Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?

Reading between the lines.
May 20 2014 1:02 PM

The Don’s Don

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf translation finally arrives.

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Tolkien’s assessment of the Beowulf poet is revealing: “It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical.” Tolkien himself was a “learned man” who, gazing on ancient things, felt acutely, even as he brought worlds of erudition to bear on his responses. Probably, the project of scholarship refined and deepened those responses. Nostalgia and regret, so central to Beowulf, are presumably familiar mental states for someone who spends much of his time sifting through the past.

So the new translation seems especially attuned to transience and loss, from Beowulf’s premonitions before he fights the dragon (“heavy was his mood, restless hastening toward death”) to a gorgeous passage about the last survivor of an ancient civilization burying his gold. In his commentary on the scene, Tolkien remarks, with great emotional sensitivity:

The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The “treasure” is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. 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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Actually, the commentary may be the best part of this new Beowulf. Not only does it offer context and aid (teasing apart the webs of loyalty and conflict entwining Geats, Danes, and Swedes, for instance), but Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold. Also an ornery one. I got pissed when I read the famous opening lines and saw “the sea where the whale rides” instead of the familiar “whale-road.” So I flipped, pissily, to the back, where Tolkien explains that he derived the phrase from a kenning: one of several “pictorial descriptive compounds” that “can be used in place of the normal plain word.” I know what a kenning is. Where the hell was whale-road?

Funny I should ask. “It is quite incorrect to translate it (as it is all too frequently translated) ‘whale road,’ ” grouses Tolkien. “It is incorrect stylistically since compounds of this sort sound in themselves clumsy or bizarre in modern English … in this particular instance the unfortunate sound-association with ‘railroad’ increases the ineptitude. It is incorrect in fact … ”

The scolding goes on for, I joke not, three pages. At the end, Tolkien pronounces, Q.E.D., that the “word as kenning therefore means dolphin’s riding. … That is not evoked by ‘whale road’—which suggests a sort of semi-submarine steam-engine running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic.”

Burn! In the same way, Professor Tolkien kvetches about scribes who may have mistakenly written the name “Beowulf” where they meant an earlier folk presence, Beow. (“One of the reddest and highest red herrings that were ever dragged across a literary trail,” he sniffs.) But the glossary contains more than shade. At one point, Tolkien considers Beowulf’s ancestor Scyld Scefing, who sails into the lives of the Danes from a magical “elsewhere.” Scyld’s name means something like Shield Sheaf-guy; he is modeled in part on pagan myths about a harvest god washed ashore in a shining, corn-filled ship. Around J.R.R.’s commentary Christopher Tolkien has woven descriptions of “King Sheave” from a time-travel book, The Lost Road, that his father penned but never published. (The figure turned into a minor obsession for Tolkien, and perhaps a model for Gandalf the Grey.) As you read, these layers and echoes become seductive, sounding the edges of a vanished continent of meaning. It’s as if, through intricate cataloguing, you might retrieve the old things from the past—as if scholarship were chiefly memory, sent out like a flare against the dark. Desperately, Hrothgar’s scop sings “how the Almighty wrought the earth … how triumphant He set the radiance of the sun and moon … and adorned the regions of the world with boughs,” while, outside, “the shapes of mantling shadow [come] gliding over the world.”

What I am trying to say is that Tolkien’s learning and Beowulf’s patterns of gloom and fragile light feel intimately related. The finicky diction (as well as everything in the commentary section) follows from a sensibility that knows too well what happens when order begins to fail. You can see the signs of social disintegration when Tolkien evokes his hero’s pyre: “Then upon the hill warriors began the mightiest of funeral fires to waken. Woodsmoke mounted black above the burning, a roaring flame ringed with weeping, till the swirling wind sank quiet, and the body’s bony house was crumbled in the blazing core.”

In the spirit of collaborative scholarship, or maybe of genealogy, here is Heaney with the next few lines:

with hair bound up, [a Geat woman] unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

In this moment Beowulf collapses all the nice distinctions scops, poets, and academics try so hard to preserve. The bound hair seems to pour out of its constraint along with the vocal cascade of terror and grief. Images bleed together as the bodies heap. Then, suddenly, the entire vision is consumed, made into “smoke,” and absorbed by an implacable sky.

Meanwhile, if a group of scholars hadn’t broken into a burning building in 1731 to rescue the Beowulf codex, we’d know nothing of Grendel or Hrothgar. I do not begrudge Tolkien his pedantry in the face of the void. “Almost fate decreed,” he writes of the original manuscript, “that shall the blazing wood devour, the fire enfold.” Now his noble translation joins the ranks of the narrowly saved. Hwæt!

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Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.