An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 2, 2015

Tolkien and Tolkien (ed): Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

J.R.R. Tolkien (trans) and Christopher Tolkien (ed). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell. London: HarperCollins, 2014. 448pp.

Reviewed by Mark Atherton (

Beowulf is "the major piece of Old English verse that has survived the wrecks of time – still profitable … to read in its own right, quite apart from its acquired value as a window into the past"; so the author puts it in this ‘new’ publication from the literary estate of J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien, Beowulf, 275). Many present-day medievalists would agree with Tolkien’s view that the poem’s artistic merit matches its historical import. As a "major piece of verse," Beowulf tells an epic tale focusing on two moments in the trajectory of its protagonist: the "young proud" ambitious hero who defeats the monster Grendel in the first part of the poem, the old king in the second, filled, as Tolkien puts it in the commentary to this translation, with "the bitter wisdom of experience" (312). As a historical "window," Beowulf provides an Anglo-Saxon view on the legendary past of northern Europe that would be otherwise unknown, and as a poem it deals with the big themes of the “Northern” epic: loyalty and treachery, redress for wrong, providence, fate and fortitude. Tolkien’s version, now edited by his son Christopher, comes at a time when the reputation of the poem is growing, not to mention the fascination to be had from reading another work by the author of The Lord of the Rings.

The role of Tolkien’s fiction in promoting interest in the medieval world has been immense, but it is also certainly true to claim the reverse: without Beowulf, the Edda, the Kalevala, and a number of other ancient literary works that Tolkien wrote about as an academic, his fiction would never have been written.[1] Today, his expertise on Old English remains impressive and influential, his major publication on Beowulf being a lecture given at the British Academy in London in 1934, "The Monsters and the Critics." The lecture shifted scholarly focus from the text’s legendary background and back to the artistic unity of the poem, and it ushered in a new era in Beowulf studies on its publication in 1936.[2] When The Hobbit appeared a year later in 1937, Tolkien was compared to Lewis Carroll – author of Alice in Wonderland (1865) – another famous Oxford academic who had authored a “children’s book.” Tolkien clearly drew on Beowulf for details of plot and character in The Hobbit, and the borrowings continued as he turned to writing its famous sequel, The Lord of the Rings, which proved to be a long project, intended for a wider audience.[3] In the meantime, as another celebrated lecture "On Fairy Stories" (1939) reveals, he considerably altered his views on how modern fiction should be used as a medium for presenting ancient literature to the modern world.[4] By the time The Lord of the Rings had appeared in 1954-5, Tolkien had considerably refined his own literary method and developed a more sophisticated and consistent prose style.

For all of his career, Tolkien taught and studied Beowulf. But his translation is a relatively early work, completed in 1926, shortly after he had taken up the Rawlinson and Bosworth professorship of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford. It is evident, from the commentary itself and from editorial information added by his son Christopher Tolkien, that he used this translation as the basis for his undergraduate lectures on the poem throughout the 1930s and after. What this new publication provides then is the prose translation of 1926, together with an introduction and a few related texts by Tolkien, such as his Beowulfian folk-tale Sellic Spell; together with an edited selection of the 1930s lectures which forms a substantial commentary taking up about half of the book, on language, style and cultural background, and with short interpretive "essays" on the poem. Of the two main sections it is arguably the commentary that will prove the more enduring; I will return to that point later, but let us first take look at his approach to rendering Old English alliterative verse into modern English.

The translation is done in a kind of rhythmical literary prose, not unlike the style of his slightly earlier Book of Lost Tales, but more constrained since it follows where possible the arrangement of ideas of the Old English poem, which, like Latin verse, is quite free in its word order. Features employed are mock-Germanic syntax-inversion, archaisms such as "spake," with some attempts to reproduce the sounds of the original; it has an Anglo-Saxon "flavor."[5] For example, one might compare lines 320-321a of the poem with Tolkien’s version.[6] To get something of their "flavor" it is illuminating to manipulate the sentence and arrange it as verse on the page:

                              The street was paved      in stone patterns;
                              The path guided         those men together.

Though it breaks the classic rules for alliterating elements, there is clearly a texture of sound and rhythm and a metrical quality that Tolkien adds to his version. As such, his rhythmical style differs from the plain prose of Clark Hall, the classic student translation of Beowulf, which Tolkien clearly knew and admired: he even borrows short phrases from Clark Hall in his own rendering of the text. [7] The Clark Hall "crib," as it is sometimes called, was republished by the philologist C.L. Wrenn in 1940, together with an essay by his Oxford colleague Tolkien, "Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of “Beowulf”.’

