Tolkien dedicated his professional life to Old English scholarship, and better than anyone, and this meticulous translation with its thoughtful, conversational notes reveal something of Tolkien as a 34-year old translator, scholar, and Oxford professor.It is thoroughly Tolkien’s , and is brilliant in its insight. Tolkien was most dedicated to the Old English , and understood all the complexity and nuance of the Old English alliterative verse in which the poem is written.After all, it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an “abuse” and “hardly to my liking”. How does its unauthorised publication serve Tolkien’s reputation?
The lofty metre of Beowulf is lost even in admirable poetic versions like Seamus Heaney’s, which is recognised as a new poem, often called Heaneywulf.
Prose translations such as Tolkien’s claim to be more “faithful”, but this fidelity refers to the literal translation of poetry, which captures only the facts of the story in unavoidably stodgy prose, struggling to sort out the word order while losing the grandeur of verse.
Kevin Kiernan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Fans of J R R Tolkien must wonder why there is any controversy associated with the recent publication of his 1926 translation of Beowulf. But imagine if Tolkien’s son had found and published prose paraphrases of Shakespeare’s sonnets by his father.
The poem tells of the eponymous Beowulf, a man who comes across the sea to fight a monster, then fight the monster’s avenging mother, and finally, after returning to his home, a dragon.
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Tolkien championed the text as an Anglo-Saxon literary masterpiece, and his opinion is the accepted view today.
Tolkien enthusiasts have always provided a core of students eager to study Beowulf in the original Old English because of the high regard Tolkien held for it and the role he played in getting readers of his generation to see it as a work of poetic genius in his 1936 paper “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics”.
But now these fans will be reading his prose translation, which Tolkien himself belittled.
But no prose or poetic translation can put even these three lines into modern English word order.
Old English, like Latin, is an inflected language in which distinctive forms and endings, rather than natural word order, convey meaning.