Beowulf translated by J. R. R. Tolkien
Most people are probably aware of the Beowulf story from the various film adaptations, but this translation by Tolkien shows the poem itself to be a surprisingly enjoyable read, too. Once the reader gets used to the Old English rhythm of the piece, it becomes an easy to read page-turner, even if you are aware of what’s coming next.
For anyone not familiar with the story, a quick synopsis would be: ‘Mighty Man defeats monster Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, and is later heroically killed whilst slaying a treasure-hoarding dragon’.
The poem itself takes up less than a quarter of the book. The majority of the volume is a dry, academic commentary on the poem based on Tolkien’s Oxford University lecture notes. Unless you are really interested in an almost line for line discussion of the meaning of Old English words and phrases, this commentary can be skipped (although I did find some parts of it Quite Interesting, as Stephenen Fry might say.)
The book also contains ‘Sellic Spell’, a reworking of Beowulf by Tolkien, written in modern English, but omitting the historical aspects of the original and instead concentrating on the fairy-tale part of the poem. In this re-telling, the hero Bee-Wolf fights the monster, Grinder.
The volume rounds off with two versions of ‘The Lay of Beowulf’, a poem written by Tolkien (which was apparently meant to be sung) which re-tells the Beowulf story in verse. ‘Don’t give up the day job’ just about sums up Tolkien’s attempt at poetry here.
All in all, a gripping story, let down by the less than readable commentary.
Just to be clear, the four star score is awarded for the Beowulf story itself - the rest of the volume, probably around two stars.