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*
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.
[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
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
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
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.
[Arrangement is alphabetical by reviewer]
-Acocella, Jone in The New Yorker
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
An approving review, quoting liberally from the translation. Some inaccuracies.
-Williamson, Craig in The Wall Street Journal
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').
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.
A comment on the very different kinds of English 'nationalism' embodied by Tolkien and current trends in UK politics.
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.
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.)
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.
Tom Shippey, with Nelson Goering and Sørina Higgins (Signum University)
M.J. Toswell (Western University)
-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.
-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.
-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).
-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'.
I have a response below in this thread to Kiernan's piece.
-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.
-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).
-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.
-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.
-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).