Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

July Books 3) Beowulf, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien

There are sometimes diminishing returns in publishing material that a long-dead writer never saw fit for publication; sometimes, when the work is put away in a drawer for the rest of the creator's life, it is the right decision. Adam Roberts has written of his disappointment with this publication of Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, though I actually found there was enough here to keep me entertained. As well as a 200-page prose translation of the poem itself - which did give me some new insights, in particular in that Tolkien is not at all shy about the Christian content - we get Tolkien's lecture notes on the first two-thirds of it, which are full of fascinating and wide-ranging Anglo-Saxon speculation (Scyld Scefing's name points to ancient corn cults, for instance).

We also get "Sellic Spell", a reworking of the Beowulf story by Tolkien to get nearer what he would have liked the original version to be - a very interesting riff on ancient tales, which I think is in the same respectful spirit of innovation as, say, the 2005 Icelandic version starring Gerald Butler, or the 2007 Robert Zeleckis animated version whose script was co-written by Neil Gaiman. It's an interesting insight into how Tolkien conceived of story-telling, and a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of his own take on the poem that inspired his best known academic work and clearly lay behind his writing.

Let's be clear, Seamus Heaney's 1999 translation is far superior, but also veers a little further from the original meaning, if creatively so. Here's a good example from lines 286-289 of the original, where the watchman on the beach resiles with dignity from his initially hostile reaction to Beowulf's arrival:
Weard maþelode,                ðær on wicge sæt,
ombeht unforht:                "æghwæþres sceal
scearp scyldwiga                gescad witan,
worda ond worca,                se þe wel þenceð."
Heaney's translation:
Undaunted, sitting astride his horse,
The coast-guard answered, "Anyone with gumption
And a sharp mind will take the measure
Of two things: what’s said and what’s done.["]
Tolkien:
The watchman spake, sitting there upon his steed, fearless servant of the king: ["]A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds[."]
Tolkien's lecture notes, recasting the spoken sentence:
"A man of acumen, who considers things properly, will naturally show discernment in judging words and deeds."
Note the differences:
  1. Tolkien's translation is potentially ambiguous as to whether the watchman or the steed is the fearless servant of the king! His "fearless" is anyway not as good as Heaney's "undaunted", in that the original "unforht" clearly refers to the relationship between the speaker and Beowulf; Heaney's coast-guard is standing up to a suspicious bunch of armed men, Tolkien's watchman is just generally not frightened. And the king, mentioned by Tolkien, is not mentioned in this part of the original, though I guess he's implied as the employer of an "ombeht"; Heaney takes it as read that we understand who the coast-guard works for. (I am tickled by the link to Dutch "ambtenaar", meaning "civil servant", which comes from "ambacht", which now means something different but was originally the same word as "ombeht".)
  2. Tolkien is consciously archaic: "spake" instead of "answered"; "steed" instead of "horse". Heaney uses the good colloquial word "gumption" rather than "keen wit" or "acumen" to translate the standard that the coastguard sets himself.
  3. In both the translation and the lecture notes, Tolkien dissipates the force of the final line's "worda ond worca" - "words and deeds" is not bad in English, but doesn't have the same ring as "what's said and what's done"; more importantly, the fact that the sentence starts with "æghwæþres" flags that there's a choice involving two things coming up (yeah, I am simplifying a bit), and Tolkien's "both words and deeds" tagged on at the end loses that emphasis, whereas Heaney builds up to it and delivers a punchline.
Of course, it's deeply unfair to make the comparison. Heaney produced this towards the end of a long career, shortly after winning the Nobel prize; Tolkien knocked this off as a teaching aid in the 1920s, years before he started on his best known writing, and with no intention of ever publishing it. We Tolkien completists will not be too disappointed by it.
Tags: bookblog 2014, writer: tolkien
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