounding Paradiso, the possible meaning behind the allegories, and what this volume represented in Dante’s complete body of work.  Again done in this preferred and beneficial bilingual edition, readers can enjoy the full translation, as well as the original fourteenth-century Italian, as it is revealed what a talented writer Dante truly was, making it clear why The Divine Comedy is revered as such an important piece of work with that of Shakespeare and Chaucer.  Notes at the end of each canto provide commentary and details that help the reader follow the text with full understanding and comprehension.  At the end is included Boethius’s famous cosmological poem that ends the third book of his Consolation of Philosophy, which bore a strong influence on Dante and his work, along with a translation and commentary.  The additional notes include discussions of myths, symbols, and themes that all play a part in the three volumes.  This comprehensive index includes Proper Names Discussed in the Notes, Passages Cited in the Notes, Words Discussed in the Notes, and an Index of Proper Names used in the text and translation.  Robert Turner’s illustrations, as with the previous volumes, again help to illustrate the text in a poignant and unique way, especially with his depiction of the heavenly spheres.

This concluding volume of The Divine Comedy completes one of the most important translations of the current era, with its crucial accuracy, extensive and comprehensive notations and explorations, as well as its thorough effort in being the most important translation of Dante’s opus, making it available and so readable to any person who is interested in the work.  The covers alone will capture anyone’s eye, and as they begin to read the incredibly beautiful, powerful, descriptive words of Dante, they will be swept away to this unique world, just as Tolkien did with his Lord of the Rings.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 2: Purgatorio” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Part Two of Three


In the second volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Dante continues his journey from hell into purgatory, continuing to be guided by the skilled hand and mind of Virgil.  Dante must climb up the Mount of Purgatory, beginning at the bottom with Ante-Purgatory, then the seven terraces – seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth – as associated with the seven deadly sins; at the very top is Earthly paradise.  Just as in the first volume, Inferno, Dante continues to discuss politics and the Church in general, as well as relating to his own experiences during the writing of the Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century.  Familiar characters in Dante’s life again play a part, as he makes his intentions of them all too clear.  It is in this volume that Dante is reunited with his long-lost love, Beatrice.

In this shorter introduction, Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez go into some detail on when this second volume was likely begun, how and when it was exactly written and how Dante was influenced by events and happenings in his life in the writing of it.  Just as with the first volume, detailed notes are provided at the end of each canto, explaining locations, historical references, and short biographies on the people mentioned and what relevance they had to Dante.  With these priceless details, any reader can pick up this translation of the Divine Comedy, and not feel lost or overloaded by all the historical setting, peoples and details, but are skillfully guided along Dante’s unique journey.

At the end of the text are further detailed notes and fifteen short essays covering Dante’s political views, his respect and use of Virgil and Ovid, his original conceptions of homosexuality, and on moral growth, to name a few.  Durling and Martinez also explore similarities and possible linkages with the three volumes in analyzing similar cantos, their possible relations to each other, as well as the numbering system used in each volume.  At the end is a bibliography and extensive index, allowing the reader to travel about the text freely and with little hindrance.

With this second volume, Durling continues what he began with Inferno, keeping the reader hooked with this accurate translation, along with the original Italian on the left-hand page, as Dante’s true skill as a storyteller and descriptive writer are brought to light as never before.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Part One of Three


The Divine Comedy is seen as one of the seminal works in the history of the written word, up there with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the works of William Shakespeare.  Not just an interesting story, the work is also filled with many characters based on actual people, as well as events and references to actual happenings.  Originally written in the fourteenth century by Durante degli Alighieri, a nobleman who was very opinionated and involved in Italian politics of the time; in his Divine Comedy, he deals with politics, religion, and much more, but was not above letting readers know how he felt about certain people.  The key then to reading, understanding and enjoying this work is really in the translation and editing.

In the lengthy introduction, Robert M. Durling – professor emeritus from the University of California at Santa Cruz – along with Ronald L. Martinez do a great job of introducing the reader to this historical and important work, dividing it up with the biography of Dante, when he likely wrote The Divine Comedy, what Durling hoped to achieve with this translation, as well as what Dante sought to achieve as a writer and a poet in medieval Italy.  The epic poem, spanning three volumes, helped create and cement the Tuscan dialect, written in terza rima, which is hendecasyllabic or lines of eleven syllables, divided into cantos.

