Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
by J.R.R. Tolkien [829.3 BeoYt] 

While J.R.R. Tolkien is best remembered today as a fantasy author, most of his working life was spent in academia as one of the world’s leading authorities on Old and Middle English language and literature. Tolkien had very specific ideas on how the Old English poem “Beowulf” should be translated into modern English, as well as the difficult choices faced in the translation process, which he spelled out in his 1940 essay “On Translating Beowulf.” (This essay can be found in the 1983 anthology, The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, which unfortunately is not currently held by Lincoln City Libraries; a good summary of the essay is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Translating_Beowulf) Among other things, he strongly believed that a modern translation should reflect the fact that the Old English language used in the poem would have already seemed archaic at the time of its composition. This recently published prose translation shows him putting these beliefs into practice. The result is a translation that is challenging to read. Readers who just want to know the general storyline might find a different translation more accessible, but this one has the advantage of giving something of the feel of the ancient text.

This volume, however, contains more than just the translation of the text. As an Oxford professor, Tolkien lectured regularly on Beowulf to students who were assigned to translate portions of the Old English text. The “Commentary” is based on those lectures. Far more than just an examination of what modern words might be used to translate particular Old English ones, the Commentary is a lively and fascinating examination of the historical and religious context of the poem.

Tolkien believed (along with some other scholars) that “Beowulf” as we know it is a blending of accounts of early Scandinavian historical figures with an ancient folktale. Included in the volume is “Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to show what this hypothetical folktale on its own might have been like.

This volume is not a quick read, and it may not be for everyone – not even for all Tolkien fans – but it is a rewarding read for those interested in Tolkien’s scholarly side.
[ Wikipedia page for Tolkien’s Beowulf book ]

Recommended by Peter J.
Virtual Services Department

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