Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review of JRR Tolkien - Beowulf: a translation and commentary

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Beowulf: a translation and commentary; together with Sellic Spell. By JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers: London, 2014. pp xiv, 425

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For reasons which others may be unlikely to share, for me for this was the most enjoyable posthumously published work of JRR Tolkien for the past decade.

This is because I was reading the book from my love of Tolkien and my fascination with his mind - and from this perspective it was a revelation.

I should be quite candid and admit that the poem Beowulf does nothing-much for me - I find it pretty uninteresting and difficult to plough-through. I dutifully ploughed-through Tolkien's translation of the poem, except for the bits when my concentration wandered and I was taking nothing in; and it seems much better than the other translations of Beowulf I have tried to read - but still, I didn't really enjoy it. Nor did I really understand what was going on - I could not really follow the poem.

There is also a Tolkien composed fairy tale called Sellic Spell (tale of wonder), which is an idea of one of the 'sources' for Beowulf - and a rhyming poem. These were fine, and I am glad to have read them; but did not make much of an impact on me. 

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However - it was when I broke off reading the translation and turned to Tolkien's commentary that my enjoyment became spontaneous, and dutifulness turned to sheer fascination.

These notes to Beowulf show, in detail, by multiple worked examples, and as if 'live' and in-action, Tolkien actually at work as a philologist; without compromise and on his subject of subjects - operating from his deepest and most spontaneous motivations. This was what he did, this was his meat and drink.

I knew about Tolkien as a philologist, from reading the superb work of Tom Shippey - but this was the first time when I had a sufficiently large and concentrated dose of Tolkien on the job to perceive for myself, at first hand, what Tolkien was up-to - and how his style of philology (now extinct) operated.

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Tolkien's style of philology combined several activities now separated into specialisms. Some of it was editorial and paleographic - a matter of trying to read a damaged and corrupted manuscript when some words were were lost, others wholly or partially illegible; and where the whole was distorted by later copyists errors (and where the copyist only partially understood what he was copying).

On top of all this, the sheer paucity of Anglo Saxon writing which existed and survived, means that pretty much every word of every manuscript, plus those from related manuscripts and cultures (eg Icelandic) must be brought to bear. So, in one very obvious sense, Tolkien's style of philology is extremely detailed and an extremely close reading.

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But in another sense, this activity is extraordinarily wide-ranging, inclusive and creative. These old style philologists worked like artists - no, they worked as artists because they knew that they could only do their job via a profound understanding of, sympathy with, the language and culture of those societies from whom the manuscripts originated.

Tolkien's philology was therefore rooted in his deep and spontaneous love of these 'Dark Age' cultures - Anglo Saxon England and the 'Germanic' - Gothic and Scandinavian - roots and branches leading to it, from it, and sideways in cousinly relation. Tolkien himself could only explain this love in terms of heredity from his mother's side of the family, in the West Midlands of England.

So, the whole scholarship as depicted in the Beowulf commentary is driven by an intense and personal concern with Anglo Saxon society - Tolkien finds himself with only fragments to work with, but relies upon this extraordinarily detailed and empathic scholarship to fill the gaps and draw-out the meanings.

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This explains why I cannot really respond to Beowulf itself, but respond so strongly to Tolkien's commentary - because the commentary reveals that the poem is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind; and incomprehensible in multiple ways, from my ineradicable confusion over all the people whose names begin with H, the detailed genealogy, and feuding based on transgressions which seem trivial; and indeed the actual nature of Anglo Saxon and related societies - their concerns and interests, their morality, their motivations... all are alien in the extreme. The rhetorical conventions (such as kennings, and extreme understatement) are also traps for the inexpert.

Also, much of the poem (and much that is important to its effect) is in the form of references to other works well known at the time but now either the province of experts, informed guesswork - or just lost and utterly obscure.

The modern reader can only really misunderstand and mis-appreciate Beowulf. Even the idiosyncratic charms of stressed alliterative verse would not have been apparent to its audience, because for them that was the only kind of English verse that had existed for many centuries (the traditional of alliterative verse existed in England for much longer than has, yet, the current tradition of rhymed and/or iambic (blank) verse.

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So for those fascinated by Tolkien the artist, the commentary is sheer delight. It also (and perhaps most importantly) contains some passages of writing in Tolkien's best and most profound style - where his deepest personal concerns come very close to the surface (from pp 349-50):

But the special situation of the English - a people amid the ruins, cut off from their old lands, the lands of the heroes of their ancient songs, and gradually as their knowledge grew feeling themselves to be in the Dark Ages after the departure of the glory of Rome - gave special poignancy to this feeling, and special pictorial vividness to it. 

Both of the passages from Beowulf... are filled with the vision of deserted and ruined halls... "he sees... the hall of feasting, the resting places swept by the wind robbed of laughter - the riders sleep, mighty men gone down into the dark..."

Nobody would have better understood or been better able to play Hrothgar's part than [King] Alfred - who won his mother's praise for... the lays of his northern heroic fathers - and yet felt himself almost alone in the Dark Age, attempting to save from the wreck of time some sparks surviving from the Golden Age, from Rome and the mighty Caseras and builders of that fallen world.

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Finally, I must express gratitude (the word seems too feeble), yet again, to Christopher Tolkien for his indefatigable work on the books by his father which continue to emerge despite that CRT is now 89. Christopher is the perfect companion and guide to the works of JRRT; and I get great pleasure from reading his words and comments and interpretations; and from the shape he has given the many,  many posthumous volumes he has by now brought to our eager attention.

Furthermore, the love of his father which is expressed by Christopher's editorial activity and by his profound sympathy with his father's world, is a beautiful and inspiring thing.

May God bless him.

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Note added to explain my non-responsiveness to Beowulf qua poetry:
 http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/poetry-in-translation-why-it-is-bad-and.html

2 comments:

deconstructingleftism said...

I pity you- Beowulf is the real thing, about as real as it gets. Not as sophisticated as the Iliad, but about people and a spirit closer to us, and fully embracing of the heroic. Try the Donaldson prose translation- it reads more poetically than the poetic translations.

Beowulf is possibly unique in that it is not explicitly Christian, but contains important Christian themes, reconciling the Christian and the heroic. Beowulf is the prototype of the Christian knight.

The sense of loss and devastation you find in Beowulf and the short poems the Seafarer and the Wanderer could be simply pagan- in an environment of constant warfare ruined forts and halls would not be unusual- but the idea it comes from the departure of the Romans is interesting. I know the English think of themselves as Romans, or heirs of the Romans, to some extent but how much?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - Maybe - but I have never yet responded deeply to poetry in translation - and I have failed to learn Old English (I did try, for a few weeks).

I shall have to stick with Middle English which I studied age 14-16, hence can read and pronounce reasonably well.