Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf – and quite a lot more

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Here’s a treat! Tolkien’s day job was as an English professor at Oxford, and over the years he lectured many times on Beowulf, part of which was a first-year set text. Goodness me, I remember studying it there myself, though JRR’s son Christopher was  lecturing then (on Why the Dark Ages were dark, and what the Middle Ages were in the Middle of if I remember it right). Now the said Christopher has brought out an edition of his father’s working translation, much awaited, along with comments taken from his lecture notes, a sort of saga on the theme (that’s the Sellic Spell – Suffolk readers will know the first word, which means something like a cross between wonderful and holy, while the second one means ‘tale’ not ‘enchantment’ here) – and a verse lay too.

I’ve just been leafing the pages and the best bit so far is Tolkien’s ticking off in his notes of the unwary undergraduate who might translate hron rad too quickly as “whale road”. It’s a kenning or metaphorical phrase for “ocean”, but hron is nearer dolphin than whale, and rad is nearing riding(-place) than (rail-)road. And anyway, whale road sounds like the Mid-West not the North Sea, “a sort of submarine steam-engine running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic” as he puts it. So there.

Translating texts like Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf  for the sake of art as well as academe has become fashionable recently, and it’s interesting to set JRRT alongside Seamus Heaney in particular.

Here’s a passage from Beowulf in the original Old English and in Heaney’s great modern verse alongside Tolkein’s more accurate and still rhythmic prose.

Old English:

Gewat ða neosian,   syþðan niht becom,
hean huses,   hu hit Hring-Dene
æfter beorþege   gebun hæfdon.
Fand þa ðær inne   æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble;   sorge ne cuðon,
wonsceaft wera.   Wiht unhælo,
grim ond grædig,   gearo sona wæs,
reoc ond reþe,   ond on ræste genam
þritig þegna;   þanon eft gewat
huðe hremig   to ham faran,
mid þære wælfylle   wica neosan.

Heaney:

So, after nightfall, Grendel set out
for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes
were settling into it after their drink,
and there he came upon them, a company of the best
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain
and human sorrow. Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

Tolkein:

Then went Grendel forth when night was come to spy on that lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes after the ale-drinking had ordered their abode in it; and he found therein a lordly company after their feasting sleeping, sorrow they knew not, the unhappy fate of men. That accursed thing, ravenous and grim, swift was ready; thirty knights he seized upon their couch. Thence back he got him gloating over his prey, faring homeward with his glut of murder to seek his lairs.

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One thought on “Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf – and quite a lot more

  1. Brilliant! How surprising – I ended up liking Heaney’s version slightly more than the Tolkien one perhaps because the former painted a clearer picture for me than the latter. All I’m all Bishop, I really thank you for sharing this with all of us; it was typically kind and generous of you to do so. Thank you.

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