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  1. Beowulf - Reactions and Reviews

    Well, it's here! Tolkien's Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary was released last Thursday, and as people have time to start digesting it, the responses are starting to come in. I figure this is a good place to share some thoughts about the newest Tolkien work, and also to collect some of the more 'official' reviews that have appeared so far (I'll keep this initial post updated with any that I hear about). See the earlier Beowulf thread for some of what was said in the run-up to the publication.

    The Tolkien Society is doing a running list of reviews, so you can also check that out: http://www.tolkiensociety.org/2014/0...owulf-reviews/


    *The Launch Party*

    http://www.tolkiensociety.org/events...-launch-party/

    To start off with something that isn't a 'review' as such, the Tolkien Society and Middle-earth Network organized a 6 hour online 'launch party' on the 24th of May, mostly consisting various people talking about the translation or related matters (note: one of those 'various people' was myself - consider yourself warned). One of the highlights of the Party was Doug Anderson singing 'The Lay of Beowulf' to the tune of The Fox Went out on a Moonlit Night (or whichever version of that title you prefer). Among the talks, I particularly enjoyed Dimitra Fimi's discussion of Sellic Spell and Mark Atherton's comments as an Anglo-Saxonist. I unfortunately missed Mike Drout's 'keystone' talk at the end, but I'm told it was excellent.

    I'm told the various segments will eventually be uploaded onto Youtube - I'll try to remember to add those links when that happens.


    *Academic Reviews*
    [Arrangement is alphabetical by reviewer]

    -Atherton, Mark in Mallorn 55 (Winter 2014), ''Seeing a Picture Before Us': Tolkien's commentary in his translation of Beowulf', pp. 21-2

    The issue of Mallorn that followed the publication of this book saw a set of short reviews and commentaries from a variety of Tolkien scholars on different aspects of the edition. In his contribution, Atherton focuses on the Commentary. He outlines Tolkien's practice, both his attention to textual and linguistic detail, and his sensitivity to wider cultural factors, in approaching each scene (as Atherton's title suggests, he emphasises how Tolkien's final view of a scene or moment is often strikingly visual). In a particularly interesting comment, Atherton highlights how Tolkien's valuation of the Norse Vanir pantheon over the Æsir deserves more extensive consideration -- if anyone's looking for a paper topic, there's one!


    -Brooks, Britton in Mallorn 55 (Winter 2014), 'Tolkien's Technique of Translation in his Prose Beowulf: Literalism and Literariness', pp. 23-5

    In the same cycle of Mallorn reviews,Brooks takes a look at the translation itself. Brooks deals with three aspects of translation: word order, the variable translation of Old English words, and the question of what to do with poetic compounds in the original. In all cases, Brooks makes the wise choice of reading Tolkien's translation in light of his comments in On Translating Beowulf,a text which I feel could have been fruitfully reprinted as a preface to this volume. Brooks argues that in each domain, Tolkien tries to stay within the bounds of what might be called a literal rendering of the Old English, while finding room to express what he sees as the poem's literary qualities. I was not entirely convinced by Brooks'comments on word order, but his analysis of vocabulary, both simplex and compound, is excellent and well worth reading.


    -Carruthers, Leo in Arthuriana 24.4 (2014), pp. 151-2

    Carruthers writes a short review, sketching out the volume's contents for an audience of (one assumes) medievalists who are specialists in neither Beowulf nor Tolkien, but may well be interested in both. He notes an interesting problem with the pagination of American editions of this book which I was not aware of (apparently after page 21, the American edition changes slightly, but the references in the Commentary remain unaltered -- understandably leading to confusion). Carruthers is generally approving, noting both the value of having Tolkien's thoughts on Beowulf finally available, and the potential interest that this book sheds on Tolkien as a scholar.


    -Drout, Michael in Tolkien Studies 12 (2015), pp. 149-73

    Easily the most substantial reaction to the book so far, and you could hardly ask for a more qualified person to write it. Drout's 25 page review covers all aspects of the book, and is indeed supplements it in some ways by adding more details about the manuscripts in the Bodleian, and making it clear just how much associated material is not included. Drout is critical of certain aspects of the book, both editorial (he wonders why Christopher Tolkien has not included the verse translation) and in terms of the translation itself (Drout praises many aspects, but does comment on the 'occasional awkwardness' that one finds 'throughout the poem').

    Like so many others, Drout focuses on the Commentary as the real heart of the book. Again, Drout provides more than mere (positive) judgement, but does readers a real service by summarizing what we can infer about Tolkien's views of the poem's composition, sources, and textual history (p. 159), along with a discussion of how this differs from currently favoured critical approaches (Drout's answer is,substantially). Drout also hits on many other rich and relevant points in the Commentary, from Tolkien's approach to emendation, to his very visual approach to the poem, to his appreciation for verbal subtext and political background, to his repeated use of Camelot as an illustrative analogue for Heorot.

    Drout ends with a lengthy discussion of Sellic Spell -- including an observation, which I wholeheartedly agree with, that the separate publication of Tolkien's Old English version of this story as a separate booklet with a glossary would be an excellent resource for teachers and students of Old English -- and a brief note on The Lay of Beowulf. In both cases, Drout is again sensitive to Tolkien's aims, and appreciative of the charm and even scholarly value of these somewhat idiosyncratic pieces.

    Drout has some further comments on the translation in the course of a guest lecture for Signum University titled Lexomic Analysis of Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien's Scholarship on the Poem: A Confluence, which you can find here:
    http://mythgard.org/academy/guest-le...michael-drout/


    -Fimi, Dimitra in Mallorn 55 (Winter 2014), 'Tolkien and Folklore: Sellic Spell and The Lay of Beowulf', pp. 27-8
    https://www.academia.edu/27329676/Tolkien_and_Folklore_Sellic_Spell_and_The_Lay_of_B eowulf

    Where Brooks dealt with the translation and Atherton with the Commentary, Fimi reviews the final two pieces of the volume for Mallorn. Her contribution is also a nice complement to Shippey's contribution: he discusses 'the Book of Kings', the historical elements, while Fimi takes on the 'Tales of Wonder', the folkloric background Tolkien saw as the other major body of sources for Beowulf (see his Commentary, p. 210). She summarizes the scholarly background,with Panzer's argument that the poem was of the 'Bear's Son' folktale type, and draws together the scattered elements from Tolkien's Commentary that use this folk-tale background as an explanatory device. She closes with a rather brief outline of how Sellic Spell is a sort of reconstruction of a folkloric pre-Beowulf, and an approving note on the versions The Lay of Beowulf.


    Goering, Nelson in Mallorn 57 (Winter 2016), pp. 35-41
    https://www.academia.edu/31258166/Re...and_Commentary

    This is my own review, so I'm not really in a position to give it an objective evaluation. I'll just mention that it's a double review, with the first half focused on The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment, and only turning to Tolkien's volume in the second part. The version linked to here is a corrected PDF I uploaded to academia; the print text in Mallorn is essentially the same, but lacking a few minor changes of wording and punctuation.


    Risden, E.L. in Journal of Tolkien Research
    http://scholar.valpo.edu/cgi/viewcon...olkienresearch

    This review assumes general background knowledge of Tolkien and his interest in Beowulf, and is in large part geared at telling a reader of Tolkien what they will find attractive and what they might be put off by. Like many others, it has some quibbles with (along with praise for) the style, and holds up the Commentary as the central strength of the book. There is some discussion of the Commentary as scholarship, which was interesting though perhaps rather light. It was also unclear to what extent Risden was giving a personal reaction or a considered scholarly one (for instance, Risden is in a decided minority in disagreeing with Tolkien about the status of Beowulf I), though his general caution that Tolkien's words shouldn't be taken as definitive is of course appropriate (especially to a Tolkienist audience, who might on occasion elevate Tolkien from a great authority to The Great Authority on Beowulf).



    -Shippey, Tom in Mallorn 55 (Winter 2014), 'Reconstructing the Politics of the Dark Age', pp.18-20

    This is the last (actually the first, as they appear in the journal) of the four Mallorn reviews. Shippey does not deal with any particular section of the new volume, but focuses rather on one particular aspect of Tolkien's interest in the poem: its historical background. Shippey synthesizes for us Tolkien's scattered comments and hints (particularly from the Commentary) to give us a coherent picture of his views on the matter. Shippey's focus is especially on how Tolkien perceived a coherent chronology in the poem, which he thought (and Shippey agrees --this piece forms a nice complement to his contribution to The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment) was roughly accurate as a historical chronology of actual events in Denmark and Sweden in the 6th century, which the poet drew on as a backdrop for its fantasy-style 'main plot'. Shippey's short essay is a really excellent introduction to this (possible) historical background of the poem, and worth reading for that if nothing else. As a side note, he mentions that The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment 'will be reviewed in a future Mallorn by Nelson Goering' -- a promise which has been slow in the fulfilling, but should be true as of the next issue of Mallorn.



