19 January 2017

Review: Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have sometimes heard people remark on the sense of loss that is so prominent in Tolkien's fiction, and wonder where it comes from. It is convenient and probably not incorrect to point to his experiences in World War One and the deaths of all but one of his closest friends by 1918. John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War is a worthwhile read on this score, as is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (though he never mentions Tolkien). But if you're familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you can't help but see how Tolkien fits in with the other writers Fussell discusses, who are far more famous as World War One writers.

But all of these men, whether Sassoon or Owen, Blunden or Tolkien, "walked eye deep in hell, believing in old men's lies," all lost friends, and together they all saw the world they shared pass away before their eyes. Much of modern literature first springs from the way this war shattered Western Civilization. The absurdity and alienation and uncertainties begin here. Tolkien's literary response to the War is quite different, but it is no less a response because of that. These connections deserve further scrutiny. But not here.

Yet before that for Tolkien there was already Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon literature, so much of which has a mournful tone. It runs through Beowulf like a cold stream. Right near the end of his commentary Tolkien coins the apt phrase "elegiac retrospect" (p. 351) to describe the poet's remarks on lines 1876-1908 of the translation (Klaeber 2231-71), which tell of the forgotten original owners of the dragon's hoard.  

This phrase so eloquently suits so much of what we read throughout the poem and in Tolkien generally that it is worth quoting the passage at length. One could do worse than to use this passage as a key to understanding how Tolkien evoked the sense of history and loss and high beauty that frets our hearts when we read his works. 

It is also characteristic of our poet (and of Old English as we know it as a whole) that the scene in the barrow passes at once into an elegiac retrospect on the forgotten lords who placed their gold in the hoard, and then died one by one until it was left masterless, an open prey to the dragon, 
But this is not inartistic. For one thing it occupies the 'emotional space' between the plundering of the hoard, and the curiously vivid and perceptive lines on the dragon snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft: lines which gain greatly from the concluding words of the interjected 'elegy': ne byð him wihte ðý sél *2277 ('no whit doth it profit him' 1918) -- the last word on the dragonhood. Also, of course, the feeling for the treasure itself, and the sense of sad history, is just what raises the whole thing above 'a mere treasure story, just another dragon-tale'.  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.  Not till its part in the actual plot is revealed -- to draw the invincible Beowulf to his death - -do we learn that it is actually enchanted, iúmonna gold galdre bewunden *3052 ('the gold of bygone men was wound about with spells' 2564), in which the quintessence of 'buried treasure' is distilled in four words, and accursed (*3069-73, 2579-84). 
So this passage rivals the exordium on ship-burial (*32-52, 25-40) as that very rare thing, an actual poetic expression of feeling and imagination about 'archaeological' material from an archaeological or sub-archaeological period.  Many such existed in Scandinavia, and even in England in the eighth century, already ancient enough for their puprose to be shrouded in mist.  Here we learn what men of the twilight time thought of them.  And. of course, the writing and the elegy are good in themselves, and not misspent -- since the ashes of Beowulf himself are now to be laid in a barrow with much of this same gold (though much also is to melt in the fire, *3010-15, 2530-4), and pass down into the oblivion of the ages -- but for the poet, and the chance relenting of time: to spare this one poem out of so many.  For this, too, almost fate decreed: þӕt sceal brond fretan, ӕled þeccean: that shall the blazing wood devour, the fire enfold. Of the others we know not. 
(pp. 351-353)
And maddeningly, beautifully, somehow fittingly, that is where the commentary ends.  Pale, enchanted gold indeed that summons us to follow it we know not whither.  But the way is shut.

Now none of the material in this book, whether translation, commentary, Sellic Spell, or the two lays that come at the end were ever prepared or meant for publication. So we cannot fairly judge them as if they were. What we have in this book is more like all the material that Christopher Tolkien published in his History of Middle-Earth than it is like the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and Christopher Tolkien does his customary, outstanding job of sorting out the layers of texts and revisions.

The translation is thus far more of a scholarly exercise, making little or no attempt to rearrange the words into a word order more easily understood in Modern English, or to make the language and ways of thought more accessible. Old English is an inflected language in which word order is far more flexible than in Modern English; and in which idioms and modes of expression are entirely different than now. These are facts which anyone translating for publication must take into account, and changes must be made to transform the original into something intelligible for readers who are not experts in the original. So comparing it to the translation of Heaney (or anyone else) doesn't get us very far.

Now my Old English is not proficient or recent enough to allow me a worthwhile opinion on the accuracy of the translation. But I think it's safe to say I am in good hands with Tolkien. Reading it, for the reasons I mentioned above, is more of a challenge, but I often found that reading it aloud helped me find the proper phrasing for understanding what was being said.

The commentary I found fascinating and illuminating. I have read enough scholarly commentaries on texts in ancient languages with which I am familiar, and which have similar problems owing to the texts being preserved for centuries only in handwritten form by scribes whose understanding of the texts they were copying was imperfect at best, to be able to think that the commentary he offers is of a high quality. This probably surprises no one who knows what Tolkien did for a living, but I think it bears saying anyway. As I noted above, it is a great disappointment that the commentary ends well before the end of the poem, but I loved every syllable of what was there.

Another element in this book is Sellic Spell (meaning "strange tale"), which is a very interesting attempt to imagine both in Modern and Old English the story that lay behind Beowulf itself. It would be an intriguing exercise to set the two texts side by side and compare them in detail. Lastly there are two versions of a brief lay or song of Beowulf, one of which Christopher Tolkien remembers his father singing to him in the early 1930s.

On the whole this is a very good edition of Beowulf to have and use for study. The translation is, as I noted, a scholarly exercise, not as polished and finished as it would have been had Tolkien meant to publish it. I will say, however, that the more I read the translation, especially aloud, the more I like it. 


  1. Thanks for the very interesting review! But if I can quibble with one point (though a fairly significant one):

    'Now none of the material in this book, whether translation, commentary, Sellic Spell, or the two lays that come at the end were ever prepared or meant for publication.'

    This has been said a number of times, but doesn't seem to be entirely true. Tolkien talked with both Oxford University Press and Allen & Unwin about possibly publishing his Beowulf. Things don't ever have seemed to have progressed terribly far, but Tolkien's _intention_ to publish seems clear -- and he almost certainly meant his translation more or less as it was, perhaps revised in minor details, but not wholly rewritten. (The nature of later revisions carried out on the text suggests this, as does the mere fact that he was discussing publishing at all. It's also possible -- I think likely -- that 'On Translating Beowulf' was in fact composed to accompany his own translation originally.)

    I think this is important, since it colours a lot of aspects of how we read the work. Was it really 'a scholarly exercise', whose cumbersome syntax can be explained by Tolkien's disinterest in publication? Probably not. It's probably rather a very intentional move on his part, an exemplification of his idea that Beowulf was, already when it was first composed, archaic and 'poetic'. Tolkien emulates this in his choices of vocabulary and syntax. (It's worth noting that his syntax is often complex in ways that have nothing to do with the original, and so can't be explained just as sticking too close to the source.)

    Basically, the whole translation is a (quite probably fully intentional) challenge to the idea that 'changes must be made to transform the original into something intelligible for readers who are not experts in the original'.

  2. Nelson, thank you for the correction. I appreciate learning better. It's a rare case on the internet when someone can actually learn something from a comment. (That is not directed at anyone who has ever commented on this blog, all of whose comments I appreciate even when I disagree with them.)