Okay, so maybe it's more like eighty-eight years. But Tolkien's translation of Beowulf officially went on sale yesterday. I've read through the translation and some of the commentary (I'm going to eagerly devour the rest of the commentary and Tolkien's 'Lay of Beowulf' and Sellic Spell), and I've got to tell you, it's good stuff. If you have any interest in Beowulf, you should read it.
Now, you might be thinking "But I already read Beowulf, back in school."
Good. Read this one, seriously. It's the translation as done by the man who put Beowulf on the map. Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics lecture revolutionized scholarship on the poem. Tolkien knew the poem inside and out, and that he did a translation and that it's finally available to readers is huge.
You've probably read Seamus Heaney's translation, either in its various appearances in Norton anthologies and critical editions or in the lovely bilingual facing page translation. It's a fine translation, really well done, and (in the opinion of this Anglo-Saxonist) really captures the rhythmic quality of the poem as recorded in its only surviving manuscript copy.
Given how excellent that translation is, why read Tolkien? Let me give you three good reasons (none of which are reasons to skimp on the Heaney - really, you should read both).
1. Tolkien's Beowulf is a prose translation
I could give a rant about how the American education system fails to get across the value of poetry to students. I know that when I came out of high school I didn't much like poetry in part because of the way poetry is taught to us. Poetry can be intimidating to a great number of people because of that background, and so a prose translation might be seen as more friendly and inviting.
Tolkien's translation is very characteristic of the time he wrote it in. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, Beowulf was commonly translated into prose. Verse translations are much more common today, which makes Tolkien's translation something of an oddity in the market today. Now, the poem is a poem, so this is a change not dissimilar to the change inherent in recording the poem in writing (where the form got fixed and the free-form possibilities of oral composition were made latent and not vital) or adapting the poem into film, modernized novella, or comic book.
That said, this approach has fallen out of favor somewhat in the past fifty years or so. We tend to want to respect the source material in a number of ways, and if the process of adaptation occurs within a single medium (text), why not keep the form as well? Heaney does great stuff while keeping the form, as have other translaters like Roy Liuzza.
Let's not worry too much about comparing Heaney and Tolkien. Slate writer Katy Waldman has that handled.
Waldman makes some fair points about Tolkien's phrasing. She notes the highness of the diction, as well as the exacting, relentless way Tolkien deploys his sentences to conform to Anglo-Saxon poetic sentence structures in prose. These features might well make the text feel less inviting to readers. Probably no more than poetry already seems to be, I'd wager.
Prose gives Tolkien a great deal of breathing room to capture the sort of small, precise things he loves to include in his writing. Heaney's translation is that of a poet, which lends his translation a vital, beautiful quality to it. It's faithful in its musicality - the poem was after all, before being written down, a song. By holding some of the original rhythmic qualities, Heaney does a great thing - he gives us the sound.
Tolkien, however, gives us prose. His is that of the philologist, of the scholar, of the man who is interested in exploring the word in a very different way than Heaney does. And as for rhythm, there is a rhythm to Tolkien's prose. Christopher, his son, writes:
I have found nowhere among his [my father's] papers any reference to the rhythmical aspect of his prose translation of Beowulf, but it seems to me that he designedly wrote quite largely in rhythms founded on 'common and compact prose-patterns of ordinary language', with no trace of alliteration, and without the prescription of specific patterns.
Christopher is a little blind here. His father does, in fact, quite often employ alliteration in his prose translation, approaching the alliterative rhythmic prose style of Ælfric of Eynsham, a late 10th century abbot who did a number of translations of Biblical texts. An example of Tolkien's Beowulf, to note the alliterative elements (all vowels were equal in the alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxons, and alliteration was carried in the strong stress of the word):
Then stumbled, desperate at heart, that warrior most strong, that champion of the host, and he in turn was thrown. Then did she bestride the invader of her hall, and drew her knife with broad and burnished blade: she thought to avenge her son and only child.
Stumbled, strong, bestride. Desperate, drew. Heart, host, hall. Champion, child. Broad, burnished, blade. Invader, avenge. Beowulf (the strong) stumbled, and was bestrode. He (of the host) was desperate (at heart) and in the hall. The champion had slain the child, so she drew a broad and burnished blade against the invader, to avenge her son. The alliteration is just crackling under the surface.
Tolkien does this all over the place in the translation. The sound is still there, living in the prose. It's quite beautiful in its way - he changed out the artful and high style of verse for the most artful and highly stylized form of Old English prose. It's something I like. I don't generally find myself liking prose translations of the poem - there's something about them which just strikes me as a violation. This, however, blows the others out of the water because it employs the prose well on a technical level. And I'm a sucker for good Ælfrican writing.
There is one disappointment I have - Tolkien's prose masks the fact that within Beowulf exist two songs. After Beowulf has killed Grendel, the scop sings in his honor the song of Sigemund, and later in the revelry the song of the fight at Finn's Hall is sung for him as well. The prose renders these songs practically inert, mere summaries of songs. The songs are important - they remind us of the poem's origin in song and the way Beowulf has always undergone adaptation. Here they're just prosaic.
2. Tolkien's a philologist
As I've mentioned, Tolkien's translation is the translation of a philologist rather than a poet. That gives it some very laudable qualities.
