Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

J R R Tolkien, Author, Christopher Tolkien, Editor
J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-0-544-44278-8
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More than a decade before writing The Hobbit, Tolkien completed his translation from the Old English of this epic poem, whose influence on his Lord of the Rings Trilogy is well known. Tolkien continued to refine the phrasing even after 1926, but this rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans. Tolkien conveys both the pageantry of the fifth-century Danish court and the physicality of the battle between Geat hero Beowulf and man-eating monster Grendel. His alliterative phrasing—"biting the bone-joints...great gobbets gorging down," "a dragon, even he who on the high heath watched his hoard"—finds some of the same poetry in the archaic prose as Seamus Heaney's celebrated 2000 translation. In Beowulf's fight to the death with a gold-hoarding dragon, readers familiar with Tolkien's fiction will see a precursor of his dragon nemesis Smaug. Editor Tolkien includes lengthy commentary extracted from his father's lectures at Oxford University, as well as "Sellic Spell," a previously unpublished fantasy that imagines Beowulf's biographical backstory, and "The Lay of Beowulf," two versions of a poem on the epic's theme. Scholars will no doubt continue to debate Tolkien's interpretation, but lovers of Tolkien's work will agree that this is a book long overdue. (May 22)
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