In this preface, Tolkien expounds his principles not only for translating accurately but also for capturing the register and equivalent diction of the original. There is a tension here, for Tolkien feels that the characteristic OE pictorial compounds known as "kennings" are alien to modern English usage. A minor example occurs in the passage above, where the compound adjective stan-fah is rendered "paved with stone" by Clark Hall, but is "resolved" by Tolkien, i.e. expanded, in order to capture the connotation of the poetic adjective fah. A more vivid example is the metaphorical kenning ofer hron-rade (Beowulf, line 10a), literally "over whale-road" i.e. "across the sea." Where Clark Hall has "across the whale’s road," Tolkien resolves this to "over the sea where the whale rides" and adds a long and lively discussion of this kenning in the commentary (141-3). But the net result of all this "resolution" is that Tolkien’s published translation loses the characteristic Anglo-Saxon compactness and becomes a much longer text. And an unintended difficulty is that undergraduate students (in my experience as a university teacher) find the text hard to use in conjunction with their editions of Beowulf, because the resulting line numbers do not match.

A related issue that Tolkien addresses is diction, or choice of word. The Old English literary language possessed a vast "word-hoard," (to use a kenning), i.e. a whole thesaurus or repertoire of words and phrases that appear only in its verse and not in its prose. Such a phenomenon is hard to conceive in present-day English; for since the 1920s and 1930s, which is also of course the time of T.S. Eliot (and Modernism more generally), writers have eschewed a special literary vocabulary and opened up poetry to all sort of registers which it did not formerly employ. On this question Tolkien seems to be working against the grain of his own times, for his solution is to urge us to avoid colloquialisms in the target text in favor of weighty and traditional diction (Preface to Clark Hall, xix):

avoid … exquisite and artistic and prefer the 'cunning craft' and 'skill' of ancient smiths; [avoid] visitors (suggesting umbrellas, afternoon tea, and all too familiar faces) and prefer 'guests' with a truer note of real hospitality, long and arduous travel, and strange voices bearing unfamiliar news.

The latter example sounds to me like just the right register for Beowulf, whereas "umbrellas and tea" suggests the world of the Shire, with its dialect-speaking farmers and respectable citizens who like to express themselves plainly. One of the serious but playful elements of style in The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring is Tolkien’s ear for different registers and clashes of registers: respectable hobbits and kings of ancient lineage do not speak the same language.

However, I wonder whether that ear for the right register was not yet fully developed in 1926, for some of his weighty and traditional terms seem here archaic or even obsolete. It is a matter of taste, but some twenty-first century reviewers and readers find the many archaisms in Tolkien’s Beowulf uncongenial, and others are perplexed by a whole set of terms taken straight out of the Camelot of King Arthur and the world of medieval feudalism and chivalry: squire, esquire, knight, liege, vassal. Tolkien’s justification, it seems, is that present-day English lacks the right terms to apprehend the cultural world of Beowulf, which he believes was courtly and courteous. The only solution is to employ the already existing diction of the Arthurian world and apply that register to Beowulf. He has a point. The default position on the Anglo-Saxons among ordinary readers (or even movie makers) is that they were uncouth, brutal and boorish. Nothing could be further than the truth, says Tolkien, at least in the poem Beowulf, and his argument is a valuable corrective then to popular misconceptions  of the period and its literature. In his commentary, Tolkien develops these ideas at greater length.

Just as Thomas Malory with his Morte Darthur in the fifteenth century came at the end of a long tradition of poems and stories about Arthur and Camelot, giving his own individual take on the themes of the narrative, Tolkien sees the Beowulf poet as in a similar position: he is the Malory of the Heorot legends, which stretch way back into the dim and distant past beyond his own era, the eighth century.[8] This poet brings his own conceptions of virtue and courtesy to the story and adds a distinct "dramatic element" to the presentation of the characters of Beowulf, the young Geatish hero, and Hrothgar the king of Denmark whose court of Heorot he cleanses of its monstrous assailants. The courtliness is not complete; there are a few chinks where the old primitive folktale peeps through, where Beowulf is the uncouth bearlike champion with the strength of thirty men in his grasp. This is the reason for Tolkien’s creative reconstruction of the original fairy tale behind the narrative in his Sellic Spell.

