Hwaet! A sparkling revisitation of Danish meadhalls and boggy monsters’ lairs by Hobbitmeister Tolkien.
Before he became world-renowned for his tales of the Shire, Tolkien (The Children of Húrin, 2007, etc.) taught Old English, Old Norse and medieval literature at Oxford. At the core of his teaching lay Beowulf, that great, exceedingly strange eighth-century poem of the eponymous, ill-fated hero and his nemesis, the unfortunate monster Grendel. His prose translation of the poem into modern English dates to 1926, and it’s a marvel of vigor and economy that doesn’t suffer from not having been set in verse. The text against which to compare it is Seamus Heaney’s 2000 verse translation, and the answer to the question of which version is essential is: Both. Here are Heaney’s closing lines, the paean to the departed hero: “They said that of all the kings upon earth / he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” Tolkien’s are: “Thus bemourned the Geatish folk...crying that he was ever of the kings of earth of men most generous and to men most gracious, to his people most tender and for praise most eager.” Which is the more poetic rendering is a matter of taste, but Tolkien’s has the virtue of being accompanied by more than 300 pages of commentary on the poem, Anglo-Saxon society and Old English literature generally, with a bonus effort at a reconstruction of the Ur folk tale that underlies the poem. The commentary is thoroughly illuminating, touching as it does on such matters as the author’s critical attitude toward “the aristocratic class, its values and assumptions” and “the whole business of the Heathobards and their feud with the house of Healfdene.” The careful reader will also find hints between the lines of Tolkien working out bits and pieces of his own story, not least when he turns to a certain dragon, “on fire now with wrath,” and the fabulous hoard it guards while awake and asleep.
Essential for students of the Old English poem—and the ideal gift for devotees of the One Ring.