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.

A new Beowulf translation has come flowing out of the fiend-infested mist: The author is J.R.R. Tolkien, who upon his death in 1973 left behind reams of lecture notes about the poem, as well as a typescript. According to his son Christopher, the typescript, “on very thin paper,” is in poor condition, the “right-hand edges being darkly discoloured and in some cases badly broken or torn away.” In this it bears “an odd resemblance to the Beowulf manuscript itself,” almost consumed in an 18th-century fire, “the edges of the leaves … scorched and subsequently crumbled.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

The sense of precariousness and melancholy in that shared detail is reflected in the poem as a whole. (Tolkien, with his love of scholarly trivia, would have loved the coincidence of two texts dissolving at the margins.) Beowulf begins when a mysterious foundling arrives at Denmark from shores unknown and ends with a gray-haired king on a pyre, his spirit passing into the beyond. The bright tale in between is transient—already disintegrating at the edges long before it was even written down—and past those borders stalk the monsters, incomprehensible, laden with our oldest fears.

Tolkien was 34 when he finished the translation, one year into his post as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Ahead of him lay decades of Old English scholarship and study, as well as The Hobbit, The Silmarillionand the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which he’s best known. “I have all Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. He would later go back and emend the manuscript as his thoughts on the poem evolved; the edition coming out this month splices the heroic narrative with extras and deleted scenes—notes, commentary, a poetic condensation of his prose translation (the Lay of Beowulf), and a colloquial retelling, the Sellic Spell, that reads a lot like fan fiction. 

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J.R.R. Tolkien

Photo by John Wyatt

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Tolkien’s aim, according to his son’s introduction, was to hew “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.’ ” So this Beowulf runs unmetered, in sentences, without the characteristic Anglo-Saxon thumping beats. Tolkien once wrote that Old English poetry was “more masonry than music,” and his prose translation largely reflects that architectural bias. Stacked clauses and other syntactical pileups impede the tune, though you can sometimes hear a latent rhythm: “Eagerly the warriors mounted the prow, and the streaming seas swirled upon the sand.”

Luckily, the plot and mood elements of Beowulf survive the form-switch. This is still the story of a Geatish warrior who crosses the sea to succor the people of Denmark and their once-glorious king. For 12 years a monster called Grendel has haunted Hrothgar’s meadhall, gobbling up his men, upsetting its order of wealth and song. Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing off his arm, and then dives into a demonic mere to finish off his mother. He returns in victory to Geatland, weighed down with Hrothgar’s gifts of treasure, and rules for 50 years—“aged guardian of his rightful land.” And then a dragon wakes in a deep, gold-glittering barrow and begins to fill the sky with fire. Beowulf must kill the worm in a final act of bravery, which he carries out at the cost of his own life. Menaced by political enemies, kingless, his people conduct his funeral and wait for the end.  

Womp. Of course, Beowulf is more than that suddenly collapsed lung of narrative. It’s a rising and a setting, remote, strange, and sad, and it contains some of literature’s brightest illuminations and deepest, least knowable darks. In his 1936 essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien made an argument for the poem not just as a historical or cultural document but as a work of art. His theory—that behind the text hovers a unified and masterfully potent creative imagination—transformed the way the world read Beowulf. People began to see the loveliness in it (the lamplight, the hearth heat, the bonds of kinship) offset by the elegy (“resting places swept by the wind robbed of laughter.”) Novels could explore its philosophical root system. Seamus Heaney could write in the 2000 introduction to his own translation: “This is not just metrical narrative full of anthropological interest and typical heroic-age motifs; it is poetry of a high order, in which passages of great lyric intensity … rise like emanations from some fissure in the bedrock of the human capacity to endure.”

Shoot. Oh shoot. I shouldn’t have mentioned Heaney. I’m sorry. Now I feel like I need to compare the two Beowulfs, and though I can’t speak to their relative scholarship, in terms of pure, thane-devouring pleasure, there’s no real contest. “It is a composition not a tune,” wrote Tolkien of the Anglo-Saxon original. Yet the Irish bard Heaney made it both. His Beowulf, at once airier and rougher, feels more contemporary, less bogged down in academic minutiae. Grendel equals “reaver from hell,” “dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors.” By contrast, here is Tolkien: “Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home.”

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I understand how some might prefer Tolkien’s version. The description, stately and involved, seems sprinkled with an Arthurian grandeur; readers who love the Lord of the Rings may resonate to that high diction and steady, exact pacing. And it’s not that Tolkien can’t do immediacy. When he first conjured the dragon—“Now it came blazing, gliding in looped curves, hastening to its fate”—I was breathless (and very reminded of Smaug). But he just as often loses the story’s thread in a kind of reverent hairsplitting. After that incandescent dragon sentence, we get: “The shield well protected the life and limbs of the king renowned a lesser while than his desire had asked, if he were permitted to possess victory in battle, as that time, on that first occasion of his life, for him fate decreed it not.” I think that means that Beowulf’s arms buckled in the flames, but the translator’s admirable fidelity to—and, likely, his matchless handle on—the precise turnings of the Old English fogged up the action.

But maybe you waive your right to those sorts of complaints when you open a Tolkien rendering of Beowulf. (And it’s important to remember that Tolkien never intended this manuscript for publication.) The fantasy-shaper of Middle Earth was also a “don’s don,” a leading scholar more or less fluent in Greek, Latin, Old English, Welsh, Finnish, and a handful of Germanic Gothic tongues, who modernized medieval lyrics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Where Heaney has his ear to the ground, trained on a nightmare’s thudding footsteps, Tolkien’s nose is in his books.

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