JRR Tolkien. The Battle of Maldon, together with The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's son, and The Tradition of Versification in Old English. Edited by Peter Grybauskas. HarperCollins: London, 2023, pp xx, 188.
This book constitutes mostly unpublished and new material, but is centred on The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son ("HBBS") a poem-play for voices/ radio-play by JRR Tolkien. This has been generally available since c.1965; when it was it was included in a version of Tree and Leaf. That is where I first read it nearly fifty years ago; and I've re-read several times since.
However, I found that this new edition - with its better layout, and ancillary material - made a much greater impact on me; and the play itself was therefore experienced as far more enjoyable. This alone would have made the new collection worthwhile.
The poetic play (which has been broadcast on BBC radio) has a strange origin; since it was first published in the prestigious professional academic journal Essays and Studies - where it was bracketed by a scholarly, and somewhat more conventional, introduction and epilogue from Tolkien that discussed the Old English poetry-fragment called The Battle of Maldon.
Yet despite the very peculiar nature of the original academic publication (which runs to 35 pages in this edition, with a further 15 pages of scholarly notes by Grybauskas); Professor Tom Shippey (in Roots and Branches, 2007) rates HBBS as among the top-three philological publications of JRRT's career. This; in terms of its professional influence and citations (although Shippey personally regards some of Tolkien's main points as mistaken).
Grybauskas, in the present volume, also suggests that HBBS should be regarded as a third major essay to make-up a trio with the much-more-often-discussed essays On Fairy Stories and Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Taken together; these three provide a special and deep insight into Tolkien's creative processes, relevant to The Lord of the Rings in particular. And Grybauskas cites some comments by Tolkien himself to support this claim of a trio of JRRT's most important Middle Earth-relevant pieces.
This large claim for HBBS is vindicated by The Battle of Maldon (2023) - especially as it is now supported by the first-time publication of some hundred pages of lecture-preparations (or projected essays), probably from the 1930s, by Tolkien; in the section of this book entitled The Tradition of Versification in Old English.
Despite some parts of highly technical philology, which I could not understand; this series of Tolkien's notes contains much really fascinating discussion that has autobiographical relevance to several of Tolkien's core, long-term concerns and fascinations.
These special interests of Tolkien include the nature of poetry and its different functions; the working-out of language changes on poetry - both in oral transmission and scribal transmission - and how these two aspects interact in terms of the various aspects of poetry such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and metre.
All this is, in turn, directly relevant to JRRT's almost obsessive concern with the fictional provenance of his Legendarium: i.e. the question of how texts, of various sources, were preserved and transmitted down to the present day and the editorial hand of Tolkien himself.
This concern with (imaginary) provenance derives from his professional studies in philology; but is what lies behind the supposed origins of The Lord of the Rings mentioned in the Prologue and Appendices... The fiction's feigned historical nature; and the basis of the Romance in (for example) Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish, The Red Book of Westmarch (from Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, mostly), and other texts by Merrie Brandybuck.
There are further references to provenance in the 'editorial' introduction to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and - even more so - the unpublished Notion Club Papers.
The other main section of the book is relatively short, but clearly of importance: this is Tolkien's (previously unpublished) 12 page prose translation of The Battle of Maldon fragment - with a further 14 pages of scholarly notes from Grybauskas. The Battle of Maldon serves both as a new publication from Tolkien, and also - in context of this volume, as an essential reference from-which to understand HBBS and the Tradition of Versification lecture notes.
In conclusion: Congratulations are due to Peter Grybauskas, and to the Tolkien Estate. This is a very worthwhile and interesting book, continuing the excellent start made to HarperCollins recent "post-Christopher Tolkien era" series; continuing CRT's epic work in producing scholarly and enjoyably-readable editions of Tolkien's unpublished or relatively "minor", hence neglected, works.