Thursday, January 8, 2015

Beowulf, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien


Title: Beowulf 

Author/Translator: unknown/J.R.R. Tolkien
Written: between 8th-11th centuries
Challenge: Literary Movement 2015 Medieval 


This book is gorgeous; though I may be partial because most of my books are gravely used, and this copy of Beowulf was brand new.  I have always appreciated the story of Beowulf, possibly because of its romantic medieval roots about valiant knights defeating wicked foes, which is why I choose it for my Lit Movement Medieval period.  My kids and I have read numerous versions together, including Ian Serrailer's translation, which is also great; but how exciting to read a translation by Tolkien!  I knew I had to get it, and I am so glad I did.

This version is in a poetic-prose translation, which means (I had to look it up) it maintains its poetic quality; but it is not in verse, which means it would have had rhyme and rhythm.  I was incorrect by suggesting in a comment that it was in verse.  Nonetheless, it flows so smoothly and beautifully, and Tolkien's interpretation is vibrant and alive.  If books have a physical dimension, this is 3D.  Does that make sense?  I wonder if this particular book could be used as a study of Beowulf in classrooms.  It seems extremely comprehensive.


In addition to the great story of Beowulf, there is a huge section of commentary about the translation from the original language, which was helpful.  Plus, there is also a story version of Beowulf called Sellic Spell, which means "wondrous tale."  And it was.  It does not include the story of the dragon, which, as I learned through the commentary, may have been added much later to the first part of the story about the monster, Grendel, and his hideous mother.  But it was really good, and I suggest reading the Sellic Spell, in addition to Beowulf.

If you are truly adventurous, you may like to read the Old English text of Sellic Spell.  I was not that adventurous.


And finally, toward the very end of the book are two poems titled, "The Lay of Beowulf," which Tolkien sang to his son, Christopher, who is the reason this translation is available to us today.  It must have been fun to have Tolkien as a father.


26 comments:

  1. Thanks for reviewing this translation of Beowulf. It certainly sounds wonderful, especially with the commentary and additional poems. I've only read modern translations (Burton Raffel and Seamus Heaney).

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  2. Ha! I don't know how people can read Old English. :) I've never read Beowulf but I own the Seamus Heaney translation, which a good friend strongly recommends. I just haven't made time yet. :)

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    1. I have heard great things about Heaney's, and it may have been one of the few I have read. I cannot remember. Whichever you read: it is an adventurous, epic story.

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  3. I agree that the dust jacket is gorgeous! I particularly look forward to reading the book for the commentary.

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  4. You are certainly an inspiration. The idea of a Tolkien translation is very appealing. Thanks for the good review. I always thought it important for the seniors I taught to be familiar with Beowulf but the only thing I had available was a textbook selection centering on Grendel and his mother. It was rewarding when one of my students said what we read was better than the cartoon like movie.

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    1. Thank you, Janet. You are too kind.

      Words and imagination can produce a better picture than any movie; young people recognize that, too.

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  5. That sounds amazing! Someday I'll have to get this translation! :)

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  6. I'm looking forward to reading this translation. I still love Heaney's best but who knows; I may have a new favourite. Was this the first unadapted version that you've read?

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    1. I believe Serrailer's is unadapted, and I think I read Heaney's too. Cannot remember for certain. But kid's versions are great, too, for grasping the story.

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  7. Tolkien as a father -- that would have been quite the experience!

    I'm not a huge fan of the Beowulf story, as I've never been able to get into any version I've tried to read. But this one looks better than most! I'll add it to my TBR list.

    I do really like the movie The 13th Warrior, which is a retelling of the Beowulf story. Violent, but very good.

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    1. Didn't Tolkien write The Hobbit for his children?

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    2. Perhaps? I know he started writing it one day on the back of some student's homework he was grading.

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  8. I didn't know of the existence of this translation. I have to say I've only watched a movie adaptation of Beowulf when I was a lot younger and didn't find out, until I started University, that it was based in a book. But when I studied Medieval Literature, one of teachers talked about Beowulf very briefly and ignited my curiosity. We never got to actually study it, unfortunately, but now that I read this, I'm definitely gonna buy this traslation. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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    1. You're welcome.

      I've never watched a movie version of Beowulf, and I didn't want to see the one w/ Angelia Jolie. I didn't want it to ruin my picture of the story. But if one was done really well and stuck to the story, I may watch it.

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  9. I recently finished the Seamus Heaney translation, and I loved the story of Beowulf. I think I prefer classics that are longer and get more into the heart of the story instead of telling them at a distance, but I still loved the plot of Beowulf. I would really like to try out some other translations, especially this one since it's a Tolkien translation and I just love Tolkien's other works.

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    1. I can see that, with Beowulf being a quick story. Most people would take a few hours to read Beowulf, but I took four days. And this version had more in it than I remember from other translations, so it may be a little longer than usual. And if you like Tolkien, you may appreciate this more so.

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  10. Thanks for reviewing this - I'll have to get a copy! I was intending to, but now I'm very excited to! I'll have to order one online.

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    1. In that case, I do hope you enjoy it very much. : )

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  11. One of these days I need to read a different translation of Beowulf. Tolkien seems like a good choice!

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  12. I read Seamus Heaney's translation which I enjoyed very much. It also had a lot of photos of Viking artifacts that was interesting. I would like to see how Tolkien illustrated his.

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    1. I was really surprised that there were no illustrations in this book, except for the one on the dust jacket. I expected it to be filled with his drawings, like he did with The Hobbit.

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