    *Online Reviews*
    [Arrangement is alphabetical by reviewer]

    -Acocella, Jone in The New Yorker
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critic...books_acocella
    A long and rather effusive piece. Much of the start is an exuberant, if not always strictly accurate, paraphrase of the poem (sprinkled with excerpts from Tolkien). The inaccuracies vary from odd but fairly minor mistakes (putting Beowulf's age at 'about thirty' when he fought Grendel - this is much too old, and Tolkien himself put Beowulf at twenty at the oldest) to comments with major implications for the theme of the poem (she talks about death being viewed as final; the role of the afterlife in Beowulf is debatable, but Acocella's comments completely sidestep important lines, such as 'From his [Beowulf's] bosom did the soul depart to seek the judgement of the just'). Otherwise, there are some sensitive comments about the prose and artistry, a comparison with Heaney, and musings on Tolkien's relationship to the poem, Old English, and the publication of his translation which may or may not ring true to those familiar with Tolkien's life and works.

    -Alexander, Michael in The Guardian
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/201...tolkien-review
    This review makes clear early on that it's from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist and fellow translator of Beowulf rather than a fan of Tolkien's fiction (it manages to express an almost deliberate uninterest in The Lord of the Rings without ever quite slipping into overt dismissiveness or disapproval). It highlights Tolkien's life and reputation as a scholar, and is very approving of the entire book from this perspective. See the close: 'For me, there is more interest in what the book says about Beowulf... than what it tells us of Tolkien.'

    Garth, John in the New Statesman
    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/...th-and-reality
    The first (I think) formal published review by a Tolkienist. Garth does an excellent job, as is to be expected, of relating the work to Tolkien as a complete person: both a scholar and an author, with a particular life story. Interesting comments about the style of translation. Closes with a very insightful note on how the impulse that led Tolkien to write Sellic Spell basically lay behind all of his Middle-earth works in some form.

    -Gilsdorf, Ethan in The New York Times
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/bo...ml?_r=0http://
    Gilsdorf surveys the reactions and attitudes towards the translation, with some interesting comments from various Tolkienists and Anglo-Saxonists. Includes some griping from Old English scholar Kevin Kiernan (without evidence that Kiernan had actually seen the translation at that point).

    Heiser, James in New American
    http://www.thenewamerican.com/review...kien-s-beowulf
    Heiser summarizes the contents, generally praising the edition as both scholarly and accessible. One of the more thoroughgoingly positive reviews I've read, though it doesn't provide much in the way of insights, as some of the earlier reviews have done.

    Hillman, Tom on Alas, not me
    http://alasnotme.blogspot.fr/2017/01/review-beowulf-translation-and.html
    Hillman offers the perspective of a Tolkienist and literary scholar familiar with medieval literature, but not specializing in Old English. He is somewhat critical of the translation itself (he excuses it, probably incorrectly, as a 'scholarly exercise' not meant for publication), but has the highest praise for the commentary.

    -'Kanta' in Hebban
    http://www.hebban.nl/recensies/kanta-over-beowulf
    A review of the Dutch translation (in Dutch). This version apparently presents Tolkien's translation in facing page with a Dutch translation of the translation. 'Kanta' is very critical of this procedure: modern English needn't be treated this way, and Tolkien's translation is not good enough to warrant being an exception. Also criticizes the lack of the Old English text. Otherwise, it covers the contents of the book well, and is generally approving of the shorter Beowulf adaptations and of the commentary (at least as far as a Beowulfian audience goes).

    -Livingstone, Josephine in The Prospect
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/ar...slation-review
    A look at Tolkien as a translator and a medievalist; for fuller thoughts, see >this post< below in this thread.

    -Noel-Tod, Jeremy in The Telegraph
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/b...en-review.html
    A reaction not impressed with Tolkien's archaizing prose, but with some reasonable thoughts on Tolkien's relation to Beowulf more generally (beyond simply noting the cup-theft once again).

    Raymond, Ken in NewsOK
    http://newsok.com/tolkiens-beowulf-b...rticle/4869349
    A summary and evaluation of both the original poem and Tolkien's translation, spiced with some personal recollections about the reviewer's own engagement with the poem. I always find such anecdotes very interesting, but unfortunately the rest of the review is rather sloppy in its characterization both of the poem (he dates it earlier than anyone would nowadays, for starters), and of Tolkien's translation (he follows Kiernan's inaccurate comments about the commentary being 'undergraduate notes' and the translation being something Tolkien never tried to publish and would have rather 'destroyed').

    Salyer, Jerry in The Catholic World Report
    http://www.catholicworldreport.com/I...d_Beowulf.aspx
    A review from a Catholic perspective for a Catholic audience, with the immediate goal of establishing Beowulf (and Tolkien's translation of it) as relevant to the 'inquisitive Catholic layman'. Not being part of the target audience myself, I cannot say how successful Salyer is, but the comments on Beowulf are clear and accurate, and the review is well-written.

    -Slattery, Mabel in The Student Journals
    http://studentjournals.co.uk/2014/06...on-of-beowulf/
    Slattery's background is as a postgraduate in English, who has studied Old English and is a fan of Beowulf but not of Tolkien. The review is very positive. Slattery finds the language 'dense' but 'beautiful', but is most enthusiastic about the commentary. She is also keen on Sellic Spell and the Lay of Beowulf, highlighting their potential use as ways to ease new readers in ('if you're new to the poem . . . start at the back, and then read from the front'). Overall, calls it 'the best companion to Beowulf that I have seen', complaining only that it lacks a facing page Old English text (while noting that the book is quite full already).

    -Waldman, Katy in Slate
    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/b..._reviewed.html
    A mostly positive review, especially in regards to the commentary, but with some slightly less favourable comparison to Heaney.

    -Wells, Tish in McClatchy Washington Bureau
    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/05/2...f-beowulf.html
    An approving review, quoting liberally from the translation. Some inaccuracies.

    -Williamson, Craig in The Wall Street Journal
    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/...281079756.html
    Williamson is an Anglo-Saxonist and himself a translator of Beowulf (I'm not a huge fan of his rendering - it's got poetic power, but deviates far too radically from the text of the original for my taste). His take on Tolkien's seems basically positive - 'Tolkien's translation is both spectacular and antiquated, a little like the poem itself' - though much of what he has to say is in terms of report rather than characterization. Some inaccuracies (such as calling R.D. Fulk's translation of Beowulf 'verse').


    *Blog Responses*

    -Charlton, Bruce
    http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co....ation-and.html
    Charlton is not a fan of the original Beowulf, and correspondingly is not enthused by the translation. On the other hand, he praises the commentary very highly, saying it's a valuable chance to see 'Tolkien actually at work as a philologist'. One might take issue with a number of particular points, but this is a good post that points the way to what value this volume holds for Tolkien studies.

    -Cook, Simon
    http://yemachine.com/tolkien/beowulf-and-ukip/
    A comment on the very different kinds of English 'nationalism' embodied by Tolkien and current trends in UK politics.

    -Drout, Michael
    http://wormtalk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/...anslation.html
    Thoughts from Mike Drout, an outstanding medievalist and Tolkienists and an erstwhile editor of Tolkien's Beowulf materials. Not entirely enthused by the translation as such ('not a great piece of art'), but full of praise for the commentary. Also has some valuable comments on the nature (top notch) and extent (about 600 lines) of the verse translation, which was not included in this book.

    Rateliff, John
    http://sacnoths.blogspot.co.uk/2014/...pressions.html
    Some initial thoughts from John Rateliff as he starts in on the book (having been kept too busy to turn to it before now). He's very appreciative of the cover; otherwise, at this early stage, mostly gives an overview of the content. It will be interesting to hear from him once he's had a chance to read more. (On a minor note, JR mentions that it's a 'surprise' to learn that the translation is from 1926 rather than the 30's - this is a personal reaction, not a comment about what Is Known generally, since the correct dates are noted in Scull and Hammond.)

