Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Geatish Death Cage Match: Tolkien Versus Heaney For The Beowulf Belt

Last week the latest posthumous tome from J.R.R. Tolkien — Beowulf, his translation of the renowned Anglo-Saxon epic, accompanied by various notes and some related tales he wrote — hit bookstore shelves. As a fan of both Tolkien and Beowulf, naturally I picked up a copy first thing. A friend recently asked me if I’d let her know what I thought of the book, and I figured, what the heck, I can turn that into a blog post! So here ya go.

Caveat: my observations are based on my having read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf in the book (which is just shy of 100 pages long). I only skimmed over the notes, commentaries, and the two Beowulf-related tales of Tolkien’s that fill the rest of the book. Nor do I intend to go into the circumstances in which he did the translation in any great detail. Those of you who are interested in such matters can find information in several of the reviews of the book posted on Amazon, and I’m sure by now elsewhere on Ye Olde Webbe as well.

So here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the review, for those of you who don’t want to read the whole darn thing: I don’t regret the money I spent on the book or the time I spent reading it, but overall I prefer the acclaimed Seamus Heaney translation from 2000. The decisions J.R.R. Tolkien made in translating the poem, and that his son Christopher made in publishing it, often don’t appeal to me.

Prose Versus Verse

On to a little more detail. Tolkien’s translation is rendered in prose, rather than in verse, which really surprised me. I’m not sure why he made that choice (if the notes explained it, I missed it), and it seems a curious one to me. Given that Beowulf is a poem, and usually rendered as such when translated into English, Tolkien must have had a reason for the choice he made.

When I saw that it was in prose, I hoped that the reason was, “He’s going to give me an entire epic poem filled with the stirring, majestic, wondrous language that you find in the best parts of LotR.” That would have been awesome, but sadly it wasn’t the case. I found the language in places somewhat plodding and dull, in others confusing, and in still others sort of “forced.” I never got swept up in reading it the way I did when I first read Heaney’s translation.

Now of course, I’m not being entirely fair here. Tolkien did this translation in 1926, long before he wrote The Hobbit, much less The Lord of the Rings, so holding him to the higher standard of his older, more experienced self is likely to lead to to something of a letdown. But this is the man who wrote what’s widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and the price you pay for that kind of success is that fever-brained critics like me will forever after compare anything you write to the high bar you just set for yourself. ;)

It’s possible Tolkien was trying to translate the words of the poem as literally as possible and then render them in prose form without worrying about euphony or similar matters; I don’t know. But it seems to me that if you take the trouble to convert Beowulf to prose instead of verse that you ought to rework it at least enough to increase its entertainment value and thus justify the unusual form you’ve chosen. Unfortunately I didn’t get that.

Here’s an example of what I mean.Tolkien’s translation includes the following passage:

Then went Grendel forth when night was come to spy on that lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes after the ale-drinking had ordered their abode in it; and he found therein a lordly company after their feasting sleeping, sorrow they knew not, the unhappy fate of men. That accurséd thing, ravenous and grim, swift was ready; thirty knights he seized upon their couch. Thence back he got him gloating over his prey, faring homeward with his glut of murder to seek his lairs.

Now, that’s not bad — it’s certainly not the least entertaining passage of myth or Fantasy I’ve ever read. But I think the prose could be much better and more evocative. I’m no Tolkien (alas!), but I’d prefer something like this:

When night was come Grendel fared forth, desiring to spy on Hrothgar’s lofty house to see how the Ring-Danes had ordered their abode when their ale-drinking was done. Unseen by guard or warden he entered the lofty hall and found a lordly company of men, asleep after their feasting; in their dreams they knew not sorrow nor the unhappy fate of men. Ravenous and grim, accurséd Grendel hesitated not, swiftly seizing thirty knights before they chanced to waken. Gloating over his prey he got himself homeward with his glut of murder to seek his lairs.

That’s not precisely the same, so it may overlook some of the words in the original — but for my money at least, it’s much more readable and evocative, thus justifying the choice of rendering the poem in prose.

Nor am I necessarily saying that Seamus Heaney’s translation is perfect in this regard either. Here’s another line from the poem:

Tolkien: Fate oft saveth a man not doomed to die, which his valour fails not.

Heaney: Often, for undaunted courage, fate spares the man it has not already marked.

I chose that particular line for my example because it also appears prominently in a movie derived from Beowulf The 13th Warrior, based on a novel Michael Crichton wrote on a bet to prove Beowulf was interesting. Here’s how the character Buliwyf says it in the movie:

The 13th Warrior: Luck often enough will save a man, if his courage hold.

Again, that’s not quite the same thing; it leaves out the bit about not already being “doomed to die” / “already marked.” But it expresses the basic sentiment so much better, at least to my ear. It gets the message and the philosophy across while still being poetic and easy to remember.

Ye Olde Anglo-Saxon

The other choice that really puzzled me was that, unlike the Heaney translation, the Tolkien translation doesn’t provide the Anglo-Saxon text accompanying or next to the translation. Ordinarily I wouldn’t care that much, but the notes and commentaries in the book focus almost entirely on issues pertaining to the translation of specific words and passages. To get the full value out of the Tolkien book, I’d have to sit there with a copy of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon next to me and look back and forth between the two. That’s just aggravating.

Anyhow, that’s my take on things. As with all matters of taste, your mileage may vary, and in any event I hope you find one or more translations of Beowulf that you enjoy. ;)

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