Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary was released in 2014. It contains a translation of the poem Beowulf (dating back more than a 100 years) from Old English to Modern English together with an extensive commentary. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the translation in 1920-1926, but it was not published until the son Christopher edited this volume. It also contains Sellic Spell and two versions of The Lay of Beowulf.

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The doors to Heorot. Illustration by John Howe (2007).

Tolkien made his translation while being a Reader at Leeds University. The year before he completed the translation he returned to Oxford to be the Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Ten years after having completed the translation of Beowulf, he gave a well recieved lecture on the poem: “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” which was also published as an article.  He gave several popular lectures on Beowulf as a Professor in Anglo-Saxon.

Christopher Tolkien put together this publication and dealt with the translation based on the 1926 translation, and the later lectures which his father held about Beowulf during his time as a Professor in Anglo-Saxon. In some cases the translation was changed as a consequence of the lectures and Tolkien new opinions, and sometimes not.

Sellic spell is a shorter text written by Tolkien probably in the early 1940’s, in prose, quite similar to a folktale in its style. It focuses and integrates some narratives and themes into the Beowulf story, making some changes in order to create a more clarified version. It has a lot of focus on the character Beowulf and his background. Sellic Spell is not only published in Modern English but also in Old English. The phrace “sellic spell” is taken from the Beowulf poem and translates as “wondrous tale”.

The Lay of Beowulf is Tolkien’s rendition of the Beowulf story as a ballad, meant to be sung. Christopher Tolkien writes in the preface to The Lay of Beowulf that he has memories that his father sung a version of The Lay in the early 1930’s.

I will write about this book in three posts, based on the translation, Sellic Spell, and the Lay. I will not write about the commentary at all, it is a very interesting read, so I do recommend that you don’t skip it. It contains a lot of thought processes and arguments to different choices in translation. My posts will be numbered like this:

I:  Beowulf
II: Sellic Spell
III: The Lay of Beowulf

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