    Wilton, David
    http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/2002/
    A very critical review, taking severe issue with both the translation ('stilted and unidiomatic') and the commentary ('old and creaky' scholarship). He improves on other critical reviews by offering concrete examples and giving recommendations for other Beowulf books. Repeats a few common errors (e.g. saying that Tolkien never tried to publish his translation). For my view on this, see below in this thread.


    *Pedagogy*


    Tom Shippey, with Nelson Goering and Sørina Higgins (Signum University)
    http://signumuniversity.org/catalog/...rough-tolkien/

    M.J. Toswell (Western University)
    http://www.uwo.ca/english/undergradu...16-Toswell.pdf


    *Other Things*

    -Dennis Bogaert has written a masters thesis on An Analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by Means of Descriptive Translation Studies (And Much More Exciting Stuff) for the Katholieke Univesiteit Leuven.
    http://www.scriptiebank.be/sites/def...erpaper_37.pdf

    -Andy Orchard appeared on BBC Radio 4 the day of publication. Orchard (a notable Anglo-Saxonist now holding Tolkien's old chair at Oxford) was, in the very brief spot, approving of the translation.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zk6hs

    -Jamie Portman wrote a 'preview' piece, interesting in particular for including a number of comments from David Brawn of HarperCollins. Brawn talks about the careful path HC had to take in marketing the book (to build interest while avoiding giving people false impressions about what is a fairly scholarly book). Brawn is, I think, mistaken on one point (also repeated in the original press release): that Tolkien never intended or considered publishing his translation during his lifetime. Scull and Hammond note that Tolkien raised the idea of publication with Oxford University Press in 1942, and apparently was later in discussion with Allen & Unwin (Reader's Guide, p. 85).
    http://www.montrealgazette.com/enter...599/story.html

    -Kevin Kiernan, a scholar of Beowulf and the Beowulf-manuscript, has offered a very negative view of the very fact of publication. Unfortunately he does not comment on the book itself, and so it is placed here rather than under 'reviews'.
    http://theconversation.com/publishin...sservice-27244
    I have a response below in this thread to Kiernan's piece.
    http://www.lotrplaza.com/showthread....826#post620826

    -Philippa Semper, a Birmingham medievalist, spoke to Channel 4 News about the release of the poem. Most of the article contains little of interest, but Semper (who is not quoted until a ways down) has some nice things to say about the value of the book for Tolkien fans and for Beowulf.
    http://www.channel4.com/news/tolkien...f-a-great-gift

    -Adela Talsbot wrote a very negative piece in anticipation of the book's publication for Western University in Canada. Talsbot quotes Western's Anglo-Saxonist Jane Toswell extensively. If Toswell has been portrayed correctly (this should not be taken for granted), this is not to her credit, since the review contains a large number of errors of fact (some trivial, such as nearly every date mentioned; some substantive, such as Tolkien's intentions for publication). Interestingly, Toswell is apparently currently using Tolkien's translation in a class on Old English language and literature (cf. the Pedagogy section above), which suggests that after its publication, she has at least found it pedagogically useful (which need not imply anything about her opinion of the translation as a translation).
    http://news.westernu.ca/2014/03/tolk...e-beyond-cash/

    -Oxford English Faculty round table on Tolkien's Beowulf, held 22 October 2014. Featured three short talks and a great deal of discussion about the nature, value, and use of Tolkien's Beowulf. I have written up some of the details here on the Plaza.
    http://www.lotrplaza.com/showthread....-a-Round-Table

    -Tolkien in Oxford, a day-long symposium held at Merton College on 18 November 2014. It was not specifically on Beowulf, but the new translation did feature in several of the talks. Particularly worth mentioning is Andy Orchard's piece, 'Books and Beowulf', which ranges widely but provides a great deal of context for Tolkien's engagement with the poem that is of relevance to evaluating the translation. Most of the talks are available as podcasts from Oxford.
    http://www.merton.ox.ac.uk/event/tol...ford-symposium
    http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/tolkien-oxf...ks-and-beowulf

    -The Amazon reviews seem to indicate an overall positive popular response so far. As of the 26th of May, the US site as 8 five star reviews, 1 four star review, and 1 one star review (criticizing the prose, and wishing the verse translation had been included). The UK site has 3 five star reviews, and 1 three star review (which is concerned with the formatting of the Kindle edition, not the work itself). It's still the early days though, and it is probable that those predisposed to the work are over-represented at the moment.

    -Update: the Amazon reviews remain quite positive on the whole. Amazon.com now (13th of February 2015) has 86 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars (and of the eight reviews giving it 1 or 2 stars, three are criticizing the Kindle edition's formatting, not the work itself). Amazon.co.uk similarly has 4.5 stars, after 26 reviews (there are two reviews giving it 1 or 2 stars; one of these is commenting on the Kindle formatting, not the work itself).
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 08/Feb/2017 at 11:31 AM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  2. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #2
    Thanks, LotR! I'm also awaiting something on YouTube, especially, as I've said in Scene and Heard,, Douglas Anderson singing.
    The incarnate mind, the tongue and the tale are in our world coeval.

  3. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    Re the second of these: I'm not too sure JRRT would have called himself an English "nationalist". ;-)
    Last edited by Dorwiniondil; 27/May/2014 at 08:45 AM.
    The incarnate mind, the tongue and the tale are in our world coeval.

  4. Thanks, Smials, I've added those in. I, somewhat arbitrarily, went ahead and made a new section for thoughts from the Tolkienian blogosphere, since the blog comment and the formal review are slightly different creatures. I'm also assuming we'll see enough Tolkien blog comments in the coming weeks to justify having that be its own section.

    Dorwiniondil, I've had that song running through my head off and on all since the Party - I'm also looking forwards to them getting it on Youtube so I can help spread the musical virus to others!
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 27/May/2014 at 10:58 AM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  5. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    The incarnate mind, the tongue and the tale are in our world coeval.

  6. Added
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  7. Athelas_H's Avatar
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    #7
    I'm still waiting for my copy to come in the mail :'( So no review from me yet.
    Even if you're only a boy you can fight like a girl. ~ EA <X3

  8. Phoenix's Avatar
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    I have just finished reading it. My main issue is that it is really dense reading material, but I expected that going in. I've started the commentary, which is helping immensely, and then I'm going to reread it and add my own marginalia
    It may take a few years, but the Phoenix always returns.

  9. Sil's Avatar
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    Here's the Guardian review. Looking forward to getting my copy!
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/201...tolkien-review

    Contra Vires Mordoris Nulla Quit Esse Victoria!



  10. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  11. Updated to include John Garth's New Statesman​ review.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  12. Smials, I actually haven't made it to Sellic Spell yet, since I've gotten sidetracked by working through the Commentary in some detail. This is actually somewhat addicting. There's some excellent literature on Beowulf already, but Tolkien's comments are singularly insightful and eloquent, and often highly original. His discussions of the cruces (of which there are many in the poem, all heavily discussed by legions of scholars) are also fascinating - some of his solutions are not among the alternatives usually considered, and at least some of those strike me as very much the best option around. But to really unravel the value of his comments often means revisiting these problems, and reading Tolkien's Commentary can involve having quite a few different books open. Enjoyable, but slow going, and I unfortunately I haven't figured out how to put the rest of the world on hold while I deal with Tolkien and Beowulf.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  13. Tumhalad's Avatar
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    Lord of the Rings, I wonder what you think of this rather manufactured controversy spirited along by one Kevin Kiernan, apparently a professor of Old English at Kentucky. The following article makes the argument that the Beowulf translation somehow does damage to Tolkien's legacy. His argument is that as Tolkien disparaged his own prose rendition we must therefore judge it to be of inferior quality and unworthy of publication. I'm not sure why this necessarily follows, as most if not all reviews have had good things to say about the "poetic" quality or Tolkien's rendition and I myself am enjoying reading it. According to Kiernan, Heaney's translation is the only one that students new to Beowulf should read because it is of a high poetic quality. Nevertheless I personally think that Tolkien's translation has a place, even if it isn't of as high poetic quality. I just get the feeling that Kiernan is whining for the sake of it. What say you?

    http://theconversation.com/publishin...sservice-27244
    The past is not dead. It is not even past.
    <br />-William Faulkner

  14. Thanks for sharing that, Tumlahad. Not the least because I now feel free to respond to Kiernan's points directly, with a bit more context and without worrying that he's been misrepresented by the NYT.

