Beowulf: a translation and commentary together with Sellic Spell by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (book review).

Words he spake, ‘his mail gleamed upon him, woven like stuff in crafty web by the cunning of smiths: Hail to thee, Hrothgar! I am Hygelac’s kinsman and vassal; on many a renowned deed I ventured in my youth. To me on my native soil the matter of Grendel has become known…’’


So JRR Tolkien gives voice to the eponymous hero in his translation of ‘Beowulf’. Unpublished until now and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, Tolkien’s translation of the Old English text is a fascinating exploration of one of Britain’s best-known folk tales. The story beguiles us with its rendering of monsters and dragons but actually reveals a puzzle of myth, history, political posturing and religious confusion.

As with ‘The Legend Of Sigurd and Gudrun’ ( and ‘The Fall Of Arthur’, Christopher Tolkien has provided detailed notes on the text of the translation as well as presenting for us Tolkien’s own insights of the poem’s first half. Here the reader gets to experience Tolkien as both interpreter and lecturer. The text was set on the Anglo-Saxon Reading part of the English Literature curriculum at Oxford that Tolkien taught. Once again, Christopher should be applauded for the insights that he gives to his father’s notes. A particular favourite is the memory that JRR would sing his own ‘Lay Of Beowulf’ to the young Christopher. It’s also particularly heart-warming and interesting to read that Tolkien’s translation had notes made on it by none other than CS Lewis. One might imagine listening to the two debate the finer points of translation over a pint in The Eagle And Child pub in Oxford.

I found Tolkien’s translation of ‘Beowulf’ to be quite hard work to read. There are many reasons for this, the key one being the original text that Tolkien had to work from. There are four key Anglo Saxon Codices that provide us with our evidence about writing then. ‘Beowulf’ resides in the Nowell Codex. Its name is taken from Robert Nowell, who owned the text in the 16th Century. It then passed into the hands of the Cotton Estate, where the book suffered damage in a library fire in 1731. The pages we have of ‘Beowulf’ have singed edges and some lines are incomplete. The poem is composed of 3,182 lines. It is likely to also have had two authors ‘Scribes A and B’, certainly the text appears to be in two different handwriting styles. Origination of the poem has also been difficult to prove. Given the numerous references to the Danish Royal Family, it had been thought that the poem was an 11th century transcription when the English throne was held by a Danish House. In his commentary, though, Tolkien contends that there is much evidence of Anglo Saxon pagan worship, perhaps fresher in the minds of the poem’s original writers. He also points out the inconsistencies in the supposedly Christian view of the world that the characters refer to. His view was that the poem may have originated in the 8th century.

Given these inconsistencies, the text tends to jump around a lot and the reader has to navigate the legend and the history. At a higher level, though, the plot is simple and, pleasingly for Hollywood, follows a three act structure: Beowulf arrives and confronts Grendel, ripping off his arm. Beowulf then raids Grendel’s lair, defeat’s the ogre’s mother (if you’ve seen the Robert Zemeckis adaptation, then you may have the image of Angelina Jolie burned into your brain like me) and outright kills Grendel. He then returns to his land a hero, becomes king only to have to take on a dragon and die defending himself against it. Despite the simplicity of the plot, Tolkien’s translation works well enough to define the characters of both Beowulf and Grendel, the elderly king Hrothgar and his knight, the doubting Unferth.

The book also contains the much easier to read ‘Sellic Spell’, in which Tolkien takes ‘Beowulf’ back to his interpretation of the original folk poem and strips out all of the religious and historical references. Here Beowolf confronts the ogre Grinder, the names simplified to show the derivation of the originals. There is no third act. Though Tolkien doubted that the showdown with the dragon was originally part of the tale and hence why it does not form part of ‘Sellic Spell’, his translation in the main text of Beowulf’s final acts is both heroic and poignant. The mourning of Beowulf forms a key part of our understanding about both the character and the importance of death in Anglo Saxon society (see also the Germanic and Nordic death cults of Kings that form the basis for stories like Sigfried’s in Norse mythology).

As most of us know the dragon, alongside the likes of Fafnir, clearly had an effect on Tolkien. Dragons threaten communities and horde huge piles of gold. Consider this when you watch Peter Jackson’s final instalment of ‘The Hobbit’ this Christmas. It isn’t just a special effect with Benerdict Cumberbatch’s voice, it’s the retelling of a folk tale that’s maybe more than a thousand years old. Like Jackson, Tolkien brings that myth vividly and terrifyingly to life. Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf’ is sometimes tough-going, often academic, but ultimately rewarding. The credit must also go to his son, Christopher, for another fascinating look into his father’s work and the interpretation of his many notes, criticisms and theories.

John Rivers

June 2014

(pub: Harper Collins. 425 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-00-759006-3)

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