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Round-up of Beowulf reviews

Here is a list of all known reviews of Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary released by HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Thursday 22nd May 2014. This article will be updated regularly and sorted by date (most recent at the bottom).

Last Updated: 10.20, Friday 30th May 2014.

Publishers Weekly (17 May 2014) kicked things off with a short overview:

this rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans. Tolkien conveys both the pageantry of the fifth-century Danish court and the physicality of the battle between Geat hero Beowulf and man-eating monster Grendel. […] Scholars will no doubt continue to debate Tolkien’s interpretation, but lovers of Tolkien’s work will agree that this is a book long overdue.

Ethan Gilsdorf at The New York Times (18 May 2014) argued that Tolkien would be against the publication:

But Tolkien was skeptical of converting this Old English poem into modern English. In a 1940 essay, “On Translating Beowulf,” he wrote that turning “Beowulf” into “plain prose” could be an “abuse.” But he did it anyway. Tolkien completed a prose translation in 1926, while declaring it was “hardly to my liking.” […] By publishing this “Beowulf,” his heirs and publisher may be seeking to further secure his literary and scholarly reputation. Or they may simply be accommodating what Ms. Flieger referred to as an audience “eager to read” any and all fragments from their beloved author.

Jeremy Noel-Tod at The Telegraph (20 May 2014) gave Beowulf three stars, comparing this translation unfavourably with others:

Christopher Tolkien has added as a commentary some lively lecture notes from the Thirties, which pedantically deprecate the standard translation of the Anglo-Saxon metaphorical “kenning” for the sea as “whale-road” […] This “memorial volume” is a touching tribute to that man. But the various available poetic translations that Tolkien’s advocacy enabled – famously by Seamus Heaney, also by Michael Alexander and Kevin Crossley-Holland – are unquestionably preferable as modes of modern whale-road transport.

Katy Waldmen at The Slate (20 May 2014) preferred the Heaney translation, but still felt this translation – and commentary – was of real merit:

So the new translation seems especially attuned to transience and loss, from Beowulf’s premonitions before he fights the dragon (“heavy was his mood, restless hastening toward death”) to a gorgeous passage about the last survivor of an ancient civilization burying his gold. […] Actually, the commentary may be the best part of this new Beowulf. Not only does it offer context and aid (teasing apart the webs of loyalty and conflict entwining Geats, Danes, and Swedes, for instance), but Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold.

Tish Wells at McClatchy DC (21 May 2014) focussed on the wider impact of Beowulf on Tolkien’s works:

The poem was a pivotal inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien, who was fascinated by the language and history. If you have read Tolkien’s fantasy, you can see the influence of “Beowulf” in “The Hobbit,” in which an enraged dragon whose golden hoard has been robbed comes out burning the countryside. […] What comes through clearly in Tolkien’s translation is a reflection of a time and a culture. Warriors sit at their kings’ tables, elegant “ring-laden” queens serve mead, the warriors go raiding and die.

Craig Williamson at The Wall Street Journal (23 May 2014) talks about Tolkien’s use of language, but is also one of the few reviewers to deal with ‘Sellic Spell’:

Tolkien’s translation is both spectacular and antiquated, a little like the poem itself. Sometimes the language is poetic and evocative, sometimes archaic and outmoded. […] “Sellic Spell” was Tolkien’s attempt in the early 1940s to write a hypothetical source tale for the fantastical elements of “Beowulf” as a way of showing us the importance of the distinctive interweaving of history and fairy tale in the poem. It represents the sort of folk tale from which the fantastical components of “Beowulf” might have been drawn.

Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (2 June 2014) wrote a lengthy review in which she praised Tolkien’s passion but preferred Heaney’s execution:

We don’t have to imagine, as we do in Tolkien’s translation, the monster crunching on the little bones and the cartilage—harder to swallow, no doubt, than the “great gobbets.” We’re forced to think about what it would be like to eat a man. The same problems arise from line to line. Heaney, to his credit, took responsibility for this poem, and turned it into something that regular people would want to read, and enjoy. […] In the words of Andrew Motion, in the Financial Times, Heaney “made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece.”

He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one. The sympathy may have gone even deeper. Like Beowulf, Tolkien was an orphan. (He was taken in by his grandparents.) He grew up in the West Midlands, and said that the “Beowulf” poet, too, was probably from there. He did not have difficulty living in a world of images and symbols. (He was a Catholic from childhood.) He liked golden treasure and coiled dragons. Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love.

Michael Drout (editor of Beowulf and the Critics) writing on his blog (26 May 2014) praises the translation and the scholarship:

The translation itself is not a great piece of art. It is not poetic (although in some places it is rhythmical), and the still-unpublished alliterative translation is much better, quite similar to the “Mounds of Mundburg” poem in The Return of the King. […] The Commentary materials are straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism. I can’t tell if they will shape the field, but they should. Tolkien had incredible insight into the poem because he could combine his philological acumen with his creative abilities.