    I think it's clear that Kiernan has significantly misapprehended both the nature of Tolkien's translations and his own attitude towards it. For starters, Tolkien said all the things and more as Kiernan (and more eloquently) on the difficulties of rendering Beowulf meaningfully into modern English. He was critical of any and all translations, including his own, simply because they were translations. In any case, Kiernan makes out that Tolkien, disgusted with what he'd written, stuffed the thing in a drawer and would have burned it if anyone had said the word 'publication' too loud near him. I find these comments irritating, since they seem to be made entirely in ignorance. If he would actually read the work he's criticizing, he would have readily seen from the history of the text that Tolkien in fact returned to it repeatedly, revised and corrected it, and even showed it to his friend C.S. Lewis, who commented on it. Tolkien was a perfectionist, and Beowulf was so very important to him that I do doubt he could ever have been persuaded to publish - but that doesn't mean he found it as worthless as Kiernan seems to think. (It's also worth noting that Tolkien could be aggressively self-deprecating - some sensitivity to Tolkien and his academic culture might have helped Kiernan avoid some of his over-hasty conclusions.)

    In any case, it's not clear that Tolkien's own opinions on the matter are the single most important factor. Many things that have appeared by Tolkien were not intended for publication, including draft materials and notes that were very much further removed from any potential publication than Beowulf. That issue has been dealt with. In terms of Tolkien's own sake and reputation, there's really nothing further to say here, other than perhaps 'why did it take so long?'

    Now what Kiernan really seems to be saying, though he never puts it straight, is that Tolkien's translation is not, as a point of fact, very good, and that it will do damage, not to Tolkien's reputation but to the poem itself. This seems to underlie his comments about Heaney, and about undergrads in English lit surveys. His evidence for Tolkien's translation being bad is solely his impression that Tolkien himself thoroughly hated it - he makes no reference to the translation itself, and indeed gives not the slightest indication he's seen it. This also irks me: if he wants to criticize Tolkien, he should do it himself rather than hiding behind Tolkien's supposed opinions. In any case, he seems to think that this will be another 'literal, artless, tedious prose translation' (never mind that Tolkien's 'prose' is actually far closer to Heaney's 'poetry' than to some of the prose cribs Kiernan is clearly thinking of). As it actually stands, it's clear that some will indeed not take to Tolkien's prose terribly well. It's got some funny old words, and sometimes you have to read sentences twice to get the syntax. That's fair, and is probably enough to keep Tolkien's version from being the first choice for those undergrad lit 101 classes (did anyone suggest using him for that?). But equally, a number of people, including the New Yorker's Joan Acocella, who is neither an Anglo-Saxonist nor a Tolkienist, have enjoyed Tolkien's writing and found it in some way effective. Different people are going to have different tastes in translation, and Tolkien's take very much has a place, and does what it does better than anything else out there. Not everyone in the world is a bored undergrad.

    Kiernan also doesn't even touch on the Commentary, though that's regularly cited as one of the real strengths of the publication.

    I'm not going to add this to the list of reviews or reactions, since it isn't one - by all indications, Kiernan has not read, or even looked at the translation he's felt moved to criticize. (Edit: now added to the 'Other Things' section, since it is a high profile comment on the book, and has been getting a certain amount of press.)


    Edit: There's been some interesting discussion of this on the Tolkien Society Facebook page. Unfortunately Facebook is very poorly set up for linking to comment threads. Since they follow on very closely from this post, I'll copy over a couple of my own comments in the interchange (which include some brief quotations of other participants):

    'What I fear is that more people will quarry it (if they even bother to read it) for errors and use them as a weapon against Tolkien and in so doing will try to smear his fine reputation as a Beowulf-scholar.'

    There is perhaps some danger of this, I suppose. But so far these anti-Tolkien smear-campaigners have, for the most part, still to crawl out of the woodwork. The reaction I've seen so far that is implicitly most damning of Tolkien is Kiernan's 'concern' on Tolkien's behalf - he seems to assume that the translation simply is good ammunition against Tolkien, and so is kindly getting worried on behalf of Tolkien. (Implicitly, I think his point is quite different, but I've said that already.) Most reviewers so far have done Tolkien the courtesy of seeing what is worthy of criticism in the work first.

    The idea that this could be damaging to Tolkien is possibly worth a little more attention. I think we can set aside the Tolkienist community. Even those who find the translation itself less gripping (griping?) generally accept the interest of others, and as a whole there's clearly a lot to be learned about Tolkien: it will be appreciated as a source.

    That leaves two categories, one being the 'general' reader, presumably evaluating Tolkien's writing and comparing the book either to Tolkien's other works, or to other translations of Beowulf (for things like readability, rather than accuracy). The other is the academic, who will be most interested in the accuracy of the translation, and the value of the commentary. The question is not, I think, will there be 'critics' in either group (obviously yes - we're far too diverse a species not to have some variability in reaction), but whether people on the whole will dislike or condemn the work, and whether the impression people will get of Tolkien from reading this will be really inaccurate.

    I think we can gauge the reaction of the first group reasonably well from reviews. The consensus seems to be that the translation is a bit too archaic, and doesn't read as well as Heaney's, but that it's still got a charm and dignity of its own. It's obvious that it won't be adopted as the 'definitive' translation, but I don't think there's a case to be made that it's done more harm than good. If nothing else, most critics seem aware that it was a private translation, and seem to chalk at least some of its difficulty up to its being 'literal' (actually this might be a misapprehension to some extent - difficult passages are sometimes unnecessarily so, relative to the original - but it seems to be a mitigating impression). It may not be 'fair' that Tolkien is being compared to Heaney, but it is being done. Is that a disservice? Perhaps on a slight level. But the usual conclusions seems to be 'interesting, but I still prefer Heaney' rather than 'not as good as Heaney, therefore crap'.

    The reaction of academics is more difficult to judge, since no academic reviews have yet appeared (if any even will, outside of Tolkien studies). But here I think the claim that Tolkien's been done a disservice is harder to maintain. The translation itself certainly contains renderings that can be quibbled with (I have quibbles of my own), but none that I have seen that imply an actual incomprehension of the original. And the commentary is very 'learned'. It often stands up well compared to other scholarly commentaries, of his time and ours both. Certainly it does need to be read with a minimal amount of historical context (modern concerns about the possible later dating of Beowulf are wholly absent, for instance, and occasionally the commentary touches on debates that were rather hotter a few decades ago than they are now). But the impression one gets is of a capable scholar of Old English offering an insightful interpretation of the text, and offering intelligent solutions to many of the famous 'cruces' in the poem. There are points where his proposals agree with those in the most recent critical edition of Beowulf (from 2007) against the standard editions of his day.

    'it is still something that is not whole, and something that can never compete or be compared with his lecture on Beowulf (although it can be used to look up how he at one time viewed parts of Beowulf). It will not change the way how Beowulf scholars view the poem and will probably not have a significant impact in that academic field (as his lecture once had). For me, and I guess for most of you, this work is of great interest because it is Tolkien’s translation and notes.'

    It has a quite different purpose compared to his lecture; I haven't seen many make that comparison, and it's one I'd avoid myself. To be honest, I in many ways prefer his commentary to the lecture. Tolkien is often at his best when untangling points of specific detail, and proceeding from there to the general, and the commentary does this wonderfully.

    Anyway, of course it won't revolutionize the study of the poem the way the lecture did. I don't think that's relevant one way or the other, though. I wonder what it's 'impact' will be though. It's not nothing. It's worth quoting the conclusion to Michael Alexander's review (he's an Anglo-Saxonist and fellow translator of Beowulf):

    'For me, there is more interest in what the book says about Beowulf, and Tolkien's bold recreations of earlier stages of the poem's composition than what it tells us of Tolkien. '

    For myself, as much as I am interested in what this tells us about Tolkien, I really feel pretty much the same way: that this is more valuable as a piece of Beowulf scholarship than as a piece of Tolkien scholarship (without denying that it's valuable for that as well).

    This, I think, is the central claim that I take issue with: that this is useful for Tolkienists, but risks damaging Tolkien's academic reputation. If anything, I think it's nearly the other way round. This book (and in particular the commentary) has the potential to shore up Tolkien's academic reputation, and help reestablish his position as a serious scholar of Beowulf, while potentially also being of some use to those interested in Tolkien.


    (After some discussion about when Tolkien wrote this material, questions of his academic career and how later translation might have been different, and of Kiernan's engagement in Beowulf studies:)

    The *translation* was indeed made while Tolkien was fairly young - the initial draft (not doomed to a drawer, though) was finished in 1926. So yes, he was 34 then. Though the revisions that he undertook over the next couple of decades were not insignificant, so I don't think this can or should be taken straightforwardly as just representing a 'youthful' translation. Rather, it's the work of someone who had been engaging with Beowulf for well over a decade, revised by him (in some places lightly, in some places heavily) over the next further decade and a half or longer.