Inferno is the most popular of the three volumes, mainly because of its content featuring graphic descriptions of the nine circles of hell, as Dante paints vivid pictures with words of what those suffering in these respective levels are experiencing.  The story is of Dante himself traveling through hell, guided by Virgil.  Along the way he meets many people he recognizes, whether they be renowned people throughout history, or local Italians or people of Europe that Dante himself has known in his lifetime.

This translation does a great job of keeping things easy and user-friendly for the reader.  It is a bilingual edition, featuring the original medieval Italian on the left-hand side, and Durling’s English translation on the right.  Those who have some grasp of the Romance Languages will often be able to glance over the Italian and pick out certain words and phrasings, comprehending Dante’s original words and descriptions.  There’s also a detailed picture of all nine circles by Robert Turner, as well as further illustrations throughout the text.  It is filled with endnotes for each canto, further expanded notes and an index; so whether you’re well versed in Italian medieval literature, or someone wanting to read this renowned work for the first time, Durling’s translation of The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno is an excellent starting point that will quickly draw you into the unforgettable world that Dante created over six hundred years ago.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm” translation and introduction by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 2003)

Brothers Grimmstarstarstarstar

If you like fairytales and have always wanted to know where they originate, here’s your chance.  For the first time, a complete edition of the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm has been published in paperback form at an affordable price.  A handy reference tool, pleasant reading, and a book you can always turn to to read to your kids, all in one!

With an introduction on the Brothers Grimm and this specific translation, the book then launches into the countless fairytales told in their virgin form (warning, this may not only shock minors to hear the truth, but also the grownups).  There is a lot more blood and gore in the original tales that have not been Disneyfied for kids.  Split into sections of regular tales, “Omitted Tales,” and “Selected Tales from the Annotations of 1856”; this is a true gem to have on one’s shelf.  The book features a chivalric cover along with beautiful black and white illustrations throughout the book.  It is a present perfect for any avid fairytale lover.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally published on March 17th, 2003 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories” by Herodotus, Robert B. Strassler, Andrea L. Purvis (Pantheon, 2007)

Landmark Herodotusstarstarstar

Readers are living in a great age.  Classical history through primary sources has never been so accessible, with the success of Robert Fagles’ translations of The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid; Robert B. Strassler, editor of The Landmark Thucydides, now brings us The Landmark Herodotus.  Translated by Andrea L. Purvis, with a introduction by Rosalind Thomas, The Landmark Herodotus is a hefty tome that will delight any historian or fan of Herodotus and the classical Greek period.

Called “the father of history” by Cicero, Herodotus was an Ionian Greek historian who lived in the fifth century BCE.  In his Histories, he recounts the rise of the Persian Empire and its tumultuous war with the Greek city-states.  Filled with insights into the unique geography and anthropology of the time, Herodotus also delves into the human psyche, exploring the importance of religion, the costs of war, the sacrifice of life, and what it meant to be a free and independent state.

What makes The Landmark Herodotus unique over any other translation of The Histories, is its encyclopedia of knowledge.  The book begins with a comprehensive introduction of Herodotus and the period, leading to the editor’s preface, and seven pages listing the dates outlined in the text, where they take place, and a brief sentence on what is happening.  Then The Histories begins in an almost conversational meter, making it very inviting and compelling to any reader whose background may be well versed in the period, or not at all.  Split into “books,” each page is filled with footnotes and constant side notes that serve as reference points, as well as numerous maps detailing the events taking place, and where possible, photos showing the modern day reality of these renowned historical locations.  As one completes The Histories, the book is not finished, as the appendices begin, twenty-one of them written by renowned scholars, informing the reader on topics such as Egypt, Persian Arms and Tactics, Scythia, the Spartan State, and Trireme Warfare, to name a few.  Then there is a comprehensive glossary to help the reader with any terminology.  Finally there is a hundred-page index that will bring any specific term, person, place or event immediately to their fingertips.

The Landmark Herodotus is not just a book; it’s a journey, a voyage into the history of ancient Greece and its war with the Persian Empire, as told by someone who, while not there at the time, lived in a period much closer to it than you or I.  Questions will be answered, thoughts made, and wonders discovered.  Upon completing the book, the reader will feel compelled to travel to Greece to see these ancient sites with their own eyes, and in their hands will be The Landmark Herodotus, as the invaluable reference that it is.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 29th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Beowulf: A New Verse Translation” by Seamus Heaney (Norton, 2000)


Earlier this year a new version of Beowulf was published, translated by the Irish Nobel Prize Winner (for 1995) Seamus Heaney. Heaney has spent many years trying to get this translation just right, and I believe he hit the nail on the head in this case. This book presents a different insight into reading Beowulf, adopting a more archaic viewpoint in both language and imagery. Heaney does not bother much with fancy words to make the poem seem more fantastic, but sticks to the original terms, translating them as closely as he possibly can. The book is set up so that on the left is the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon or Old English text and on the right is Heaney’s translation.

