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Bring On the Monsters: Tolkien's Translation of Beowulf To Be Published 94

Posted by samzenpus
from the when-grendel-met-sauron dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Tolkien was often criticized by his academic colleagues for wasting time on fiction, even though that fiction has probably done more to popularize medieval literature than the work of 100 scholars. Now John Garth reports that HarperCollins plans to publish Tolkien's long-awaited 1926 translation of the oldest surviving Old English epic poem about Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, who kills the monster Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a sword of a giant that he found in her lair. Verlyn Flieger, identifies Beowulf as representing one of the two poles of Tolkien's imagination: the darker half, in which we all face eventual defeat – a complete contrast to the sudden joyous upturn of hope that he also expresses so superbly. 'In truth,' writes Garth, 'it is his ability to move between the two attitudes that really lends him emotional power as a writer.' Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront arguing that they 'represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight.' Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. 'It will be fascinating to see how [Tolkien] exercised his literary, historical and linguistic expertise on the poem,' concludes Garth adding that Tolkien was the arch-revivalist of literary medievalism, who made it seem so relevant to the modern world. 'I can't wait to see his version of the first English epic.'"
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Bring On the Monsters: Tolkien's Translation of Beowulf To Be Published

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    The man's peculiar obsession with Old Norse mythology rivaled anything you would have found in Renaissance-era studies of classical Greek and Roman thought.

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:52PM (#46568597) Journal

      Part of it was his love of Germanic languages. Part of it was that the Germanic pagan folk and religious traditions were best preserved into Christian times by Norse chroniclers, whereas the West and East Germanic traditions were largely lost. To get at the English mythology he so wanted to see, the only real route was through the Scandinavians.

      That being said, Beowulf is an Old English poem, even though it describes events in Denmark. I don't anyone knows if Beowulf has a history before the 7th century, so whether it was someone writing down an old tale known from the time before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England, or a unique work all its own is unknown.

      The Germanic peoples lived in an interesting complex of related cultures and languages in the early centuries AD, and while Germanic had already split into its major divisions; West Germanic (ancestor of English, Dutch and German), East German (Gothic, long extinct) and Northern (the Scandinavian languages), there was a considerable amount of commonality between these groups. Particularly in and around modern Denmark, the West and Northern Germanic peoples lived in close quarters, so it wouldn't be surprising if North Germanic tales made it into the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

      • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Monday March 24, 2014 @07:16PM (#46569447) Homepage Journal

        One needn't stretch too far, to view Beowulf as the literary manifestation of an older, orally transmitted tradition. The "Geats" are derived etymologically from the "Goths", the famous early Germanic people known to the latest classical antiquarians:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geats [wikipedia.org]
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goths [wikipedia.org]

        Funny, to classify this as "Northern". The eventual disposition of the Germanic people were in Europe's outer northwest regions, but the culturally defining aspect of the people were present, even as they were occupants of the Balkan peninsula, and swathes of steppe, far to the east.

        The Indo-Iranic hero tradition is similar in ethos and story development to the Teutonic myths. Small reason for surprise, really - when one considers the near common origin of Caucasus and steppe tribes, some which eventually invaded as Aryans in Asia, others who pushed westward as proto-Germanic migration and invasion.

      • by bfandreas (603438)
        And let's not forget that he also translated "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and also "Pearl".
        The mother of one of my friends back at school studied under him.
  • I have read another translation of Beowulf (not sure which one - it has been over a decade now) and I saw the last CGI film adaptation. It is an interesting story, and with how much I love Tolkien's own fiction I greatly look forward to reading his translation / adaptation. Crossing my fingers for a nice hardbound version, to sit next to my leather bound LotR and Hobbit books :)

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:53PM (#46568627) Journal

      You haven't heard Beowulf until you've heard it in the original Klingon!

      • Well played, sir! If only I could mod things on a thread I'm already participating in...

      • by bfandreas (603438)
        I remember watching an odd movie and I thought: Hang on! this sounds vaguely familiar. The movie was "The 13th Warrior" and Antonio Banderas' character learned what I have to assume was Norwegian in one evening. He must have written the original Klingon(which he picked up during the intro sequence of TOS while juggling four marmots) to every language ever. Some of which were never spoken or heard in this neck of our galaxy.

