Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien

There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
  She twirled round and round
  Till she sank underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.
–Edmund Lear

This is a hybrid work that will be of interest to those who have come to love Tolkien’s own legendarium, indebted as it was to his study of the myths of northern Europe, as well as to those who have a scholarly interest in the Beowulf poem itself.

Tolkien wrote a prose translation of Beowulf for use in his Oxford lectures, but never cleaned it up enough for publication. Included along with the prose translation is a Commentary, also never readied for publication, which Tolkien’s son Christopher has edited for the present work.


The prose translation pales a bit compared to verse translations that are out there, notably the 2000 edition by Seamus Heaney. The Commentary is really the heart of this volume and makes it worthwhile. Tolkien spills a tremendous amount of ink, as only a dedicated scholar could, on the meaning of Old English words and the likely completions of certain gaps in the text. Unfortunately, Tolkien left off the Commentary about two-thirds of the way through the poem. Even with Christopher’s effort to fill up the Commentary with notes from elsewhere, there simply isn’t the kind of attention devoted to the last third of the poem as to the earlier portion. We’ll have to settle for what we have.

The book also contains the “Sellic Spell” (Old English for “wondrous tale”), Tolkien’s attempt to get at the core of the Beowulf story. This is written in prose in both modern English and Old English. Finally, there is a “Lay of Beowulf,” a modern verse telling of the story in a brief ten pages.

For the reader of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, reading Beowulf is a reminder of the source material for Smaug and the Golden Hall of Rohan. Last but not least are four drawings by Tolkien–including, on the cover, a whimsical dragon in a Celtic curl.


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