J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf reads like too much butter spread over toast. Soft, warm and like a quick start to the day. Tolkien’s prose removes rhyming couplets, many kennings, the rough warrior sounds and much more for a more novel approach to the text that reads more like the New King James translation of the Bible than the oldest English language text we know of.
This translation is, however, delightfully accessible for those who may have had an unpleasant previous experience with the story, or no previous experience. More like popular fiction than even Heaney’s translation, this translation of Beowulf is certainly no Chickering.
Included with the translation, are lecture notes curated by Christopher Tolkien – J.R.R.’s son who has managed the publication of many posthumous texts by the Lord of the Rings author and former professor. The lecture notes go into quite some depth, and explain very well many of the older Tolkien’s thoughts and logic in his translation. Arranged in order of relevance to the text, yet there are no marks or notes in the text referencing or indicating that the lines have notes.
Finally, this volume includes Sellic Spell, an original story by J.R.R. Tolkien – maybe one of the last we have not yet seen. Sellic Spell is a re-imagining of what a story that inspired the Beowulf poet could have been like. Tolkien breaks it down to a simple, sweet story that has perfectly even pacing and excellent vocabulary. Sellic Spell is the shining gem of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf.
All-together, this volume is decent. Having Tolkien’s notes is great fun, his translation of Beowulf is easily accessible for new readers and academics – as intended – and Sellic Spell is brilliant.
Beowulf, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien is out now, and can be found at your local bookseller or online. It is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and retails for $28.00.