Tolkien translation of Beowulf adds little - beyond cash

By Adela Talbot
March 27, 2014

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BeowulfIllustration by Frank Neufeld

It will add little, if anything, in terms of new Beowulf scholarship. It will, without a doubt, contribute considerably to the Tolkien estate.

And at the end of the day, that’s really the point of it all.

Nearly a century ago, J.R.R. Tolkien, Anglo-Saxon scholar and author of the famed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, translated Beowulf, the oldest surviving Old English epic poem. His translation is set to come out in May, thanks to his son, Christopher Tolkien. 

But the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf is problematic on a number of levels, said Jane Toswell, who teaches Old English language and literature at Western.

“He’s clearly starting to dig the last bits out of it,” Toswell said of Christopher Tolkien’s push to publish all of his late father’s works, including those never meant for publication.

“Some things came out in the 1990s that were actually quite useful for scholars – Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – which is a piece on two sections of Beowulf,” she continued.

But more recently, Toswell added, a scholar named Michael Drout has done extensive research and writing on some of Tolkien’s early works, notably a 1936 essay called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. The essay argued for a whole new way of thinking about the poem. For his thesis, Drout went into the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and dug up much of Tolkien’s work. He then published a longer, footnoted version of the 1936 essay.

He also found Tolkien’s working translation of Beowulf and started working toward an edition of the translation. Christopher Tolkien stopped him.

“In a way, Christopher Tolkien bringing out the translation now is kind of unfair because he wouldn’t even know about it if Mike Drout hadn’t found it,” Toswell noted.

“However, it’s the way Christopher Tolkien has been behaving with the Tolkien estate, making every penny that he can, insisting on a certain amount of authorial rights, over even the movies,” she continued.

“There have been other estates that have been fierce about republication, but the Tolkien estate is actually achieving new heights of authority. They’re even trying, and I think they’re succeeding, in extending the copyright – not that it should be relevant, because Tolkien only died in the 1980s and you’re supposed to have 75 years in Britain after the author’s death. But they’re already trying to figure out how to extend the copyright so the family can continue to make money.”

But it’s not just the obvious push for financial gain that makes Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf awkward for scholars.

“For Anglo-Saxonists, those of us on the inside, there’s even more of a problem with the Beowulf translation because it’s a bit cheesy, frankly, chintzy, of Christopher Tolkien to be doing this,” Toswell said.

“We all have a working translation of Beowulf. Anybody who’s an Anglo-Saxonist can show you their working translation – I have two or three. Every ten years, I sit down and I translate Beowulf because you need to get your head back into it. This is what we do. This would have been (Tolkien’s) working translation for lecturing, teaching, talking it over and thinking about it.”

Most of Tolkien’s new insights on the poem have already been published in previous works, she added, so publishing his translation is adding little to scholarship. 

“I think it will make some money because there are people who have complete collections of Tolkien. But will scholars of Anglo-Saxon buy it? Probably some of us will, but we will buy it as a curiosity, not as a piece of scholarship,” Toswell explained.

“We’re talking about Beowulf scholarship from almost 100 years ago. Will Tolkien’s translation be the one people adopt for classroom use? No, for two reasons. One, I’m sure it was his rough translation and two, he’s going to be using language from the 30s and 40s.”

For one thing, the word “ghastly” would have been translated as “awesome” back then, she noted, whereas today, it equates to “horrendous” or “terrible.”

The Tolkien estate has a deal with HarperCollins to publish Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary on May 22.























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