Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell

by Tolkien; J. R. R.

Hardcover, 2014



Call number



HarperCollins Publishers Ltd (2014), Edition: 1st


From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel's terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is "the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history" that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The 'treasure' is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination."… (more)

Media reviews

Tolkien, though he wrote poetry, did not consider himself primarily a poet, and his “Beowulf” is a prose translation. In the words of Christopher Tolkien, his father “determined to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem, far closer than
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could ever be attained by translation into ‘alliterative verse,’ but with some suggestion of the rhythm of the original.” In fact, the alliteration is there throughout. Consequently, you can tap out the rhythm, with your foot, line by line.
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This "new" Tolkien translation, originally composed in 1926, is in a prose that sticks as closely as possible to the meaning and clause-order of the original. It has great accuracy and a sense of rhythm. Its style is, like that of the original, archaic, and often has striking inversions of
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word-order. It has its own spell, though its movement is more crabbed than that of the equally accurate version made by GN Garmonsway in 1968
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The first disappointment, then, of Tolkien’s Beowulf is that it is in prose – and long-winded prose at that. This literal rendering is faithful to the formulaic circumlocutions, inversions and amplifications of Old English poetry – a heroic style that evolved to while away a winter’s night,
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but which loses something when locked into the frigid grammar of a legal document: “Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him …’
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Rather than considering Tolkien’s interpretation a work of art to take its place aside other respected translations — like the 1966 E. Talbot Donaldson version that was replaced by the Heaney in the “Norton Anthology of English Literature” — many scholars will mine it for Tolkien’s
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comments on “Beowulf” and glimpses into his decision-making as he waded into gray areas of translation.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In this volume, Christopher Tolkien edits his father’s translation of Beowulf together with a commentary composed of J.R.R. Tolkien’s lectures on the text along with Sellic Spell, “an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form” and Tolkien’s Lay of Beowulf, “a rendering of the story in
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the form of a ballad to be sung” (pg. xiii). Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf retells the familiar story of the hero of the Geats, who aids Hrothgar in defeating the monster Grendel, later becoming king of the Geats. Fifty years later, King Beowulf must fight a dragon, but dies of wounds even as his defeats the beast. If the story has a moral, Tolkien sums it up in lines 1283-1284: “Such shall a man’s faith be, when he thinks to win enduring fame in war: no care for his life will trouble him” (pg. 57). Though Tolkien claimed not to use allegory in his Legendarium, fans may notice similarities between the language of Beowulf and name forms Tolkien used for Rohan in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Sellic Spell closely resembles many of his other fairy-stories, both in tone and form, and will entertain fans of these stories. Christopher Tolkien includes earlier drafts of the tale along with commentary discussing the changing language. Finally, the The Lay of Beowulf will particularly delight those who enjoy Tolkien’s songs. Overall, the work will primarily appeal to Tolkien scholars or those interested in Old English. The commentary in particular will be useful for those either teaching or learning Old English.
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LibraryThing member jgstone
I am waiting on for the opportunity to enjoy this literary treasure. I am predisposed to enjoy this as I am an enormous fan of Mythologies from a variety of cultures, and I've been a fan of Tolkein's writing for years.
LibraryThing member MrsLee
Beowulf, the poem, is vaguely familiar to most people, a monster is savaging a land, hero comes to the land and kills the monster. I had never read the whole tale before. This was hard plowing at the beginning, and the commentary was full of stuff which flew right over my head, but even so, it gave
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me better understanding of the poem, and I think greater insight into Professor Tolkien. A fiesty man about things he believed to be true, and that lovely dry humor as well. When I finally got to the Sellic Spell, I had enough understanding to see what he did there, and with the lays as well.

A side note, in the commentary he was talking about the elegiac laments in Beowulf. As he was describing what these were and why they were there, I could hear the lament of Theoden in Helms Deep. I believe that what makes Middle Earth feel so real, is that its backbone is all of this language and history that Tolkien carried within him.
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LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
It's strange that Tolkien is credited with kickstarting modern scholarship on 'Beowulf,' yet, until now, his translation was unpublished.
I've read other translations before, but I don't recall which ones specifically. I followed this reading up directly with the Heaney translation, which is
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apparently the standard in today's college classes. (It wasn't yet published either, last time I read 'Beowulf.') The Tolkien direct translation is more 'difficult,' but both (I cannot verify, but I got the feeling) more accurate and more lovely to the ear, with evocative and musical language. Tolkien's language and imagery is both vivid and elevated; and gives the reader the feeling of a glimpse into the past.

Reading the accompanying commentary (together with notes from Christopher Tolkien) is great because there's a lot of discussion of what the figures of speech mean and what words not only mean but what their implications are, considering the society using them. (Which kind of rubs it in that, "no, you really don't understand the original like Tolkien does, and very likely no one alive does.")
The 'commentary' is written rather informally, and indeed I could almost imagine myself in a classroom at Oxford,listening to Tolkien lecture. The book, as a whole is *almost* as good as taking a full-semester college seminar on the poem.

In addition to the translation, notes and commentary, this volume also includes two versions of Tolkien telling the story of Beowulf in the style of a folk tale; and two versions of it written as a ballad - which, IMHO, HAS to be recorded by some excellent bands very shortly! Seriously, one of the best pieces of poetry I've ever read. Gorgeous language; you can literally hear the music as you read.
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LibraryThing member sperzdechly
Tolkien's retelling of this classic story is stunning! I'm impressed with both the translation as well as the commentary. This book reveals Tolkien's "day job" and how amazing scholar he was.

He has a lot of respect for the original but takes creative freedom to present it in prose. Comments reveal
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how much deliberation has been put into the choice of words, rhythms, and structures. Tolkien's impressive knowledge is visible in ease he has to write different versions of the story - folk tale and song. Each of them is interesting in a different way, yet still true to the original.

It is not the easiest read. This is still an old saga, with the style and language that is much different from the one that a modern reader might be familiar with. Unless you are a linguist, you will need a lot of focus and motivation to spend more time with this book. Unfortunately, Christopher Tolkien doesn't make it easier for a reader complicating things much more than it is necessary.
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8.98 inches


0007590067 / 9780007590063
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