For those of us who can’t let go of the world of the rings, today is a good day. J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of and commentary on the Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf is published today, edited by his 89-year-old son. It comes with just one more story, Sellic Spell, a retelling of the Norse Hrólfs saga kraka. (If you really can’t let go of Middle Earth, visit Tolkien gateway for daily ‘on this day’ updates: 2 days ago in Arda in T.A. 3019, Arwen and Elrond arrived in Lothlorien on their way to Minas Tirith, while 2 days ago on earth in 1969, Tolkien wrote his 310th letter).
The latest Tolkien publication isn’t just another spin-off; it’s serious scholarship, though it wasn’t popular in its day. In his 1936 lecture The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien stressed that the fantasy should not be stripped from Beowulf:it was not just a source of historical and socio-linguistic facts about the Anglo-Saxon world. The dragons and other monsters were equally important, because this was literature, and a real story worth telling.
So Tolkien has opinions for the commentary, but is his translation any good? From the taster below, I’d say yes, but I need to see more to believe it’s better than Heaney. Tolkien attempted what many other translators had before him, though Seamus Heaney broke away from this. Heaney wanted to anchor his own spoken language in its Anglo-Saxon origins, while Tolkien sought to keep the rhythm of the original poem. You can see the difference in their accounts of Beowulf and his men setting sail (extracts from openculture.com):
Which do you prefer?
Which one is more chilling?
Which one sounds more like a dragon’s breath?
Thanks. I’d have to go with Heaney’s poetic authority. His translation is alive with the physicality of his language which drives the narrative and allows the otherness to emerge. Regards Thom at the immortal jukebox (which will feature SH and Beowulf later)
Heaney’s, I guess. Tolkein’s version reads more like a crib, stilted and Outland-ish, or maybe just overly respectful of the Great-Work-ness of the text; it lacks Heaney’s sense-driven urgency. But I’m not so convinced Heaney’s version–which i think is quite good, mind–is the breakthrough it’s cracked up to be. Now if Christopher Logue had done a version…
[…] poem? When Heaney’s (hear him read it!) 1999 translation came out, comparisons with Tolkien’s 1926 one did the rounds. So I added Headley’s version of the same lines 210-216, when Beowulf […]