Yes, as Waldman says, sometimes the prose comes off as lacking immediacy and has a syntax which can be very difficult to parse given the rhythms and conventions of modern English prose. At the same time, you get a really good feeling for just how language works while reading the translation. Tolkien puts it all in there. Sometimes this can result in difficult sentences (and, like in Lord of the Rings and even more so the Silmarillion they are often rather old-fashioned in their construction). They may be difficult to grasp the whole of at a glance, but that's okay. This forces the reader to spend time with the sentences, to engage with the words. To a philologist like Tolkien, nothing could be more important than to increase the time spent with the language.
And for all that difficulty Tolkien rewards us. There are delightful moments where you see things like Tolkien's linking the Geats (Beowulf's people) with the Goths, a connection made on the grounds of etymology and the particulars of diction (the commentary gives a multi-page note on this point). The commentary and translation together make a great introduction to how useful philological approaches to literature can be. And you get to immerse yourself in the world of the story, which if you know anything about Tolkien, is almost entirely the point.
Plus, Tolkien's a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature and language. Being one of those, you can't imagine how much it pleases me to see someone who can use thee and thou, ye and you, and so on properly, in the Anglo-Saxon way with such deft skill. Tolkien's got this. You can read the translation and basically learn the old system of second person pronouns from it. And that's not even getting to the more exotic archaicizing linguistic features. Usually when I see someone try and "Olde Englishe" up their language, I shudder and cringe my way through it because they have no idea what they're doing. With Tolkien I have complete trust and faith, because he demonstrates time and again that he does know what he's doing.
The commentary and scholarly apparatus to the translation are great things to have, and having more insight into Tolkien's scholarly knowledge of the poem is not unwelcome. There's just so much here for someone interested in the language, or interested in philology, or even just interested in what makes the poem tick. Heaney gives us a transcription of the Old English (regularized for punctuation), but the lengths he goes to in order to make his meter fit make it difficult to use the modern English to get a good sense of the sense of the Old. By giving such a thorough commentary, Tolkien offers us exactly that kind of sensemaking.
3. Grendel's Mother
Okay, so I'm going to go back on my word and I'm going to compare Heaney and Tolkien directly here.
Tolkien sometimes gets some flak for the lack of women in his writing. Yes, The Hobbit has no women and the Lord of the Rings few. Here the existence of women is unavoidable. In Beowulf we have perhaps the most famous woman in Old English literature: Grendel's Mother.
You might know her to look like this:
The 2007 film version of Beowulf wasn't the first to sex up Grendel's Mother. The 1999 version did as well, casting October 1997 Playboy Playmate of the Month Layla Roberts. That version was, well, incoherent would be upselling it.
Heaney's translation doesn't sex up Grendel's mother, but it definitely distorts the Old English a little for the sake of conforming to the alliterative meter he employs. Heaney refers to her as a "swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag" (OE: grund-wyrgenne, mere-wif), a "hell-dam" (heo), and "monstrous hell-bride" (ides aglæc-wif). None of the Old English has such negative connotation as the translations Heaney gives. Grund-wyrgenne, mere-wif is simply "wolf of the deep, woman of the mere," heo "she," and ides aglæc-wif either "wretched woman" or, and given that the element aglæc is applied with the same connotation to Beowulf himself, perhaps more likely "superhuman fierce woman warrior" (ides is a poetic word meaning woman, but generally used to refer to superhuman or supernatural beings).
Tolkien's translation? Ides aglæc-wif becomes "ogress, fierce destroyer in the form of a woman." Seems more on point to me. Ogress gives a more concrete descriptor which links her to Grendel's form, but the translation here captures the fact that she does look like a woman (the precise phrasing of the translation stems from a later description where she is described with idese onlicnes [(in woman's likeness]) and without the out of nowhere bridal and hell elements.
Heo is rendered simply as "she," avoiding the creation of a negative epithet where none existed before. Grund-wyrgene, mere-wif Tolkien renders as "monstrous woman of the sea, wolvish outlaw of the deep." Tolkien's philology at work - wolves and outlaws are extremely well-connected in Old English, with monstrous as the only point not strictly supported in the Old English text.
All in all, it's one of the better renderings of Grendel's Mother I've seen to date. Too often sexed up, or given extra negative language in her description to hammer home the fact that she's a murderous monster (and ugly, too, if Heaney's word choices are any indication). Tolkien's translation, on the other hand, is rather refreshing. She's a monster, yes, a wolvish ogress outlaw if we're precise. But she looks like a woman, and that's the extent of the physical description.
Tolkien's Beowulf, for the person interested in Beowulf, is a must read. It's rigorous in its love of language, employs a somewhat quaint, archaic style which might appeal, and it avoids the common trap of unnecessary editorializing on Grendel's Mother.
If you love Tolkien's writing in general, this is right up your alley. If you prefer prose to verse, this is by far the best prose Beowulf there is. If you're interested in the language, the critical apparatus of this text is a goldmine for you. If you liked Heaney's but want to try on a different experience of Beowulf this is a great read and a great opportunity. Ideally I would suggest both, Heaney and Tolkien.
Read it, love it. You will not be disappointed.
Image Credit TolkienBeowulf.com
Image Credit IMDB