Of all the many pieces of unpublished Tolkieniana cached away from public eyes in manuscript form, Tolkien's "edition" of Beowulf has been the most eagerly anticipated by fans, and I daresay by Beowulf-scholars too (there's a significant crossover between those two groups, of course). Certainly it's the one unpublished Tolkien work around which the rumors have most energetically swarmed. Some said it was being held back because it was the jewel in the crown; some, it was being held back because it was hopeless, thousands of scattered manuscript pages that didn’t add up to a whole. Now, Christopher Tolkien has readied Tolkien's Beowulf for publication ("the fact that it has remained unpublished for so many years," he rather ruefully notes in the Preface, "has even become a matter of reproach"). This means we can lay our hands upon the finished volume and see that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly not hopeless; but neither is it what one might call a masterpiece. There are better translations of Beowulf out there for pretty much any metric of "better" one prefers: more poetically forceful (Heaney's version, for all that it has problems, still achieves wonders in its verse); more up-to-date in terms of scholarship and textual understanding; more appropriate for specialists, or students, or general readers. We're entitled to ask: who is this book for?
There are three main elements to this volume, and a couple of extras. The first thing, obviously, is the translation of Beowulf itself. The second is Tolkien's commentary upon the poem, and the third some original creative writing by Tolkien on Beowulfish themes—a prose piece called "Sellic Spell" which recasts the fight with Grendel as a fairy tale narrative in which "Beewolf" battles "Grinder," and a short poem called "The Lay of Beowulf." The extras include a 20-page note on the textual variants Tolkien used in his translation which couldn't be drier if it were stuffed with silicate powder; and a version of the prose "Sellic Spell" written in Old English, here to show (as the editor concedes) only that Tolkien was extremely fluent in the tongue.
I'm not going to say much about the third of these elements: both works are brief and seemed to me minor, five-finger exercises. "Sellic Spell" recasts episodes from the poem as fairy tale (it begins: "Once upon a time there was a King in the North . . ." [p. 360]) by way of exploring the theory that such simple folk tales lie behind at least some of the work’s composition. The poem is not only unfinished but rather dull. More interesting, for better or worse, are the translation and the commentary.
Tolkien had first translated the whole of Beowulf into rather antique-flavored English prose by 1926. He continued working on the poem, studying it and teaching it, for many decades after this, and (according to Christopher Tolkien) sometimes these later researches would lead him back to modify his translation in small ways. Sometimes not. The version of the poem printed here never shakes off the rather starched feel of a purely scholarly exercise, the entire thing rendered in prose of this manner:
The abode as yet thou knowest not nor the perilous place where thou canst find that creature stained with sin. Seek it if thou durst! For that assault I will reward thee with old and precious things, even as I did ere now, yea with twisted gold, if thou comest safe away. (p. 53)
You may feel perfectly at home with all these "thou"s and "yea"s; but perchance they puttest thou right off, actually, in which case the moral is presumably: read it if thou durst!
The second element is the detailed commentary on the poem, which makes up the bulk of the whole, pages 137-354 of this 425-page volume. Here Tolkien's notes on specific Old English words and usages are blended (by Christopher Tolkien) with excerpts from lectures Tolkien gave on the poem, and from some other sources. Some of these notes mill the poem—and if we're honest, our patience—pretty fine. Others are more interesting—mini essays on Old English names and morals, on fates and character motivations in the work. But there are larger problems. One is that the majority of these notes relate to the OE text, and would be better fitted to an original-language edition of the poem. But another, larger problem is that the commentary only covers two of the three episodes of Beowulf. The last note is to a reference to "mirth and feasting" from Beowulf line 2115 of the original poem. (It is to be regretted that this edition includes line numbers to Tolkien's prose, but not to how the translation relates to the lineation of the original text). Beowulf is a 3182-line poem; and those last 1000 lines of OE epic are not covered by the commentary here. That means we get Tolkien's thoughts on the hero fighting Grendel and Grendel's mother, but not on Beowulf as an old man fighting the dragon. Christopher Tolkien is upfront in his preface about the "unfinished" nature of the project.
This is more of a problem than it might otherwise be, because the last third of the poem is the one that most directly informed Tolkien's own writing. Part one (Grendel) and two (Grendel's mum) are fine; but it's the dragon we want to know about, his hoard, the unnamed thief sneaking in and stealing the cup—and the fire-drake bursting from his mountain to meet his doom at the hero's hands. This is the part of Beowulf that we want to have Tolkien's thoughts on—or at least it is, if our interest is in the way Beowulf lives on in The Hobbit, which of course it does. The lack of this is a serious diminishment in the volume.
