Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf

J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher has edited his father's translation and notes about the great poem Beowulf. Craig Williamson reviews it for The Wall Street Journal:
Over a thousand years before Bilbo Baggins crept into Smaug's lair to lift a cup from the dragon's hoard, a nameless slave came slinking into the dragon's cave in "Beowulf" to steal a cup that led to the worm's fiery retaliation. Long before Frodo Baggins battled the forces of evil in Gollum, Shelob and Sauron, Beowulf did battle with the monster Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Before there was Tolkien's Middle-earth, there was the Old English middangeard (literally, "middle-yard, middle-world"), a place where history and fantasy met, where heroes did battle with both their real enemies and the creatures of their collective imagination.
Tolkien was a scholar of Old English before he was the father of modern fantasy fiction, and he drew upon "Beowulf" and other Old English poems in the shaping of his imaginary worlds. Like Beowulf, for example, Frodo is both threatened by the exterior forces of monsters and men and vulnerable to the internal pull of pride and power. Gollum, like Grendel, is associated with kin-killing, an evil that undermines human fellowship in each story. And Aragorn's lament for past ages as he rides past the burial mounds near Rohan echoes the elegiac themes in the song of the last survivor in "Beowulf."

Now at last we have Tolkien's version of the poem, as well as several other important texts related to it. First and foremost is his prose translation, which he completed in 1926 at the age of 34 and revised over the years and which his son Christopher, who edited this volume, characterizes as "in one sense complete, but at the same time evidently 'unfinished.' " There is also a generous selection of lecture notes and commentary on the Old English text, geared to Tolkien's translation. This is followed by three versions, one in Old English, two in modern English, of a short story, "Sellic Spell" (a phrase from "Beowulf" that means "marvelous story"), and two versions of a short ballad by Tolkien called "The Lay of Beowulf."

Williamson discusses briefly the "ethics" of publishing these works that Tolkien had not prepared himself for publication:

The ethics of publishing an author's unfinished works are admittedly complex, but Christopher Tolkien has argued that his father's drafts, works in progress and commentaries are important to our understanding of his work. Both scholars and lay readers have long awaited Tolkien's "Beowulf" translation and its related materials, and everyone will find something of enduring interest in this collection. For Tolkien, "Beowulf" was both a brilliant and haunting work in its own right and an inspiration for his own fiction. It is a poem that will move us as readers, not forever but as long as we last. Or as Tolkien says, "It must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes."

The HarperCollins site announcing the publication has further comments by Christopher Tolkien:

The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

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.

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