        There is no better language for glorious battle than Klingon. They still sing about
        • by hink (89192)
          The movie "The 13th Warrior" was the movie adaptation of Michael Crichton"s 1976 book "The Eaters of the Dead". When the Banderas movie came out, the book publisher started putting "The 13th Warrior" on the cover in big print. I guess the movie studio decided people would expect to see zombies or something, and picked the simpler, more straightforward title. Personally, "Eaters of the Dead" (and a momentary binge in Crichton books) is what got me to read it.
      • by Sir Foxx (755504)
        I prefer to hear it in Breen myself.
    • The Grinnell Beowulf [grinnell.edu] A group of students at Grinnell College recently did a translation of Beowulf as a project. It's online, and worth reading, and has good notes along with their translation.

  • early 20th century. If Tolkien hadn't written Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion less than a hundred people currently alive would know who he was. Tolkien is remembered for Middle-earth, not for his scholarship. This is a work of scholarship, not Middle-earth, so the fact that it is something Tolkien produced is completely irrelevant.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:50PM (#46568567)

      early 20th century. If Tolkien hadn't written Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion less than a hundred people currently alive would know who he was. Tolkien is remembered for Middle-earth, not for his scholarship. This is a work of scholarship, not Middle-earth, so the fact that it is something Tolkien produced is completely irrelevant.

      Had Tolkien not been a scholar, I seriously doubt his tales of Middle-Earth would have the depth, resonance, and staying power that they do have.

      So Tolkien's academic work is extremely relevant to his works of fiction.

      • Beowulf and other anglo-saxon poetry (the Eddas) inspired Middle-earth, and in that sense Tolkien's academic work is relevant to his fiction. However, his fiction is not relevant to his academic work in the areas where his academic work does not pertain to his fiction (I don't know if Tolkien himself ever contributed to the field of "Tolkien Studies" in a capacity other than as a provider of primary sources). This translation is an example of Tolkien's academic work unrelated to the Middle-earth legendarium

      • Inseparable (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Tolkien's major contribution to the study of Beowulf was to assert that it was more than just a bit of antiquarian poetry to be mined for fragments of linguistic and historical, but rather a work of art to be appreciated as poetry – monsters, dragons and all. That he also crafted legends to be enjoyed for their own sake (rather than as quasi-historical pastiche a la William Morris) is no accident. His translation of Beowulf (and the 'Monsters and Critics' material that will be published in that volu

    • by Nidi62 (1525137) on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:09PM (#46568805)
      The fact that the Lord of the Rings has appendices with back stories, histories, evolution of languages, and sorts of other little interesting tidbits quite clearly show Tolkien was not only an author but a scholar as well.
      • "The fact that the Lord of the Rings has appendices with back stories, histories, evolution of languages, and sorts of other little interesting tidbits quite clearly show Tolkien was not only an author but a scholar as well."

        I was of an odd age that fell between the right ages to truly appreciate Tolkien's efforts. But with a still-young appreciation for finesse, I *did* notice all those appendices. To this day High Fantasy hits a spot that I can't read, but I absolutely noticed the sixty pages (!) of appen

    • It will sell copy, and they can make a movie out of it. So yes, it will matter a great deal.

    • by pavon (30274) on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:41PM (#46569179)

      The translation of a literary work can be purely scholarly or purely artistic, but usually it is a mix of both. Given Tolkien's mastery of both worlds, and the fact that his love of Beowulf went far beyond linguistic and historical study, it is pretty clear that his translation will be of broad literary interest, not just scholarly.

    • This is a work of scholarship, not Middle-earth, so the fact that it is something Tolkien produced is completely irrelevant.

      False. When translating between languages, the personality and preferences of the translator are extremely relevant. As well, his actual skill at writing and size of vocabulary as well as his familiarity with the period (the scholarly part) determine the aptness of the translation: whether it actually manages to capture the feel of the original.

      Tolkien was an engaging author, therefore it's interesting (to some of us) to see what he did with the work.

      • An example (Score:5, Interesting)

        by dbIII (701233) on Monday March 24, 2014 @09:37PM (#46570433)
        An example of a good translator - getting from this request to an automatic poet in Lem's Cyberiad in Polish to this required brilliance:

        a poem about a haircut! But lofty, nobel, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter "s"!

        Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
        She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
        Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
        Silently scheming,
        Sightlessly seeking
        Some savage, spectacular suicide.

      • by rochrist (844809)
        His translation of Gawain is very highly regarded in academic circles.
    • by rochrist (844809)
      He would definitely be remembered for his scholarship. He was one of the foremost scholars in his field. It's true that modern americans are largely ignorant of that sort of scholarship, but it doesn't mean he wouldn't be remembered; he just wouldn't be the mainstream figure he is today. That said, LotR would not be what it is if not for his scholarship. The two go hand in hand.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:40PM (#46568465)

    Can I get a cluster of beowulf jokes?

    • Slashdot. Where you click on a topic, not because it interests you, but because there is a topical meme and you want to know just how people will weave it in.

      It's a bit like watching a Colombo movie. You know that he'll get him, and you even get told who did it right at the beginning, but you still watch 'cause you want to know just how it's gonna be done.

    • by MrKaos (858439) on Monday March 24, 2014 @08:27PM (#46570047) Journal

      Can I get a cluster of beowulf jokes?

      No, however now you can imagine that there will be a cluster of beowulf movies.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This tale has existed for millennia. Tolkien wrote his translation in 1926.
    But since it's just being published now, a new copyright term begins.
    Yet another flaw in copyright law that something ought to be done about.

  • by barlevg (2111272) on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:47PM (#46568535)

    After the commercial success of LoTR and the Hobbit trilogy, it's only a matter of time.

    Oh wait. [imdb.com]

    • by mrbester (200927)

      That used the "original" work which is public domain. There is no way this one will get made into a film.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Peter Jackson is looking to d-r-a-g this single poem out and turn it into a 6-movie snoring fest.

    • by Hsien-Ko (1090623)
      Can't wait for it to lead to......... Peter Jackson®'s J.R.R. Tolkien's® Beowulf The Movie of the Translation of the Epic®: The Official Game of the Movie
  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:52PM (#46568611)
    I recently sat through The Desolation of Smaug and now I have no appetite whatsoever to watch another Peter Jackson movie. It all started so promising The Fellowship of the Ring, but now his movies have more shark-jumping than Tolkien.
    • I agree, though I haven't even seen DoS. Here is my record with the Jackson adaptations:

      FotR - Saw 10 times in theaters, own extended edition DVD
      tTT - Saw 3 times in theaters, own extended edition DVD
      RotK - Saw once in a theater, own extended edition DVD
      aUJ - Saw once in a theater, didn't bother with the DVD
      DoS - Haven't even bothered to see, in a theater or on DVD / digital rental

      The only way to keep up with this trend is to somehow *negatively* watch the next one. Maybe I need to prevent it from being rel

    • by oneiros27 (46144)

      He went downhill after Meet the Feebles [imdb.com]. He should go back to docmentaries [imdb.com]

    • by jfengel (409917)

      Given the loathing that Christopher Tolkien feels for the films, I doubt you have to worry about Jackson ever getting his hands on any of it.

      Not that you really need to worry, I think. Jackson could use any other translation, but in the end it's just not a very cinematic story. Attempts to translate it to film have always failed. The story is "Guy beats up monsters", and if that's what you put on film, you utterly miss the point.

      Given that that's what Jackson apparently saw in The Hobbit, there's no guarant

      • "Given the loathing that Christopher Tolkien feels for the films"
        huh. Now I'm glad Jackson did them. Anything to get under that leeches skin is worth the price of admission.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          He's hardly a leech, having written many books expanding Middle Earth from his father's scribbled notes and been part of the creation as he grew up. Jackson's movies are for children, and hardly follow the stories, adding crap love interests that never existed, and more Jackson bore-fest chase scenes that add nothing but tedium.

        • by jfengel (409917)

          I respectfully disagree, but I can see why you'd think that. He has certainly made a career publishing the dregs of his father's work.

          However, that's nowhere near as easy as it sounds. The handwriting is just the least of it. He's put in serious scholarly work on his father's material, comparing numerous revisions and tracing the evolution of the thought. He had collaborated with his father on the works for years: the famous handwriting on the Middle Earth maps is his, and they worked together to get The Si

    • by styrotech (136124)

      He doesn't need to. There's already been a relatively recent crappy Beowulf movie made.

  • A Beowulf cluster - boom boom !!!