For this translation, Heaney had to return to his long misused Irish tongue of Gaelic. He had learned the language when he was a boy, but has since spent more time using English. His main source was his grandmother, who is still fluent in the archaic language. In talking to her, he would hear strange words and terms that simply do not exist in modern English. Heaney would then turn to the original text of Beowulf. There he would notice similarities between these strange expressions uttered by his grandmother and the poem. In one case he found an exact match with the word “Þolian” which means to suffer and his grandmother’s expression, “They’ll just have to learn to thole”; here the thorn symbol, Þ, is pronounced with a “th” sound. Heaney considered these unique insights “loopholes” through which he was able to translate this magnificent piece of literature.

It remains unknown as to when Beowulf was written and by whom. Quite likely a monk wrote it, since monks were really the only people of the time who were able to write; also the poem was written by a Christian, since there are numerous points throughout the codex where the “Almighty” and “God” are thanked and respected.

The poem was composed first orally some time during the middle of the seventh century, and then written down in the eleventh century. It is a tale about a great hero of the Geats know as Beowulf, who travels to Denmark, where the king, Hrothgar, is being attacked by a monster in the night known as Grendel. Beowulf fights with the beat and rips off its arm, whereupon the creature flees into the darkness from whence it came. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son; she takes a life and flees back to her lair beneath the mere (a lake). Beowulf pursues, tracks her down and with a magic sword decapitates her.

After being greatly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf and his army return to their homeland in the south of Sweden. There, after years of attacks by enemies, he inherits the throne and rules for fifty years. In his fiftieth year, a dragon is disturbed from its lair, where it has been guarding a mound of ancient treasure, left by a long-dead warrior. Beowulf confronts the dragon but is gravely injured. Wiglaf, one of his soldiers, comes to his rescue and stabs the dragon in the stomach, killing its ability to make fire. Beowulf draws his dagger and stabs the dragon a lethal blow. But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon’s bite and dies shortly after.

A great funeral pyre is built and set ablaze, while his many followers watch. His cremated remains are added to a special mound that is created on a hilltop overlooking the sea, where any ship passing will see the mound and know that Beowulf lies beneath. Thus, the poem ends with the forever-lasting memory of a great hero.

Heaney’s new twist on this translation of Beowulf is through using the most exact word possible; the result are terms like “ring-hoard,” “lake-birth,” “shield-clash,” and “sky-roamer.” What makes this so magical is how the words fit so well, and flow like the soft voice that once spoke them. These specific terms help to create an image in the reader’s mind of just what the original composer was intending: a story of gallantry, gold, fighting, Christianity, and the triumph of good over evil. As one begins reading, one can not help but get caught up in the thrashing current that pulls you along with the weight of the past, taking you step-by-step along Beowulf’s paths, his victories, and his eventual loss. And at the poem’s climax and conclusion one is left with a deep-set feeling of remorse for this mighty warrior, Beowulf, who most likely never existed, or at least has not lived for over a thousand years.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on November 6 2000 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“The Canterbury Tales” Translated by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2008)

The Canterbury Talesstarstarstarstar

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by one of the greatest writers in history, up there with William Shakespeare himself.  Originally published in the late fifteenth century, it has appeared on high school reading lists, and serves as one of the most important medieval texts – if not the most important – ever written and published.

Chaucer tells the story of 29 pilgrims who set out on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  Pilgrimage was a common event in many people’s lives in the medieval world, especially if they were looking to be pious and guarantee their ascent into heaven; it was also a good way for those who had committed sins to be absolved of their actions.  The Host of this pilgrimage sets the stage in the “General Prologue” by asking each of the pilgrims to tell four stories; two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back to London.  The storytelling will help pass the time, but will also serve to enlighten the group about the lives and actions of the pilgrims.

While Chaucer never fully completed his 124 stories, ending at 22,, there is nevertheless a wide selection of stories from most of its main characters.  “The Knight’s Tale” is the story about two royal Theban cousins who love the same woman.  There’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as she discusses her life of five husbands and the importance and sacrifice she has made in marriage and being a wife.  “The Miller’s Tale” mocks the life of a carpenter who is fooled into believing a flood is coming, while the clerk sleeps with his wife.  In the final story, “The Parson’s Tale,” the Parson talks for a long time about the importance of being just and pious and faithful to God.

The Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of entertaining stories from the fifteenth century, but is a most fascinating insight into the way of life of these people, what they considered funny or sad, what they wore and ate, and what sort of a role the church truly played in their lives.  Chaucer even inserts himself into his book, arguing back and forth with the Host, as he is challenged to tell a superior story.

In this new translation from Burton Raffel, much of the original text is preserved, even though Raffel admits that in any translation, it is ultimately going to be different as it is that, a translation.  Nevertheless, where possible, Raffel keeps and maintains the rhyming scheme, giving life to the stories and making the old oral tradition of storytelling come alive off the page.  This new translation of The Canterbury Tales is perfect for anyone who enjoys these old texts, or for a student having trouble reading the early Middle English; it is even ideal for families to learn through reciting the stories aloud and hearing these classics come to life through voice, as they were originally meant to.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 18th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Translated by Simon Armitage (Norton, 2007)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knightstarstarstarstarstar

In February of 2000, renowned poet Seamus Heaney published a new verse translation of the classic anonymous epic poem “Beowulf.”  While not a complete literal translation, Heaney’s version set out to emulate the poetic style and meter of the original writers of the poem.  “Beowulf” was first committed to parchment around the year 1000, up to then it had only existed as a oral poem recited to friends, families and subjects over fires, in mead halls, and by bards to many people.  Heaney’s translation seeks to be this version, to be read aloud to people and appreciated in its original form.  Heaney’s Beowulf, in a bilingual edition with the original Old English verse on the left page and his translation on the right, has gone on to become the most popular translation; selected as the version for the Norton English Literature anthology, and has been made more accessible to ordinary readers who don’t have a background in medieval literature.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a poem much like “Beowulf.”  While not as epic in scale, it was likely first written down in the year 1400 and up to that point had been recited orally.  It has survived in only one form, in the original early Middle English, and now resides at the British Library.  Simon Armitage, like Heaney, has employed the use of the bilingual edition, with the original Middle English on the left page and his translation on the right, allowing the reader’s eyes to wander from left to right and right to left, examining the translation and enjoying the story.  If anything, the translation is more visible with this version, as Middle English is just a few steps away from our modern language and many words can be easily recognized, even if the spelling is barely decipherable.  Armitage admits not going for a completely literal translation, but seeking to preserve the alliterative form of the original poem, even if it means using modern words and phrasing.  The result is nevertheless a magnificent story which one reads, imagining what it was like being read or reading this poem aloud over six hundred years ago.

The story begins with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as they enjoy a marvelous feast in each other’s company.  Then the party is suddenly disturbed by the entrance of a giant man dressed in a full suit of green armor, by his side he carries a gigantic axe.  He then challenges King Arthur with the offer for anyone to chop off his own head with the giant axe.  If he survives, then the person will return to the Green Knight’s abode to suffer the same fate in one year’s time.  Gawain being the just, proud and humble knight that he is offers to do this job for his king.  Taking the axe he makes a mighty swing and easily separates the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.  The Green Knight then picks up his head and makes the deal with Gawain to do the same to him on New Year’s Day one year from now.

This essentially ends the first part of the poem, with the second part focusing on Gawain’s journey across the lands to find the Green Knight’s home.  On the way he finds a great castle where a gracious king looks after him during the terrible weather.  Yet, like the Green Knight, the king challenges him, offering to go hunting each morning, while his wife offers herself to Gawain, tempting him.  The deal is that whatever Gawain does, shall be dealt to the king upon his return from the hunt.  They do this for three days, but Gawain is pious and just, and does not give in to the king’s wife, giving the king just kisses upon his cheek.  The challenge certainly opens up an opportunity for some interesting interactions between Gawain and the king should Gawain have not been so just, but such was not the case.  The last part of the story is of Gawain leaving the castle, finding the Green Knight and accepting the challenge visited on him a year ago.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again much like Beowulf, has now been translated in this clear and alliterative version, making it accessible to any reader.  Apart from being an entertaining tale, it asks many questions about what it is to be just and true to your king, how easy it is to be tempted.  With a solid introduction from Armitage on the history of the poem, the book sets the scene well, letting the reader imagine what life was like in the fifteenth century, and more importantly, what the people were like back then.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.