Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: Beowulf


Beowulf
Beowulf by Unknown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I was not one of those who "suffered" through Beowulf in high school. I enjoyed it, perhaps thanks to a modern translation by Burton Raffel that I found at the local library. And, if I hadn't gone for a different career, I could see myself having pursued an English major in college... for the fun of it. So take the following as you will. Also, if you're reading this, you're probably at least vaguely familiar with Beowulf's storyline, so I'll just skip that and get straight to what sets this volume apart.

The thickness of this volume's spine is deceiving: The Beowulf saga itself spans only pages 13 to 105 out of its 425 pages (not even counting the preface). But that's because there's a lot more gold for the willing book nerd to unearth. To wit:

J.R.R. Tolkien is most known for his trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," which I enjoyed as a teen, but in fact he was a dedicated scholar of English literature and well-versed (haha) in some of the languages from which modern English is derived, including Old English, the tongue in which the earliest manuscript of Beowulf was written. Christopher Tolkien, editor of this volume and son of J.R.R., takes some pains to demonstrate his father's expertise with the language - even including, as an appendix, about six and a half pages of original work J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in Old English before converting it back into modern English. Not being familiar with the language myself, I'm left to admire the pretty shapes the weird letters form, however out of reach their meaning is. Christopher also included a hefty commentary on the translation drawn from J.R.R.'s lectures to students studying the text for their Old English class sessions.

As for the translation itself: This one is officially my favorite rendering of the ancient European epic poem. For one thing, it's prose - and yet it maintains a lyric quality in the lilt, as I call it, of the phrasing. C. Tolkien writes, "it seems to me that he designedly wrote quite largely in rhythms founded on 'common and compact prose-patterns of ordinary language,' with no trace of alliteration, and without the prescription of specific patterns." Of course, J.R.R. fiddled with the usual word order sometimes to keep the lilt going, but on the whole this translation has none of the stilted feeling of translations that try to maintain the "regularities of the old poetry" that just sound really, really weird to the modern ear.

This is fun to try at home: Reading aloud several lengthy passages in a bad Scottish accent just to fully feel the lilt. Who cares that the legend is set in Denmark? Just pretend you're David Tennant and argue that he played Hamlet so it shouldn't matter.

For the really dedicated word nerds among us, the commentary on the text is pretty neat. I'm not quite that dedicated, so while I did read some of the notes (and learned a fair bit about random Old English words I still couldn't pronounce), I skimmed most of them, just stopping to read portions that dealt with the legend itself and its relation to "historial" (the Tolkiens' word, not mine) fragments as separated, as well as may be, from the fairytale elements.

The funnest parts of this volume are in the back, though: a short recreation of the legend, without the "historial" bits, that J.R.R. wrote in the style of one of our familiar children's fairy tales; and two versions of a ballad J.R.R. Tolkien sang to Christopher when the boy was probably 7 or 8 years old. The legend may have been an academic exercise in attempting to reconstruct the source legend that eventually gave rise to the Beowulf mix of legend and "historial" figures, but it's just good writing. Unfortunately, only the lyrics to the Tolkien ballad of Beowulf and the Monsters are here preserved, not the tune.

Oh, and one more fun fact: The illustrations, including the cover art, are all J.R.R.'s.

In all, this work is a must-read for Tolkien lovers or students of European ancient literature. Or people who like to practice their Scottish accents. Somebody, please get David Tennant to record the audiobook.



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