Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf: The Platypus Reads Part CCLX

This August marks the 100 year anniversary of the Great War.  Soon, there will be none left who remember the world as it was before that cataclysm.  It is passing out of living memory.  In a smaller way, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is passing.  His son and collaborator is in his eighties and when Christopher dies, we will lose our direct connection with the world of Middle Earth.  Christopher Tolkien seems to sense this and so the pace of publishing his father's unpublished works has increased over the past decade.  This can feel like a mixed blessing: even Tolkien's junvenalia is better than many scholars and fatansists best work, but do we need another fragment or pile of lecture notes?

Answers to that question will differ, but I think each posthumous publication should speak for itself.  In this case, Tolkien's translation of Beowulf and the attending commentary is a treasure in and of itself.  That is to say, one needn't be a Tolkien enthusiast to appreciate its merits.  The translation itself seeks to hold as faithfully to the wording of the original as possible while forgoing the poem's meter.  This makes it a companion, not a competitor, with the magnificent poetic translation by Seamus Heaney.  While Tolkien's choice to sacrifice meter to literalism makes for more intricate sentence structures, the translation still thrills with all the power and immediacy of Heany's verse.  That's quite a feat when we remember that Tolkien composed this translation when he was 34 and never completed the revision process.  The commentary that accompanies the poem is arranged by Christopher Tolkien and meant to paint a portrait of Tolkien's overall thought on the poem.  I teach Beowulf at the High School level and spent just a little time studying the poem at Oxford, and I found the commentary immensely helpful as did my wife who reads Old English.  So our answer to the question "do we really need another pile of lecture notes" in the case of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary would be a resounding "yes."


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