Kevin's Reviews > Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Beowulf by Unknown
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read September 3, 2016.

J.R.R. Tolkien loved language, languages, and old languages, in particular; this is known by anyone who read his fiction.

To read his Beowulf translation, and to read his commentary on it, along with excerpts from his Oxford lectures, his modern-English "Lay" of the tale (written in Old English first!), and his son's commentary on his father's commentary ... you get it. I think it's the highest achievement of any writer, especially in history or non-fiction, to Make You Get It, to bring you their love of something. Reading this, I got what was so fascinating to Tolkien about lost languages, nomadic warriors, impossibly confusing heritages and histories, and, of course, monsters and dragons and quests. And now I'm fascinated.

There's this one line in the poem, said by a third-tier character: "Fate goeth ever as it must" (or "fate goes ever as fate must," or "Fate will unwind as it must/does/always has," in other translations). This line could be, essentially, nothing: a placeholder for the rhyme scheme, a 1,000-year-old version of "It is what it is"; the shruggie (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) of ancient Saxons. Or it could be something big.

Since Beowulf is the major work of written Old English to survive the period, we turn to it for our understanding of many things about that time. It offers clues, though not answers, to the transition from pagan to Christian ideas, and the peoples' understanding of their place in the world and universe. "Fate," (wyrd), capital-F, could be a big concept, and this line could reveal a lot about the poem's tone and goals. Or, again, it could just be a dude sayin', "Hey, man, good luck, for what it's worth." Old English is a nightmare language created from too many traditions of people who moved around way too much and didn't keep records of anything. But Tolkien here has what seems to be the best grasp on their histories, the particulars of their languages, and what they wanted to say about themselves.

Tolkien's explication of this line, and his reasoning for how he arrived at his exacting wording of it, rolls out into his view of the authorship of the poem (two authors, one original scribe, and one Christian-minded corrector with a kind of ham-handed approach), his thoughts on how the closest related texts handle this kind of phrase (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canterbury Tales, etc.), and then, tucked into this lecture/comment on this one phrase, a "Okay, here's what this poem is really about" elevator pitch.

The poem itself—right, there is that. It's only my first run through (ha!), though I've effectively read Tolkien's version twice now. Like Tolkien's fiction, it favors bold pronouncements, honor ("valour" in this time), and sometimes men seemingly speaking over one another. From what I've read of Klaeber's translation, and the bit of Heaney I've gotten into, I think Tolkien serves as a neat middle point. It contains fewer archaic or provincial words to stop you in your tracks, and it has a mind for prose over poetry, which, given how far out Old English poetry is from our ability to read it, feels like service to the reader.

Reading, or watching, really, as Tolkien chews every single bite of his favorite meal, made me hungry for more. I am already reading Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation. I don't know what's wrong with me, but it feels great.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Hardcover Edition)
Started Reading
September 3, 2016 – Shelved
September 3, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 5, 2016 – Shelved (Hardcover Edition)

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