Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fortnightly Book, July 6

We know Beowulf from a manuscript written in the tenth or eleventh cenutry. It contains a poem that was first put together by an anonymous poet at some point between the early eighth century and the eleventh century; it in turn combines legends the roots of which go back at least to sixth-century Scandinavia. The manuscript, the Nowell Codex, is a very tenuous connection; it is the only manuscript to contain the poem and it narrowly missed burning in a fire in the eighteenth century. It is damaged and is in a state of deterioration. Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín, an early nineteenth-century Danish scholar, is the only reason the wider world knows of it; he was studying early English-Danish contacts, recognized the significance of the tale, and transcribed it in two transcriptions. He intended to publish it, and prepared the manuscript for publication, but his house burned down in the Battle of Copenhagen, and that manuscript was lost entirely. But he still had the transcriptions and he started over, and in 1815 presented the world with the first significant edition and translation (into Latin) of the text. Other translations began to be made, stirring up interest in the text. It's a good thing we have both transcriptions; with the original manuscript degenerating, we need the redundancy -- an illustration of the utter importance of transcription and translation to scholarly work, since without them great works cannot possibly be sustained as part of our heritage.

I'll be reading Beowulf in two translations, one primary and one merely as a comparison. The comparison-translation will be David Wright's translation for Penguin Classics. But the primary translation will be J. R. R. Tolkien's, which was recently put out under the editorship of Christopher Tolkien, with commentary drawn out of excerpts from his many lectures and notes on the epic. The basic translation itself was done early in his career, in the 1920s, although he did revise it later; one can consider it as an early offering of the research that would eventually lead Tolkien to the lecture that became perhaps the single best essay on the epic ever written (and often recognized as such by people who disagree with important elements of it) -- "The Monsters and the Critics" -- and which at least turned the field of Beowulf scholarship in new directions; Tolkien insisted that the poem be treated as a poem, not merely as a mine for evidence of antiquity.

The translation, along with Tolkien's comments, is also published with "Sellic Spell," which is Tolkien's attempt to distill the basic folkloric root of the story, and with two Beowulf poems by Tolkien.


  1. Itinérante1:53 AM

    I read Beowulf in old English (which was more like just reading words not context) and in David Wright's translation for Penguin Classics... I will be really interested in what you will write about it using the Tolkien translation!
    I read around Christmas "The Fall of Arthur" for J.R.R. Tolkien (he did not finish it but Christopher Tolkien published it with some comments)...Have you read it? If so, I would be interested to know what are your thought about it (if that is of no bother).

  2. MrsDarwin11:05 AM

    I own the Seamus Heaney translation and have successfully gotten through the first 1/4 of it several times. It has a facing Old English text, and I get bogged down in trying to read the OE and compare it to Heaney's English, and eventually I hit the wall of my limited OE comprehension and set the whole thing aside. I'd be curious to see how Tolkien's translation compares to Heaney's.

  3. branemrys11:11 AM

    They are very different; Heaney's is verse and Tolkien's is prose, and they emphasize very different aspects of the poetry of the original. Heaney's is a loose translation, almost a paraphrase at times, while Tolkien's can be guaranteed to be quite close and literal. I'll see if I can find a copy of Heaney's, since I don't have one myself, and make a few comments about the different approaches when I set it all out in two weeks.

  4. MrsDarwin10:05 AM

    What I can tell you is that it starts with "So.", Heaney's translation of "Hwaet", not in itself a complete sentence, but a declarative exclamation. Heaney drew this usage of "So" from his own family experience, in which storytellers and people telling stories (not the same thing, obviously) would signal they were starting tales with "So...". Kind of like "aw-rite!" in the context. :)


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