Tolkien lingers particularly over the arrival of Beowulf in Denmark, the historical background and chronology which the poet adds to the plot, the careful assessment of claim and counter-claim in the various speeches that are made at the court by the guest and his hosts. Courtliness is seen in the measured speeches, the ritual drinks and presentations. In the dramatic moments, which Tolkien analyses at length, the young Beowulf reveals himself as passionate, easily angered but loyal and steadfast; Hrothgar as wise in old age, a shrewd judge of character and motive, with a tendency to go for policies of appeasement (204-262). It is interesting to note Tolkien’s method of analysis in the commentary, his modernization of the characters’ speeches in long, sometimes colloquial, paraphrases – despite his love of high diction in the text of the translation itself.

According to Tolkien, we learn another side of Beowulf’s character in the later scene where the hero returns to the hall of Hygelac, his own lord and king back in Geatland. Beowulf tells Hygelac of the Danish King Hrothgar’s plans, now that the monsters have been defeated, of healing the feud between the Danes and the nation of the Heathobards. Hrothgar will give his daughter Freawaru in marriage to the famous Ingeld, son of Froda, the Heathobard king who had been killed in the earlier feud. Beowulf displays here what Tolkien terms his political acuity as he explains why this marriage alliance is doomed to failure. Again in his commentary Tolkien admires the dramatic element in the Beowulf poet’s artistry as he explores the moment of confrontation when the feud will be renewed (338-43).

Tolkien also detects a rare love-interest in this narrative of Freawaru and Ingeld, to which at pages 324-43 a lengthy section of the commentary is devoted (he perhaps has in mind here his own story of the lovers Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion). What is clear is that Tolkien sees the story as historical, with a consistent chronology. The war or feud is concerned with control of Heorot, which is associated in Danish historical traditions with Lejre in Zealand, the old royal seat and centre of religious cult. As John D. Niles and others haves demonstrated, there is a good deal of recent archaeological data to support these reflections.[9] In this section Tolkien offers further intriguing remarks on the mythical background to this marriage: the lovers both have names with a Frey-element (Frea and Ing) that recall stories of the ancestral King Fróda and the peace-loving nature of the Heathobards, ‘whose traditions are of Frey and the Vanir rather than Odin the Goth’ (338). Tolkien evidently finds the mythological associations of the Vanir – corn and fruitfulness – more congenial than those of the Aesir – Odin and the ravens and "bloodshed for its own sake" (330). These are interesting insights into the background of the poem, which would merit further exploration.

In brief, courtliness and character seem to be the new and interesting leitmotifs of this translation and commentary, and they are valuable insights for new readers to bring to their encounter with Beowulf. It remains for this reviewer to suggest strategies for approaching this volume for any newcomer to the field. As the editor Christopher Tolkien makes clear, the commentary ranges from linguistic and historical notes to glosses on difficult cruces and passages, to short "essays" on the interpretation of the poem or on the understanding of Old English culture. It is with these "essays" that it is best to begin. Here are some recommendations: the summary of the structure of the poem (312-313); the definition of a kenning (141-3); a note on the originality of the poet (254); a comparison of the aristocratic "code" in Beowulf and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (271-2); the habit of understatement (187-91). The dragon is neglected in this book, probably because the lecture series did not cover that part of the poem; nevertheless there is one fine Tolkienian set-piece on that subject which is well worth reading (350-3). And finally, if only one of the "essays" in the commentary should be read then it is this: Tolkien’s spirited, even moving and provocative, "take" on the ethos of whole poem (272-5).

Mark Atherton 
Regent’s Park College
University of Oxford

[1] For an essential guide to Tolkien and his world, see Stuart Lee (ed.), A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (Oxford, 2014).
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London, 1983).
[3] Tolkien’s indebtedness to Beowulf is explored by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova, The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien (Basingstoke, 2005). The classic study is Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (London, 1982).
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, expanded edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London, 2008).
[5] For these criteria see the discussion of translation from Old English in Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies, 3rd edn (London, 2002), pp. 93-101.
[6] Tolkien used F. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg 3rd edn (Lexington MA, 1950; 1st edn 1922); a recent excellent text and guide is George Jack (ed.), Beowulf. A Student Edition (Oxford, 1994).
[7] John R. Clark Hall, Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment. A Translation into Modern English Prose, revised edition, ed. C.L. Wrenn (London, 1940; revised again 1950; 1st edn 1911).
[8] Tolkien himself takes on the mantle of the Arthurian poet in his The Fall of Arthur, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 2013); the tone is courtly and the metre is a fine alliterative verse style which is clearly modeled on the Old English metre of Beowulf.
[9] John D. Niles, Beowulf and Lejre (Tempe, AZ, 2007).