Kevin Kiernan (Professor of English quoted in the New York Times review) writes at The Conversation (29 May 2014) under the heading “Publishing Tolkien’s Beowulf translation does him a disservice”:

But imagine if Tolkien’s son had found and published prose paraphrases of Shakespeare’s sonnets by his father. Even avid fans might have thought differently about that. A prose translation has the same devastating effect on the poetic majesty of Beowulf – and no one more than Tolkien recognised this in his day.

Tolkien’s own creative legacy is secure. It will be a travesty if his Beowulf legacy turns out to be a translation he was the first to disparage.

Michael Alexander in The Guardian (29 May 2014) makes it clear that he is judging Beowulf purely for its academic merit:

This “new” Tolkien translation, originally composed in 1926, is in a prose that sticks as closely as possible to the meaning and clause-order of the original. It has great accuracy and a sense of rhythm. Its style is, like that of the original, archaic, and often has striking inversions of word-order.

The felicities of Tolkien’s version will be evident only to readers familiar with the Anglo-Saxon original. This may also be true of the commentary on the text, the extracts from which in this book are more than twice as long as the 100-page translation. The commentary shows the depth of Tolkien’s knowledge of the languages and early literatures of north-west Europe. It is a privilege to observe such a deeply scholarly and imaginative mind at work on what it loved best.

I salute the editor’s pietas, but I am more interested in Beowulf than in Tolkien. This may put me in a minority among buyers of the book. For me, there is more interest in what the book says about Beowulf, and Tolkien’s bold recreations of earlier stages of the poem’s composition than what it tells us of Tolkien. This is surely what JRRT would have wished.

John Garth (author of Tolkien and the Great War) writing in the New Statesman (29 May 2014) gives a well-rounded review and makes specific connections to Tolkien as both an author and a scholar:

In Beowulf, we see the lordly custom of giving rings to retainers, which Tolkien subverts with Sauron, his own “lord of the rings”. We encounter Hrothgar’s golden hall, the model for Théoden’s. In the night-haunting, man-eating Grendel, we may recognise Gollum magnified; the dragon is a prototype for Smaug. For some, the world of Beowulf and Middle-earth were elided in Tolkien’s lectures: W H Auden once wrote to tell him “what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.”

Like “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s Middle-earth oeuvre began as an attempt to imagine the “lost tales” behind the scattered fragments of medieval literature. It was a hunger that scholarship alone could not fully satisfy. Tolkien’s view of Beowulf as a marriage of fairy story and history explains his rationale in constructing for his own grand fairy story a world so convincing in its “historical” detail that many feel they have been there.

About the Author: Shaun Gunner

Shaun is the current Chair of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2013, Shaun regularly speaks about adaptations of Tolkien’s works whilst passionately believing the Society needs to reach out to new audiences. In his spare time can be found in the cinema, playing video games and Lego, or on Twitter.


  • Zach Thundy

    Literary Source of the last two lines of “Beowulf”:

    I just thought I would post the following as my final contribution to “Beowulf” studies:

    Anglo-Saxonists may be thrilled to learn that the Old English author of “Beowulf” proclaims the last verse of Plato’s “Phaedo” as a tribute to Beowulf, the great deceased king of the legendary Geats: “Cædon ∂æt he wære wyruldcyninga/manna mildust; on mon(thwærust,/leodum li∂ost ond lofgeornost” (3181-2) (They said that of all the kings of earth,/ of men he was mildest and most beloved,/ to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise” ).

    Plato concludes his recollection of the final moments of Socrates’ life in “Phaedo” as follows: “Such was the end . . . of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”

    The “Beowulf” passage would, indeed, raise the issue that probably the Anglo-Saxon poet of “Beowulf” and his peers also knew enough Greek to be able to read Greek classics like Plato’s “Phaedo” either in the original or in excerpts found in rhetoric handbooks or anthologies commonly used in the monastic seminaries and that at least a few Anglo-Saxons knew enough Greek like the brilliant Neo-Platonist poet and philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the ninth-century, “John, the Irish-born Scot,” who translated Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and succeeded
    Alcuin as education minister in Charlemagne’s kingdom, later probably as a master at Oxford at the invitation of King Alfred and finally as monk at Malmesbury Abbey. It is important to note that Greek was used in the learning tradition of Early and Medieval
    Ireland, as evidenced by the use of Greek script in medieval Irish manuscripts
    (See Freemantle, Anne, ed. (1954/5), “John Scotus Erigena”, The Age of
    Belief,” pp. 72–87.

    Eriugena’s “The Division of Nature” ((Περί φύσεων) has been called the final achievement of
    ancient philosophy, a work which “synthesizes the philosophical accomplishments of fifteen centuries.” It is presented, like Alcuin’s book, as a dialogue between Master and Pupil [Aelfric would use the same model in his colloquy].

    I have nothing more to add to “Beowulf” criticism. Vale,

    Posted by Zacharias Thundy, olim professor literaturae mediaevalis apud Universitatem Northern Michigan, Marquette, Michigan.