J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf A Translation and Commentary (2014)

While the late J. R. R. Tolkien is better known for his fiction, he also held a chair in Anglo Saxon, as Old English used to be called, at Oxford for twenty years, before he was elected Professor of English Language and Literature in the same university. A recent book contains two fascinating pieces that arose from his academic activities, a prose translation of the Old English poem Beowulf and a commentary on it that deals in particular with linguistic issues. The poem has not lacked for translations (the most interesting recent one being that of Seamus Heaney; a widely talented man, he has just published a translation of the sixth book of the Aeneid!), but Tolkien’s was the work of an extremely serious scholar in the field who had, as C. S. Lewis put it, been inside language.  He translates into a slightly formal, rhythmical prose that gains from being read aloud: ‘Then went Grendel forth when night was come to spy on that lofty house…’ ‘In a hidden land they dwell upon highlands wolfhaunted, and windy cliffs, and the perilous passes of the fens, where the mountain-stream goes down beneath the shadows of the cliffs, a river beneath the earth.’ The repeated phrase ‘Þæt wæs gōd cyning’ becomes ‘a good king was he!’ Just one aspect of the translation doesn’t ring completely true to me. Hrothgar and his establishment at Heorot are seen in terms of King Arthur and Camelot, so that we read of loyal knights, young esquires and lieges, terminology that to me suggests the far more settled and chivalrous life of the twelfth century.

The commentary, which breaks off at the beginning of the story of the dragon, has been recreated from the notes from which Tolkien lectured on the text at Oxford by one of his sons, Christopher. I shall never be more than an amateur in this field, one who approaches the text through the marvellous glossed version Michael Alexander produced for Penguin Classics, and some of the commentary told me more than I wanted to know about Old English vocabulary, but the store of recondite data is fascinating.

Tolkien, of course, is best remembered for The Lord of the Rings, but the gap between his scholarship and his fiction wasn’t all that wide. The fascination with language displayed in the commentary is very clear in the world of the hobbits and other species, each of which has its own carefully devised and internally consistent language. Beyond this lie the attitudes of authors to the worlds they describe. In what remains the most influential paper ever written on Beowulf, his  ‘Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics’ (1936), Tolkien argued that the poem should be taken seriously as a work of literature, and that it was the work of a Christian author who looked back on the heathen times he described with a nostalgia for the vanished values he described. The question of the relative absence of religion in The Lord of the Rings has frequently been discussed, but it seems to me that it can be taken further by seeing Tolkien’s attitude towards the Middle Earth he so lovingly created in terms of the mind-set he attributed to the Beowulf poet.




Recently I’ve read in more than one place that Tolkien argued for the English syllabus at Oxford not going beyond 1400 (although he is said to have been sufficiently broad minded to concede that it was a shame that Shakespeare would have to be excluded: si non e vero…) However, I haven’t been able to verify this from any reliable source. Would any reader of this blog be able to enlighten me?


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