There are other ways in which the commentary feels incomplete. I'll give an example of what I mean. One need not to be too geeky a Beowulf nerd to be drawn into the discussion of some of the textual cruxes Tolkien discusses. Here's one: Beowulf is (obviously) a poem mostly about the heroic exploits of Beowulf. But the poem's first reference to Beowulf—line 54—is actually to a completely different person who happens also to be called Beowulf. This individual is mentioned once; we're told that he was the son of "Scyld Scefing," the mythic originator of the line of the Scyldings. Clearly it's a rather confusing thing that this geezer happens to have the same name as the hero. Too confusing, Tolkien insists: he amends the name to "Beow," and argues that a confused or careless scribe at some point wrote this name out wrong as "Beowulf." So far so dry, but Tolkien's commentary also touches upon a much more interesting thing. "Scyld," the origin hero for this dynasty, has a name that means "Shield," which is the sort of generic name we can imagine being given to a mighty warrior. But "Scefing," the second part of his name, refers not to war but agriculture: the "sheaf" of wheat or corn. This double reference to warring and farming, Tolkien thinks, records an ancient "blending" of
The vague and fictitious warlike glory of the eponymous ancestor of the conquering house with the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth of the . . . corn-god or culture-hero his descendant, at the beginning of a people's history. (p. 138)
This is fascinating stuff, and made more so by Tolkien's emendation of the first "Beowulf" to "Beow," for that name means "Barley," "the glorification (by genealogists) of a rustic corn-ritual myth" and quite distinct from "Beowulf, the bear-man, the giant-killer" who "comes from a different world: fairy-story" (p. 147). But just as these speculations are starting to get interesting, they stop. There's no larger discussion of what the vegetative myths, or fairy-tale logics, say about the poem as a whole. It makes for a frustrating read.
There are several very promising hints and suggestions in the notes, but the reason these tantalizing avenues are not explored further is, frankly, because Tolkien's main interest is otherwise. A great deal of this commentary is dryasdust linguistic and textual minutiae of this sort:
A way out of this difficulty has been found by emendation of steda to stiðra, genitive plural. Cf. *1533 stið ond stýlecg applied to the sword Hrunting (1282 'steel-edged and strong'). No reason for the corruption of so well-known and contextually intelligible a word as stiðra into steda can be seen. The resulting metre is scarcely credible. The correction of this by cancelling gehwylc cancels the wrong word, as I have suggested above. Old English seldom violates idiomatic word-order; and where an emphatic adverb usurps the first place in a sentence, as does foran here, the subject should follow the verb. In consequence ǽghwylc *984 must be either a misplaced anticipation or a corruption by anticipation of a word that is not noun or adjective, i.e. not the subject. The former alternative implies that a word, more or less parallel to nægla gehwylc has dropped out after wæs. The latter is on all counts more probable. I should select as the real word that has been corrupted by anticipation into ǽghwylc is ǽghwǽr. (p. 299)
There's a lot of this sort of thing in the commentary. A lot. Academics, of course, will be used to it, although few of us could put our hands on our hearts and say we actually enjoy reading it. The General Reader, at whom the present volume is presumably directed, will surely find it treacle and tar in the intricate gears that regulate their reading pleasure. Quite apart from anything else: remember this is appended not to the Old English edition of the poem, but to Tolkien's prose translation.
The problem is that it falls between two stools (*stoolen, amended from a clearly corrupt spoolen, or spindles). It is not comprehensive or complete enough to function as a proper critical edition of Beowulf; but it is not accessible enough to step the general reader into a deeper appreciation of the poem.
I'm not saying it's entirely barren. I'd say I knew the poem pretty well, but I learnt new things from this edition. For instance, that "whale-road," that terribly famous OE "kenning" for sea, is a mistranslation. The original is hronráde; but hron is not whale (hwæl); it is instead a smaller creature ("there is a statement in Old English that a hron was about seven times the size of a seal, and a hwæl about seven times the size of a hron" [p. 142]). And rád, though the root of our word "road," doesn't mean "road" but "riding." Tolkien accordingly translates hronráde as "dolphin's riding" ("i.e. the watery fields where you can see dolphins and lesser members of the whale-tribe playing, or seeming to gallop like a line of riders on the plains"), which he prefers to "whale-road" not least because he thinks the latter sounds too much like "railroad" ("whale-road . . . suggests a sort of semi-submarine steam-engine running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic" [p. 143]—actually quite a cool, Studio Ghibli-style image I thought, although Tolkien treats its ludicrous inappositeness as axiomatic). All this is interesting; and there are a few similar nuggets buried in the arcane linguistic matrix of the commentary. But the general reading-experience of the commentary is one unlikely to make the reader squee.
