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."
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.
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
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.
He has a lot of respect for the original but takes creative freedom to present it in prose. Comments reveal
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.