Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien (review)
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Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. xiv, 425 pp. $28.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-544-44278-8.

Scholars have long known that J.R.R. Tolkien translated Beowulf into Modern English. Various individuals had, over the years, examined the manuscripts of the translation in the Bodleian Library, a few small excerpts of the text were published in other contexts, and in late 2002 it was reported in the mass media that the present reviewer was editing the text for publication.1 But for a variety of reasons it was not until 2014 that Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s prose Beowulf translation supplemented with commentary, the story Sellic Spell, and a short poem entitled “The Lay of Beowulf” appeared in print. This volume not only gives us important insights into Tolkien’s thought but also is a rather significant contribution to Beowulf studies despite being published nearly three-quarters of a century after it was written. In what follows, I endeavor to set the published volume in its several contexts, including Tolkien’s substantial writings on Beowulf (published and unpublished), the tradition of scholarly interpretation of Beowulf, and Tolkien’s intellectual and creative oeuvre. To this end, I have divided my review into six parts:

  1. 1. A survey of Tolkien’s translations of and commentaries on Beowulf

  2. 2. The history and purpose of the prose translation

  3. 3. The prose translation itself

  4. 4. The commentary

  5. 5. Sellic Spell and “The Lay of Beowulf”

  6. 6. Conclusions

1. Survey of Tolkien’s Translations of and Commentaries on Beowulf

Manuscripts

The manuscripts of Tolkien’s Beowulf translations and commentaries (see Table 1 for a summary) are held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford in the Modern Papers collection, to which they were donated by Christopher Tolkien. The major manuscripts are as follows:2 [End Page 149]

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tolkien A 28 A. This manuscript, dating from the time he was at Leeds (1920–25) or earlier, contains Tolkien’s earliest Beowulf commentary, which runs approximately 146 folios. The first 15 folios are almost impossible to read in microfilm. Folio 15 contains a mostly legible translation of lines 3058–75. On folio 18 a commentary on the poem begins. The commentary includes general remarks on editions, translations, background, and scholarship but quickly becomes very technical, focusing on historic and legendary materials. There is much discussion of the identity of the Geatas, the Völsung digression and saga, and the Finn episodes. The text is exceptionally difficult to read (due to faded ink). While it includes much material that is of great interest, the commentary is not complete in itself, although it appears to have served as the foundation for much of the other material.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tolkien A 28 B. This is a later commentary, dated by Christopher Tolkien to both pre–and post–World War II. It begins with a few general comments and then begins to work through the poem line by line, explicating cruces but also discussing regular and important features of the poem. The manuscript becomes progressively difficult to read and stops approximately halfway through the poem. There is also a typescript fragment of another lecture that provides introductory notes on Beowulf, but then focuses almost solely on a comparison of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This lecture is not complete. There is also a prose translation of Grendel’s attack on Heorot (ll. 702–49).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tolkien A 28 C and D. These discussions of the cruces in Beowulf, which Christopher Tolkien dates to the 1930s, cover almost the entire poem and are mostly readable. There is a long discussion of lines 168–69, in which Tolkien weaves together the evidence in such a way as to strongly support his view of the “re-handling” of the text by a later author who was not the primary poet (some of this material is hinted at in the appendices of “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”). Folios 100–03 are direct antecedents...