    As far as Leeds goes, I do think the balance of his time was weighted more towards Middle English, but he did quite a lot with Old English, and Beowulf specifically during that time. We have direct records of him teaching Beowulf there at least in 1920-21 and 1923-24; he probably taught it other years as well, but records are incomplete (all from the S&H Chronology). Obviously Tolkien had a deeper engagement with the poem in 1940 than 1920, but he was far from green when he made even the first draft of his translation.

    At any rate, the commentary seems to have been somewhat later. Some notes refer back to 'The Monsters and the Critics' as a known thing, and certain other references also seem to point to this as something that was at the least updated into the 1940's. This was Tolkien as a 'mature' scholar if anything was. Given that we have this, and so can often gauge his thought (or the development of his thought), I'm not quite sure how much more we would learn from a later translation. The style would also likely have been much the same (given that he defended the same styles he implemented in his 1940 'On Translating Beowulf'). 'Lo' was probably not going to get changed (And, I'd point out, all those translations of 'hwæt' essentially agree on the function - it's a problem of translation, not interpretation. Not that there aren't also potential problems of interpretation, but the translation debate isn't terribly attuned to them.)

    Incidentally, Kiernan is a well-known scholar of Beowulf and the Beowulf-manuscript, mostly known for two very controversial theses. He thinks, first of all, that the poem as we have it is the work of the very scribes who wrote the manuscript, and that Scribe B is basically the 'author'. Relatedly, he feels that the two chunks of the poem, the Denmark episodes and the dragon-fight, were originally two distinct works, joined by this author and his apprentice (Scribe A). The first hypothesis has received a lot of attention, partly because it's so extreme, and because it was proposed right around the time that a whole bunch of people were starting to reconsider the poem's date - but I don't think it has found many adherents, and a large number of very good objections have certainly been put forward. His second idea, about the joining, has deeper roots in the scholarship, and is more interesting for being more more plausible. Anyway, Kiernan is no stranger to controversial claims, but otherwise I can't really see how his work predisposes him in particular to be opposed to Tolkien. Obviously Tolkien's views of the poem's date differ from his - but then, he's virtually alone in his dating, so it would seem odd if he'd object to Tolkien more than anyone else about this.
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 09/Jun/2014 at 11:03 AM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  15. I have yet to read Sellic Spell, but I've now finished a fairly careful readthrough of the translation and commentary. There's plenty to digest, and many things I already want to re-read and look into further, but I figured I'd share my own initial and personal reactions.

    I enjoyed the translation reasonably well. I personally quite liked the 'Arthurian' style - by which I don't mean Malory, but the use of 'chivalric' language like knight, vaunt (meaning 'boast', or more accurately proud declaration to do great deeds), and the like. It does sometimes result in some odd images knight evokes, for me, someone in 12th century garb at the earliest), but it adds a distinctive and (to me) enjoyable colour to Tolkien's version that does get at something usually toned down in other renderings: the 'courtliness' of the original poem. Scholars of the original have long been aware of 'courtesy' and 'proper etiquette' exemplified by (most obviously) Beowulf's entry in Heorot, but I don't feel like the significance of these things is terribly apparent in versions where the 'tribal' and 'primal' view of Germanic culture seems to dominate. I think it would be harder to get the impression from Tolkien (as I'm afraid is all too common a view) that Beowulf is 'brainless macho trash'. At the least, this 'Arthurian' quality exemplifies Tolkien's own views very well, that the poem was a blending of refined aristocratic legend (much like the Camelot cycle) with folk tale and fairy story (like the Green Knight).

    Otherwise, on language I was mostly happy. Tolkien is pretty good at getting his 'thous' and 'erewhiles' right and more or less natural sounding. It really works very well aloud. I read a lot of the translation to myself under my breath, and found that many passages which seemed impenetrable or stilted really came to life when spoken. Still, I wish Tolkien had done a few things different: he renders the OE lange hwílum/þráge/tíde fairly consistently as 'long while'. This occasionally works (as in line 12/*16), but mostly just comes across as unnatural (as in line 1045/*1257). Other features I'm more neutral on. I'm fine with spake, which is familiarly archaic; gripe (meaning 'grip') seems a little stranger, but doesn't particularly bother me.

    The commentary is in many ways more interesting than the translation, at least to me. There are several kinds of comment which feature, including discussion of textual cruces (points of controversy where the text is corrupt, damaged, or just obscure to us); analyses of character, theme, or situation; and excursus on features of Old English culture or legendary history inferred from points in the text. It is a real shame that the commentary only covers about half the poem - there's a large gap between the first two monster fights, and there is barely anything on the last 'act' of the dragon-fight and associated matters. Obviously a lot of the material from these sections is covered incidentally in references elsewhere, and one section from the first gap is dealt with in great detail in Finn & Hengest (material which there was no need to reproduce here), but there are still a lot of matters on which Tolkien's detail and focused comments are missed.

    Of the types of comment, the second is probably going to be of the most interest to the general reader (and also generally are most in accord with current critical trends). Often Tolkien gives us a very vivid picture of the scene, built up from slight details in the text. For instance his image of Beowulf, Unferth, and Hrothgar all arranged at the head of the table, so that Unferth's challenge to Beowulf is not a brazen challenge shouted before the whole hall, but a calculated, almost matter-of-fact piece of (attempted) character assassination delivered mainly in the hearing of the most elite Danes. This puts a slightly different emphasis on line 500, æt fótum sæt fréan Scyldinga '[Unferth] sat at the feet of the lord of the Shieldings', than is normal: it's usually taken up more for the implication that Unferth had an important and honoured position than as supplying spatial information. (Of course, Tolkien may be wrong about the exact evolution of tone in Unferth's speech, but the picture he paints - the analysis he gives - nicely complements and supplements the current range of critical views.)

    Tolkien's treatment of cruces is one of the most impressive features of the commentary, though a number of the discussions are sadly curtailed by Christopher Tolkien. (I would dearly love to see some of this cut material appear in a more specialized publication, much like how linguistic matters excluded from HoMe were sometimes published later in Vinyar Tengwar - it's too bad we don't have a comparable Philologica Minora Tolkieni for his scholarly writings.) A number of his proposed emendations and readings stand up well (occasionally agreeing with current standard practice against what was usual in his day, as is the case with the shaking of mail-shirts at line 184/*226). Of course, in some cases better solutions have been proposed since Tolkien's day - he can hardly be faulted for not taking them into account, but it does make his commentary in those places more of historical than current scholarly interest. (A good example of this concerns his discussion of lines *1931-2 of the original. Here Hygelac's wife is contrasted, favourably, with a legendary queen. This queen is apparently named in these lines, but interpretations of what is name and what is description vary. For a long time, the debate was whether her name was Thryth or Modthryth - Tolkien wades in, on the side of Thryth. But much more recently, Fulk offered a very compelling argument that neither Thryth nor Modthryth are correct, and that a word on the next line, Fremu, is the real name of this queen. Tolkien doesn't really consider this option - it had been proposed, but no one had made a serious case for it, and Tolkien apparently took fairly little notice.)

    Some of the most pleasurable parts of the commentary concern cultural and legendary matters. Tolkien is careful to take note of details (such as the 'genres' of entertainment described in the hall, or the phrasing of the many proverbial statements) and expound what can be learned about Anglo-Saxon society and thought. Much of this is already 'known' (though Tolkien's take on things sometimes comes with a twist), but it's great to have it included accessibly with a translation rather than buried under mounds of scholarly paper. Tolkien's writing in the commentary is also clear, conversational, and engaging (in contrast to the style of the translation itself), which should make many of these cultural notes very pedagogically useful.

    In terms of the legendary matter, Tolkien is not afraid to go all out in his reconstructions (the word 'audacious' comes to mind in places). Again, pieces of the arguments are sometimes trimmed by Christopher - this makes Tolkien's final views easier to follow, but, I'm afraid, does obscure the arguments that produced those views. This is perhaps a point where those worried about Tolkien's reputation, such as Kevin Kiernan, have something of a point. For instance, I loved Tolkien's description of Old Lejre as a cult-site of Ing, and the object of a long series of wars between the Danes and the Heathobards. But much of the foundation for this has been cut - this is explicit, but I still worry that those less familiar with the Norse materials and relevant scholarship will see what Tolkien is doing as a baseless flight of fancy. It's still a 'bold' reconstruction (as Michael Alexander says), but seen in the proper context it's really more of a vivid hypothesis meant to explain a large number of complicated facts than a fantasy. Here also the artfulness and power with which Tolkien is able to express himself may work against him to some extent.