  • FINALLY! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jfengel (409917) on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:32PM (#46569073) Homepage Journal

    This has been talked about for decades, but it has sat on the shelf for reasons I haven't been able to figure out.

    I'd heard that it may literally have had to do with the handwriting: the man's handwriting was, shall we say, idiosyncratic, and it takes considerable effort to decipher. His son Christopher devoted a lifetime to it. John Rateliff, who did similar work for drafts of The Hobbit, consulted with a Tolkien graphologist in the process. (He was able to get a rough dating for one scrawl based on the details of the handwriting.) The fact that there even exists such a thing as a "Tolkien graphologist" is absurdly wonderfully.

    Anybody know who edited this piece? Is it Christopher?

    Regardless, I'm looking forward to this. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" was one of the most influential pieces of literary scholarship of the 20th century. It completely changed the way we look at Anglo-Saxon storytelling, and put fantasy literature on an entirely different footing. It's a magnificent piece of work, but not having his own translation of Beowulf available was maddening.

    • Re:FINALLY! (Score:5, Funny)

      by sootman (158191) on Monday March 24, 2014 @07:09PM (#46569385) Homepage Journal

      > the man's handwriting... takes considerable effort to decipher.

      So it could require a team to decipher his work on Beowulf? A "cluster", one might say? :-)

    • by radtea (464814)

      The thing I really want to know is if he translated it while retaining the poetic form, which would be fabulous. Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter was the dominant form of Northern European poetry for almost a thousand years, as near as we can tell. It died out in England in the centuries after the Norman invasion (the last significant poem in English using it was published in the first decade of the 1500's--Willian Dunbars "The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo")

      My own belief is that the more round

      • by nhaines (622289)

        Retaining the old poetic forms was kinda Tolkien's thing. Have you ever seen the Lay of Leithian from The History of Middle Earth? It's thousands and thousands of lines of rhyming alliterative verse.

        Tolkien's mastery of the English language stretched to Middle English and Old English as well. Not that other translations of Beowulf aren't good, and not that we don't have a far greater understanding of Old English now than Tolkien did, but Tolkien is guaranteed to have rendered the poem into Modern English

        • by jfengel (409917)

          Although Tolkien really was a gifted poet in so many ways, I often found his alliterative verse cloying. Modern English just doesn't have the right tone for it. His alliterative versions of Leithian and Children of Hurin don't, for the most part, do it for me.

          I do wish he'd finished his Arthur story, though. That one came out last year, and it was genuinely great. He massaged various versions of the myths into one story that worked better than any of the existing tellings, and the alliterative verse really

          • by nhaines (622289)

            Yes, cloying sounds like a word I might use, too. But remember that Anglo-Saxon/Old English poetry was meant to be recited, not read, and alliteration was both a memory aid as well as part of the skill required. The poems do much better in dramatic reading.

            I haven't read the story of Arhur past the Kindle preview, but it was compelling. The Lancelot/Valinor connection would have been amusing indeed!

            I hear a lot of crticism about Samus Heaney's translation (although I liked what I read). I suspect that T

      • by jfengel (409917)

        If you haven't read it, in the past couple of years his son published his fragmentary version of the Arthurian legend. His alliterative verse was better in some places than in others (I loved it when it appeared as Rohirric poetry, not so much in the plodding and interminable verse version of the Beren and Luthien story), but it really popped there. He was trying to craft, in that way he does, a version such as might have been written by the earliest Germanic invaders after the fall of Rome, and as absurd a

    • "I'd heard that it may literally have had to do with the handwriting: the man's handwriting was, shall we say, idiosyncratic, and it takes considerable effort to decipher. His son Christopher devoted a lifetime to it. John Rateliff, who did similar work for drafts of The Hobbit, consulted with a Tolkien graphologist in the process. (He was able to get a rough dating for one scrawl based on the details of the handwriting.) The fact that there even exists such a thing as a "Tolkien graphologist" is absurdly w

  • sudden joyous upturn of hope that he also expresses so superbly

    You can really see that "joyous upturn of hope" at the end of the Lord of the Rings; After Frodo destroys the One Ring, he returns to the Shire and everything is just peachy-keen and happy! Classic Tolkien!