This throws us back against Tolkien's translation. There are times when the prithee-sirrah idiom starts to work, which is to say starts to generate a genuine effect. Here's the landscape of Grendel and his kin:
In a hidden land they dwell upon highlands wolfhaunted, and windy cliffs, and the perilous passes of the fens, where the mountain-stream goes down beneath the shadows of the cliffs, a river beneath the earth. It is not far from hence in measurement of miles that the mere lies, over which there hang rimy thickets, and a wood clinging by its roots overshadows the water. (p. 52)
But no sooner has the prose begun to generate an eerie, or vivid, effect than it crashes into this sort of thing:
Beowulf spake, the son of Ecgtheow: "Lo! this plunder of the seam O son of Healdene, Scydings' prince, we gladly have brought to thee, the token of my triumph which here thou lookest on . . . This do I promise thee henceforth, that thou mayest in Heorot sleep untroubled amid the proud host of thy men, thou and each one of thy knights and captains, the proven and the young that thou wilt not from that quarter have need to fear for then, King of the Scyldings, the bane of good men's lives, as once thou did. (p. 62)
There is a limited number of times that it's possible to use the word "lo!" in a modern prose text without making your reader snort in derision. And that number is: zero.
I'm aware I may sound like a philistine, here. It could be objected that there's no harm in translating a poem into an old-fashioned idiom. After all, the poem itself was fashioned in olden times. But I remain unpersuaded, for two reasons. One is that the antique style just isn't very euphoniously worked. This is how Tolkien translates the opening three lines of the poem, from the "hwæt!" onwards:
Lo! The glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. (p. 13)
Old or new, this is clumsy writing: the slackness of that string of "of"s (lo! five "of"s in one sentence!); the awkwardness of working out who is what of what; the blankness of the "days of old" and "deeds of valour" clichés. Much of Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion is written in a deliberately archaic manner, and we can agree or disagree with Tolkien that such a style achieves an ennobling and majestic effect; but we have to concede that in those two works he at least took pains to write his archaic English properly.
There's a more debilitating aspect to the style, though, which has to do with the way Beowulf generates its unique effects. My problem with Tolkien's style is not that it is too antiquated, but rather that it is too polished. The whole force of the commentary works this way too: ironing out the irregularities and inconsistencies of the original Old English, resolving cruxes and smoothing the whole. Of course, almost all editors and translators do the same; but it's worth asking what it gains us. The effect is to civilize the poem—a poem radically not about the civis but the warrior's stead. Tolkien's thees and thous take the poem back to a notional middle ages of courts and knights, and that's—bluntly—not right.
Like most translators of the poem, Tolkien evidently decided that the idiom of the poem is one of weighty, elevating nobility, and so adopted a deliberately ponderous voice that in turn generates an affect of archaic dignity. Other, less self-consciously modernized versions—this is as true of Seamus Heaney as of Michael Alexander—similarly inhabit a tone of regal elevation. But surely that's to miss the point. Beowulf is about fighting monsters: it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a young man's poem, a poem about the ethos and glories as well as the struggles and defeats of fighters. Even the later sections, when Beowulf is an old man, still cling to the sorts of things that young men tend to think important.
To this end, it seems to me a translation of the poem ought to capture it vigor, its valorization of (as it were) being full of piss and vinegar, its deep love of muscle-power and courage and the thrills of the strength, as much as its equally central love of a kind of boastful understatement. It needs, in other words, to capture something of the braggadocio and self-confidence of the poem's world; and not to be distracted by the fact that the poem also sees that self-confidence as ultimately doomed. Beowulf is not really an elegiac poem, despite its ending and despite the fact that many critics have read it precisely in those terms. Or to be more precise: its quotient of elegy is not articulated in a downbeat or mournful way. We are all doomed, the poem says; we will all die; every victory is a temporary respite against ultimate defeat. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the spirit with which you face the overwhelming odds; the greatness of heart with which you rage against the dying light. What matters is to be young and strong and brave. If I may quote a modern text that captures, it seems to me, the spirit of Beowulf better than any number of thous and yeas: "I'm wet and I'm cold/But thank God I ain't old." Lo!