    Incidentally, the comment on the matter of Ingeld I've just referenced contains one of my favourite editorial notes from Christopher Tolkien:

    My father wrote here: 'To consider the Norse sources would take us too far afield', but having said this he proceeded to do so (and added the words 'in full' after 'Norse sources').

    Though I have to say, I do have some issues with the overall editorial mode. Aside from cuts (which I can understand, though I regret them), there is the matter of lineation. The single most obnoxious feature of this edition is that Tolkien's translation is given line numbers which are different from the original. So the poem is numbered to 3182 lines, and the translation totals 2669 lines. This makes for a cumbersome double citation in the commentary, where Tolkien's lines are given plain, and the original referred to with an * and in smaller type. It makes comparing specific points in the translation to the original directly irritating - particularly in reverse. Anyone who's worked with the poem a while gets a sense of what line something will be on in the original, but trying to see how Tolkien translated a specific line usually entails a bit of guesswork and hunting until you find it. I don't see what advantage there was in introducing a new line system, and there are several palpable disadvantages.

    The only other thing I've noticed is that there seems to be a larger number of typos than I'm used to in Tolkienian editions. At [Tolkien's] line 482, for instance, it says 'if they heart and soul were thus fell in war as thou thyself accountest' - 'they' is clearly miswritten for 'thy' (OE þín, l. 593). I wonder if some of these crept in during the process of typesetting a text full of unfamiliar words and with difficult syntax. The biggest problem is that this makes it hard to tell whether certain oddities are errors or intentional on Tolkien's part. So [Tolkien's] line 547 refers to a 'corslet of iron things', translating OE ísernbyrna 'iron-corslet' (l. 672) - I wonder if Tolkien actually meant and/or wrote 'rings' instead of 'things', but I'm not entirely sure.

    Anyway, I'll share more thoughts on Sellic Spell later, but that's where my thoughts stand at the moment.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  16. Olorin93's Avatar
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    #16
    I've been looking forward to it for some time now - hopefully I'll get to read it tomorrow or Saturday. Tolkien got me into Anglo-Saxon studies - Old English is a wonderful language! I like Beowulf in the original, but naturally I can't wait to read this translation.
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  17. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  18. The brief interview with Andy Orchard on BBC Radio 4 is available here (it can be listened from Denmark, so I guess it is available from everywhere):
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zk6hs
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  19. Updated, with a couple extra things besides those mentioned in the last two posts.

    I also just made this post on the TS Facebook page, re Tolkien's attitudes towards publishing his translation:

    The original press release for the Beowulf translation quotes Christopher Tolkien as saying that his father 'seems never to have considered its publication', and this is a point that has been picked up by some people and put forwards as a reason that it shouldn't be published now.

    I don't think this objection holds weight even if Tolkien did indeed never consider publication. But Scull & Hammond's entry on _Beowulf_ seems to suggest that he did actually make slight moves in that direction:

    'On 25 October 1932 he suggested to R.W. Chapman that his prose translation of _Beowulf_ might be published by Oxford University Press... but that it should be preceded by introductory matter on the diction of Old English verse, its metre, and so forth, and include notes concerning particularly difficult problems in the text. Later George Allen & Unwin, publishers of _The Hobbit_ and other works by Tolkien, expressed an interest in the translation, but it was never brought to the point of submission.'
    -The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Vol. II: Reader's Guide, p. 85

    This implies a rather different view of his work on Tolkien's part than a number of reviewers have made out (though the revisions and the presence of the 1940's typescript already put paid to the notion that the translation just sat in a drawer - forgotten or in shame - after 1926). I'm not quite sure about the discrepancy between Christopher Tolkien's statement and S&H - perhaps this suggestion (maybe in a letter still with OUP) simply escaped Christopher's notice?
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 09/Jun/2014 at 02:45 PM.
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  20. Athelas_H's Avatar
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    #20
    [Line references to the OE ‘Beowulf’ are from Chickering’s dual language edition]

    Let me say that I loved Tolkien’s translation of ‘Beowulf’. In ‘Beowulf’s’ own words ‘word followed word, each truly linked to each—this man in his turn began with skill to treat the quest of Beowulf and in flowing verse to utter his ready tale, interweaving words’ (ll. 706-709). Tolkien came at translating the poem respectfully, none more so in thus:

    ‘Abandoning his fragmentary work on a fully alliterative translation of “Beowulf”, imitating the regularities of the old poetry, my father, as it seems to me, determined to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem, far closer than could ever be attained by translation into “alliterative verse”, but nonetheless with some suggestion of the rhythm of the original’ (p.8).

    In first reading Tolkien appears to have been successful. But there remains one niggling issue. This issue is the translation of the OE word ‘wyrm’. One of the reasons why I don’t like Shameless Seamus’ translation is due to his translation of the word ‘wyrm’ not to ‘worm’ but to ‘dragon’ or other such similar word. Tolkien has applied the same translation to his work such as ‘serpent’ (l.720) for ‘wyrm’ (l.886) and ‘dragon’ (l.729) for ‘wyrm’ (l.897). There are many more occurrences and not once is ‘wyrm’ translated as ‘worm’. This, for me, seems troublesome for I feel that ‘worm’ flows more naturally in translation than ‘dragon’ or ‘serpent’. And there is no issue with ‘worm’ being an older form of word for Tolkien uses some older forms in the translation such as ‘corse’ (l.1173, l. 1783). This issue just doesn’t sit well with me.

    Then there are editorial issues such as ‘Hronesnæs’ (l.2355, l.2805 in the original OE) not being translated as ‘Whales’ Cliff’ but then we find that he has translated ‘Hrefnawwudu’ as ‘Ravenswood’ (l.2453-4, l.2925 in the original OE), ‘Hrefnesholt’ as ‘Ravensholt’ (l.2461, l.2935 in the original OE), and ‘Earnanæs’ as ‘Eagle’s Head’ (l.2544, l.3031 in the original OE). But at the next occurrence of ‘Hronesnæs’ (l.2629-30, l.3136 in the original OE) he has provided the translation. This is really quite a silly thing to comment on but it came to me at the time.

    Otherwise, Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf’ was a joy to read, so full of colour and life and I think that overall he achieved what he set out to do with his translation.
    Last edited by Athelas_H; 03/Jul/2014 at 12:12 AM.
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  21. I think the lack of a parenthetical translation of Hronesnæs at 2359 is just a slip (presumably on Tolkien's part, though possibly a later editing error). There are certainly some real typos here and there - often enough to be a little annoying. I'm not sure where in the process those would have crept in.

    One issue with translating wyrm is that it really wasn't quite the same as modern worm. It could much more readily mean 'snake', and seems to have been more acceptable as a dignified poetic word. Tolkien was quite firmly against the principle of translating an Old English word by its modern descendent just because of a superficial continuity of sound. To some extent, the word wyrm is now available as a suitable modern term that could work, but I think we actually owe the acceptability of that in large part to Tolkien's own fiction - Tolkien wanted a current modern term for wyrm, and serpent and dragon were what were available. I certainly agree that something is lost in the aural effect, but the effect in sense/connotation is probably better. A trade-off, as translation so often is.
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  22. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #22
    The use of 'worm' in this sense is not entirely unknown in modern English, e.g. the Lambton Worm.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambton_Worm
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  23. Athelas_H's Avatar
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    #23
    Quote Originally Posted by Smials View Post
    Oddly enough, thanks to Tolkien's use of the term 'worm' I'd say that the word has pretty much become a standard term for dragon in modern English.
    I used the word 'worm' once in an English Literature class once and everyone laughed at me because they thought I had made it up, so I'd say that it is not so standard as you make it out to be. Though I wish more people knew about it.
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  24. TheSilmarils's Avatar
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    #24
    Absolutely Athelas! When my friends read 'Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,' They get tripped up on it. It should be a more common use...

    Wyrm is also VERY close to wyvern. A snake-like dragon that slithers sometimes.
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  25. Athelas_H's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Smials View Post

    "What, you egg!"
    Lol!
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  26. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #26
    The incarnate mind, the tongue and the tale are in our world coeval.