    • by mrbester (200927)

      Not until they'd finished the scouring of the Shire it wasn't. The Party Tree had been felled and the Gaffer was in lock-up (though some privately thought that was the best place for him).

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Not until they'd finished the scouring of the Shire it wasn't. The Party Tree had been felled and the Gaffer was in lock-up (though some privately thought that was the best place for him).

        I'm pretty sure that was the point. Except, it was dumb, because as you say, they actually did come home and set everything that mattered right.

        • Not until they'd finished the scouring of the Shire it wasn't. The Party Tree had been felled and the Gaffer was in lock-up (though some privately thought that was the best place for him).

          I'm pretty sure that was the point. Except, it was dumb, because as you say, they actually did come home and set everything that mattered right.

          If you don't count Frodo. Who was short a finger and subject to flashbacks of such intensity that he eventually had to flee Middle-Earth to find a cure.

          But the Tolkien Universe was designed that way. Eru explicitly stated that no matter what opposition to His will was mounted that in the end it would simply further His goals. Bastard.

          Another fantasical element was that people were always making predictions. When the Good Guys prophesied something it always came true, right down to the enumeration of Sam's a

          • by Quirkz (1206400)

            Another fantasical element was that people were always making predictions. When the Good Guys prophesied something it always came true, right down to the enumeration of Sam's as-yet unborn children. When the Bad Guys prophesied something, it never came true.

            Hmm. If the universe went around proving me wrong at every single turn, I might turn evil, too.

    • He coined a word for it, "Eucatastrophe".
  • I see too many books that are fantasy in the science fiction section. Perhaps its too hard to make good science fiction however, I think I'm more interested in Greg Bear's 'The Forge of God' and 'Anvil of Stars' being made into a movie than this.

    In that story everything Human is destroyed, and I don't think you can get more darker than the destruction and revenge of Human beings.

  • ... is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

    (I liked the Seamus Heaney version too.)
  • by supercrisp (936036) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @07:43AM (#46572587)
    Tolkien's edition of Gawain and the Green Knight is really good. A layperson can easily learn how to pronounce the Middle English of the text, which being a bit "Northern" is somewhat "older" and different than that of Chaucer. There's also a useful glossary. It's really a great book. If you like Tolkien, and you haven't read it, you should probably take a look at it. On the other hand, the claims above about Tolkien being the person who brought the Medieval into the Modern must come from a very narrow perspective. The Medieval was always there. Think of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, or of Walter Scott. And Tolkien was far from the only fantasist whose work drew heavily on the Medieval. In fact, and I know this is heretical, but there are works out there that are in many ways better than his. But his world is amazing, his scholarship quite useful, and, in my opinion, he was on the right side of the issue with C.S. Lewis. (As a final note, he made an interesting contribution to an interesting little mystery, the "Nodens" ring and inscription. Also fun to check out.) A final, final note: Seamus Heany's version of Beowulf is a pretty good read too.
  • Here's the truth about Beowufl. The poem sucks. Even if it's in a language you can read, it still sucks. When I was in college I read some of the great historical works of the past in Europe, some in translations, some in the original language (if I knew it), and Beowulf was by far the least interesting "classic" work I have ever read. The fact that Tolkien cared about it means nothing to me nor most people. Want proof that while this is of interest to the Tolkien fan boys, nobody else cares? Some yea
  • Why bother, when Maurice Sagoff has already provided us with the definitive English translation?

    Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish. Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.

    King of Danes is frantic, very. Wait! Here comes the Malmo" ferry

    Bring Beowulf, his neighbor, Mighty swinger with a saber!

    Hrothgar's warriors hail the Swede, Knocking back a lot of mead;

    Then, when night engulfs the Hall And the Monster makes his call,

    Beowulf, with body-slam Wrenches off his arm, Shazam!

    Monster's mother finds him slain, Grabs and eats another Dane!

    Down her lair our hero jumps, Gives old Grendel's dam her lumps.

    Later on, as king of Geats He performed prodigious feats

    Till he met a foe too tough (Non-Beodegradable stuff)

    And that scaly-armored dragon Scooped him up and fixed his wagon.

    Sorrow-stricken, half the nation Flocked to Beowulf's cremation;

    Round his pyre, with drums a-muffle Did a Nordic soft-shoe shuffle.

A rock store eventually closed down; they were taking too much for granite.

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