  27. That's an engaging review, in that it several times comes close to a number of a very interesting issues only to miss the mark, in my opinion. For starters, it's fairly obvious that Tolkien has had an enormous influence on modern medievalism - but I'm less convinced by the conclusion that Tolkien is so central to medievalism as it stands today (video games, role-playing games, movies, other books, music... so many things, often owing something to Tolkien, but equally often radically different from him). And to get to this conclusion, Livingstone sets up a dichotomy between Tolkien and medieval literature in a rather puzzling way. I guess that one could focus on (or perhaps invent) such a tension, but it seems a rather more important fact that Tolkien has been a guide for many to the world of medieval literature - in the literary world, they should be companions, not antagonists.

    And in discussing Exodus, Livingstone rightly notes that Tolkien emended more/differently than some today might (unsurprising in an age of what have been called puritanical editors - or reversing the metaphor, manuscript fetishists - resistant sometimes to making even the most basic corrections to a text). But she selectively quotes from his the beginning of his commentary to give a decidedly skewed impression of his editorial philosophy: for instance, she quotes Tolkien talking about a passage being 'bad from all points of view', which comes in a warning against emendations based purely on infelicities in the text. And his comments about the text being 'dislocated and mutilated' - meant to show is extremely cavalier attitude to the manuscript version of Exodus - are nearly universally held by all scholars of the poem, and are frankly rather obvious (there's a large chunk in the middle missing, for instance).

    On the other hand, Tolkien's relationships to medieval texts (or rather, I'd say, to medieval poets, and in particular to a couple of specific, though now nameless, writers) is in fact very interesting and worthy of comment. His choice to emend drihten to waldend, mentioned by Livingstone, is indeed not followed by later editors such as Lucas. That's not to say it's groundless editorial arrogance on Tolkien's part (the word 'drihten' appears in the previous line, both making for an awkward repetition and providing a ready source for scribal error of a well-known type; and waldend does provide nicer alliteration, though drihten is acceptable metrically); rather, Tolkien is taking a different (but generally grounded) approach than modern editorial practices entirely condone. And it's far from clear that the modern practices are better or represent any sort of advance. The aforementioned fetishization of manuscripts - no matter how badly written or damaged - which has been trending for a couple of decades could perhaps have earned some comment from Livingstone. Ironically, given that elsewhere the literary mode as waxed and the philological waned, Tolkien and his concern for the text as a narrative poem rather than lines on parchment may actually (in some ways) have taken a more literary view of the text than is usual today.

    And even with Béowulf, rather than Tolkien, Livingstone's arrows land a little outside the ten ring. Loneliness and (moreso) loss are indeed, arguably, extremely important themes in the poem. But to put Grendel at the centre of the theme of loneliness doesn't really work all that well, and her reading of the poem seems decidedly anachronistic in a number of ways - very much picking up things of current literary and cultural interest, even where these are most likely at odds with Anglo-Saxon culture. This is hardly inevitable - Andy Orchard, for instance, has done a fairly good job of balancing contemporary interests and probable original mindsets without generally doing either too much disservice.

    The Old English texts quoted are clipped off at a couple of points. I'm trying to decide if it's worth the bother of registering to comment and point this out.

    All in all, I did enjoy reading this piece - Livingstone seems to have a good eye for important points, even if I don't really agree with her specific take on almost any given issue. I feel like the whole thing might have been much improved if less of attempt had been made to make it 'essayistic'. This might have reduced the need to try and 'pot' medievalism/Tolkien, Tolkien-the-editor, and the themes of Béowulf. As Tolkien pointed out, poets don't always fit so well into pots, and I think Tolkien in particular is rather peculiarly shaped - a bit knobbly and gnarled, and not really suited machine-made modern crockery. (I'm not sure that this metaphor actually makes sense, but I like the image - so there.)

    Smials, you've posted a number of interesting things, and I'll get around to responding eventually. But I haven't really gathered my thoughts yet, and I'm away from my books until the start of August.
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 09/Aug/2014 at 09:16 AM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  28. Eye-rolls are something that I have yet to figure how to convey effectively through text :þ
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  29. Indeed - and while we obviously can't really know much about how it was originally performed, there's a very fine rendering of (the first section) of the poem by Benjamin Bagby. I highly recommend seeing this in person, if one gets the chance, but there's a nice DVD available. A little taster from his website:

    http://www.bagbybeowulf.com/video/index.html
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  30. I've added mention of a new review by James Heiser. I'll also have to add notices for the new comments from Mallorn, which I haven't had a chance to read in full yet.

    Smials, to belated reply: I don't know of any particularly clear allusions on Tolkien's part to Parry and Lord, but at least later in life he can hardly have ignored them completely. The 'oral-formulaic' approach with they pushed was extremely important in Beowulf studies from the 1950's onward, especially due to the work of Tolkien's nearly-exact contemporary, Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. Actually along with Homer and Slavic poetry, Old English poetry (and above all Beowulf) was one of the prime areas in which oral-formulaic theory was developed and debated in general. It is unfortunate that we have, as far as I know, extremely little scholarly comment from Tolkien on Beowulf after the 1940's or so - so it's hard to say what he made of the work of Lord, Magoun, and their followers.
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 03/Jan/2015 at 12:59 PM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  31. This is really excellent, LotR, thank you

    I have a couple of reviews on my lists that haven't made it either here or on the Tolkien Society page, and which I'll just list here for reference.

    Ken Raymond, ‘Tolkien's 'Beowulf' battles critics’, The Oklahoman, 1 June
    http://newsok.com/tolkiens-beowulf-b...rticle/4869349

    Jerry Salyer, ‘Tolkien and Beowulf’, The Catholic World Report, 23 August
    http://www.catholicworldreport.com/I...d_Beowulf.aspx
    Troels Forchhammer, physicist, Denmark
    The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship toward all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect ...

  32. Troels, thanks for those - I'm trying to keep this pretty comprehensive, so I'm glad to be able to add them to the list!

    Raymond's review struck me as having a large number of very peculiar statements of 'fact', starting with his dating of Beowulf to 'sometime between 600 and 700 A.D.'. Virtually no reputable scholar would now date the poem before c. 675 AD, and even the earliest daters would generally put a later limit of no earlier than 725 AD (combining linguistic and paleographic evidence, a terminus ante quem of around 750 AD seems reasonable, with due allowance that if the poem was written in a linguistically and scribally particularly conservative place, this could perhaps be extended by nearly a century or so later). Perhaps related is his suggestion that the poem underwent a long period of oral transmission after this. Perhaps, but just as likely is that it was a written composition from the start, and that it's later history is primarily textual rather than oral.

    Raymond also, bizarrely, refers to the battle of Ravenswood as being historical and clearly datable to 510 AD - a historical basis it may well have, but we have no corroborating evidence for this, and the date 510 is utterly groundless. I was actually extremely puzzled about where he got this, and a little Googling shows that this is actually a fairly widely repeated claim on various websites (none of which, of course, give a source). My best guess is that this comes from a misinterpretation (on whose part originally, I don't know, but I doubt any of the repeaters have even tried to double check it) of the introduction to Klaeber's standard edition of Beowulf. Klaeber has a discussion of the chronology of the events of the poem, giving absolute dates which are really meant as estimates according to his chronological scheme, to give a sense of the rough relative chronology involved (Tolkien does much the same in the Commentary). Klaeber actually dates the battle of Ravenswood to 505 AD (p. xxxix) - but in his sketch of Beowulf's life, he juxtaposes the comment that Beowulf took no part in the Ravenswood conflict with the comment that in 510 AD Beowulf travelled to Heorot and fought Grendel (p. xlv). Someone, it seems, hastily saw 'Ravenswood' and '510 AD' in close proximity, and took away the idea that the battle was historical, and clearly dated to this year; this factoid has since taken root on the internet.

    Note that even Klaeber's date of 505 AD is not a precise historical dating. The very existence of this battle is not known from any source but Beowulf (though the general conflict may be dimly recalled in Scandinavian sources), and how historical you see it depends basically on how reliable you think the Beowulf poet was as a historian. And even if you think he was reliable, the actual dating of this battle is just a rough estimate on Klaeber's part, working back from the one historically datable event of the poem (Hygelác's Frisian raid, datable from the Frankish historian Gregory of Tours to 512-520 AD - helpful, but not exactly a precise starting point for pinpointing specific years!) using a great deal of guesswork and a few rough suggestions of chronology from the poem.
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 03/Jan/2015 at 11:57 AM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  33. Another set of “random notes and observations” offered “for what they’re worth” by Jonathan S. McIntosh, ‘Rohirrim and the Danes’ 2015-01-18, URL: https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress....and-the-danes/

    McIntosh has also posted a another such random (though even shorter) note, 2015-01-19: ‘Gríma as Mask, “Bogey”’, URL: https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress....as-mask-bogey/
    Troels Forchhammer, physicist, Denmark
    The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship toward all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect ...

  34. Thanks for sharing, Troels. These two particular points were, I'd have said, almost commonplaces in Tolkien studies (see Road pp. 124-125 on the first), but they're interesting and bear some repeating. Actually, this is in general a potential further consequence of Tolkien's translation being published: people rediscovering these sorts of things. This isn't a bad thing at all, I think, since often the best way (and certainly one of the most enjoyable ways) to learn something is to figure it out on your own, even if someone else has done so before.

    I was also very interested to read this comment on Aragorn (it's a bit older): https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress....the-monstrous/
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  35. Dave Wilton wrote a review last summer on wordorigins.com, one of the most sustained critical takes on the translation as a whole.

    http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/2002/

    His comments contain a few curiosities. He dismisses the commentary as 'old and creaky', but he gives no actual examples of its failings. There are points where Tolkien can be criticized for being basically 'not right', but the two points he mentions are poor examples. The first is Tolkien giving the poem an 8th century date, whereas 'all [modern scholars] will heavily caveat their claim and admit that no one really knows when it was composed'. In the first place, this is not quite true. Linguists and philologists have generally not indulged in the literary trend of fashionable uncertainty, and have often not hesitated to give the poem a roughly 8th century date without qualification (see, for instance, Don Ringe's From Proto-Germanic to Old English, p. 9, published just last year). It's fair enough that nowadays a commentary on Beowulf would have to give the dating controversy much more coverage, but it's not clear that failing to do so really damages the commentary's value significantly as regards the poem as such.

    His other example is Tolkien's use of the term 'Cædmonian manuscript' to refer to the Junius MS. Since, as Wilton notes, Tolkien doesn't actually think Cædmon composed any of the poems in question, I'm hard put to see what the problem is. Anyone opening up the first page of Krapp's classic edition of the MS (The Junius Manuscript, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records vol. I, 1931) will see a discussion of 'Cædmon' and 'Junius'. This book, incidentally, dates from around the same time as Tolkien's commentary and remains the standard reference in the field. It's not clear to me that Krapp (and his collaborator on later volumes, Elliott van Kirk Dobbie) have provided a superior commentary on purely textual matters in any respect except breadth (and this is mostly due to Tolkien's commentary having been edited down so much).

    This is a shame, because it presents a severely unbalanced view. There are points where Tolkien's scholarship has probably been strictly superseded (as in the case of the queen we now call Fremu), or where he probably shouldn't have been followed at any point. It's certainly fair to point these out, and to try to arrive at a reasonable assessment of how much of the commentary falls into this category (I should say: not a completely trivial amount, but still a very clear minority). It's also fair to note that some of his proposed emendations are excellent. At least in a couple of cases, the editors of the newest edition of Klaeber's Beowulf (which Wilton rightly praises) have independently adopted solutions which Tolkien had arrived at long before. But of course (to vent with a bit of sarcasm for a moment), such things are 'old and creaky' when Tolkien says them, but 'serious and up-to-date' when they come from Fulk, Bjork, and Niles. More seriously, if one falls into the trap that Wilton has, of deeming the whole commentary outdated by definition, then one is going to miss out on the very real cases where Tolkien has genuinely insightful and useful things to tell us about Beowulf. And of course, the bulk of Tolkien's commentary falls into neither category: not new, but not oudated either.

    Wilton of course has some very well-founded criticisms. The changing of the line numbers is terrible. I wouldn't have minded having a facing page Old English text, though it's hardly a serious flaw that it doesn't (the text of Beowulf isn't really that hard to find). That the commentary is incomplete is a real shame (this is a direct result of the Oxford curriculum - Tolkien wrote this only for the sections of the poem he was regularly lecturing on - but it is still a real lack for the final product). And he has some of the standard complaints about the language of the translation.

    Of these, however, at least one is ill-founded: 'Archaisms ... abound in his translation, giving the poem an antique tone that is not present in the Old English—translators of medieval works often do this, destroying the contemporary tone of the work; such works weren’t composed in outdated language, so why translate it that way?' This would be a fair criticism if Tolkien were translating, say, a Norse saga. As it is, it can hardly be taken for granted that Beowulf had anything like a 'contemporary' tone, of the sort that invites translation into 'plain English'. It is a trivial fact that the language of Old English verse is different from prose, containing syntactic and lexical archaisms of a very significant nature. This might not have felt exactly old-fashioned (it was the standard language of contemporary verse), but it was also emphatically not the style of contemporary prose. There's much to be said for Liuzza and Fulk trying to give a Beowulf that isn't in a special linguistic style - it makes it more intelligible - but on the whole Tolkien is probably distorting the style of the original rather less. (And of course 'contemporary' is a moving target. If, as is likely, Beowulf was written fairly early in the Anglo-Saxon period, it's archaisms would have presumably been less pronounced at the time of composition as compared to, say, the point our manuscript copy was made.)

    I also appreciate his listing of other Beowulf materials out there. All the books he mentions are good ones, and I'd second his recommendations in a heartbeat. But I can't help but feel that Wilton is guilty of a certain amount of chronological snobbery (perhaps aided by the general modern obsession with 'critical trends', which by definition regards anything not trendy as less relevant). Tolkien made a serious attempt to understand the poem, and this book is a very useful tool in helping others do so as well. It's a nice complement to standard modern syntheses like Andy Orchard's Critical Companion to Beowulf and introduction and commentary to Klaeber's Beowulf, and really does have a fair amount to offer us in understanding the poem, if we're willing to give it a fair go.

    Edit: also, his final comment, that this was published just to 'cash in' on a work 'Tolkien himself was too embarrassed to publish' is fairly obviously wrong. Tolkien attempted to get his translation published (and well after he'd first made it, too). He doesn't seem to have been particularly embarrassed about it, and his 'On Translating Beowulf' shows that he had thought through his translation principles and was willing to vigorously defend them in print. As for the idea of 'cashing' in - well, I'm sure the good folks at HarperCollins weren't going to complain about a new Tolkien manuscript of any nature, but it's unlikely (to say the least - ludicrous might be a better word) that this played any part in Christopher's motivation in doing the editing.
    Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 03/Feb/2015 at 03:25 PM.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  36. Added a new Dutch review and an update of the Amazon ratings.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  37. I've just found E.L. Risden's review in the Journal of Tolkien Research, and added a comment on it:


    This review assumes general background knowledge of Tolkien and his interest in Beowulf, and is in large part geared at telling a reader of Tolkien what they will find attractive and what they might be put off by. Like many others, it has some quibbles with (along with praise for) the style, and holds up the Commentary as the central strength of the book. There is some discussion of the Commentary as scholarship, which was interesting though perhaps rather light. It was also unclear to what extent Risden was giving a personal reaction or a considered scholarly one (for instance, Risden is in a decided minority in disagreeing with Tolkien about the status of Beowulf I), though his general caution that Tolkien's words shouldn't be taken as definitive is of course appropriate (especially to a Tolkienist audience, who might on occasion elevate Tolkien from a great authority to The Great Authority on Beowulf).
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  38. I've updated the main post to include a section on academic reviews (and moved Risden's piece into that section, where it properly belongs). Anyone know of other academic reviews I could add?
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  39. A couple of quick updates. I've added the academia edu link for Dimitra's Mallorn piece.

    I have also belatedly provided an entry for the Western University piece quoting Toswell's comments. I think I'd initially left that out when I was conceiving of this more as a list of actual reviews, since that's a pre-publication comment (I initially left Kiernan's piece out for the same reason, but since I added that back in, I should have added this one too). While searching to see if I could find whether Toswell herself has commented on the book, I found a link to a course outline of hers where she is using Tolkien's translation in an introductory class on OE lit and lang, so I have added a link to that as well. It's not really a commentary on the book, but it is part of the general academic reaction to the translation, and so (I think) worth including. I'm also adding a link to the Signum course that Tom Shippey ran (and which I helped a bit on). I'm sure there are other uses of Tolkien's translation for teaching out there, and if any more come to my attention I'll add them too.

    I've also added a link to a masters thesis from the Netherlands on the translation, though I'm not sure when I'll have the chance to read it myself.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

  40. Added two more reviews: a nice bit of commentary by Tom Hillman over on Alas, not me, and my own review in Mallorn​.
    It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.

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