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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 on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:39PM (#46568455)

    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 WilliamGeorge (816305) on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:40PM (#46568457)

    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 Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:40PM (#46568461)

    This really is turning into a random irrelevant news site...

  • 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 @05:40PM (#46568465)

    Can I get a cluster of beowulf jokes?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:40PM (#46568469)

    Tolkien? Poems? Beowulf? Two poles of imagination?

    WHAT THE HELL KIND OF NERD SITE IS THIS

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:41PM (#46568477)

    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 Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:14PM (#46568853)

      This applies to the work in the USA; I can't speak to UK copyright law.

      An unpublished work created before 1978 and later published has a copyright term of:
      (1) the life of the author + 70 years (which would expire in 2043 for Tolkien), or
      (2) 120 from creation (which would be 2046, if the work were anonymous)

      I agree that copyright terms tend to be ludicrous, but those aren't "new" terms.

      • The life in question is Christopher Tolkien's because it will likely be impossible for a member of the public to prove what parts were JRRT's and which are Christopher's edits.
      • by CanEHdian (1098955) on Monday March 24, 2014 @08:45PM (#46570155)

        I think AC meant, a brand new copyright term as in x number of years.

        Even if in a few short years from now we see a global trend to radically curtail copyright terms, starting with the European Spring, I do agree that unpublished (*) works should be treated as new works when published by the estate (with a "safety net" provision of x years for unpublished works, anonymous or not, for works to fall into the public domain) (**).

        (*) publishing should be seen in the broadest sense possible, to avoid "members only" clubs where works are "circulated only amongst members" for some bogus reason, leading to the claim that the work hasn't officially been published, so a copyright term never started.

        (**) this might lead to the interesting conclusion that "selfies" become public domain 120 years after your death.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @05:51PM (#46568577)

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

  • 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:31PM (#46569067)

    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 Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @09:20PM (#46570357)

      actually, Tokien's 2000 page translation and comments were sort of rediscovered in 2002 in the archives of the Bodleian Library. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10708064/Tolkien-translation-of-Beowulf-to-be-published-for-first-time.html

      funny that the Libary said, in effect yeah we knew about it....what of it?

      -- iggymanz

    • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @12:44AM (#46571421)

      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 rounded, smooth and flowing sound of Middle English was increasingly inappropriate to the staccato, strong, plosive rhythms of this form, but I've experimented with it and it's not impossible to write, even in modern English. It would be wonderful if Tolkien was able to retain that aspect of the ancient ur-language of English.

      • by nhaines (622289) <nhaines.ubuntu@com> on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @03:07AM (#46571769) Homepage

        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 which is both powerful, flowing, and evocative while retaining the original poetic form and meaning without being stilting.

        I can't wait!

        • by jfengel (409917) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @11:48AM (#46574461) Homepage Journal

          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 soared. (Plus, there were hints in his notes that Lancelot was destined to end up in Valinor, which would have amused the bejeezus out of me, but he never got around to writing it.)

          So I'll be curious to see how I feel about this. Seamus Heaney's translation is going to be damned hard to beat. But regardless, Tolkien's version will tell us a lot about his thoughts on it, which will be fascinating. And from what I hear, he's using some archeological speculations, and I hope that there's commentary to see how much of that continues to be valid.

          • by nhaines (622289) <nhaines.ubuntu@com> on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @04:18PM (#46577255) Homepage

            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 Tolkien will be able to strike a very interesting balance the original and a modern form (which was a huge strength of his, as I mentioned). And he did seem to consider the poem in a greater sense rather than as only a linguistical curiosity, so I agree that it's going to be fascinating to see what he makes of it.

      • by jfengel (409917) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @11:51AM (#46574497) Homepage Journal

        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 as that sounds, I thought that it worked.

    • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @01:14AM (#46571553) Journal

      "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 wonderful".

      Given Tolkien's use of proper nouns every twelve words, this sounds fascinating!

  • by mydn (195771) on Monday March 24, 2014 @06:41PM (#46569165)

    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) on Monday March 24, 2014 @07:54PM (#46569785) Homepage

      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).

      • 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.

        • by RabidReindeer (2625839) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @01:19PM (#46575335)

          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 as-yet unborn children. When the Bad Guys prophesied something, it never came true.

          • by Quirkz (1206400) on Thursday March 27, 2014 @03:42PM (#46595447) Homepage

            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.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2014 @10:36PM (#46570799)

      Actually, you want to look more at the coming of of the black fleet of the Corsairs of Umbar to the battle of Minas Tirith;

      Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
      I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
      To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
      Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

        These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of
      battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king:
      the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again
      on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

        And then wonder took him, and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the
      sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon
      the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned
      towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but
      Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no
      lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they
      were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the
      morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.

        Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur's heir, out of the Paths of the
      Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of
      the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and
      wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells.

      Captcha: quests

    • by Simon Rowe (1206316) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @03:29AM (#46571817)
      He coined a word for it, "Eucatastrophe".
  • by MrKaos (858439) on Monday March 24, 2014 @08:22PM (#46569999) Journal
    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.

  • by PvtVoid (1252388) on Monday March 24, 2014 @10:08PM (#46570593)
    ... 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.
  • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve (949321) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @10:45AM (#46573815)
    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 years ago Robert Zemeckis, who is a directory I generally like, decided that everybody was just dying to see an adaptation of the film. It made about 60% of what it cost to make it. The truth is, most people don't care. The story sucks and few are interested in it.

    And exactly how much, fan boys, do you think his translation is going to bring to the table any way? If it's vastly different than what came before it, then somebody blew it. Either Tolkien's is different because the people before him were really bad at translation and botched it, his is different because he is taking massive liberties with his translation and making assumptions that the original text may not actually support, or it's going to be barely different at all because there's just not that much difference between proper translations. I've done some translation work in my day and if done properly, there just shouldn't be all that much variation between different translations. I suppose Tolkien might use a word order better suited for modern readers or use less complicated words that convey the same meaning as previous translations, and I'd praise him for that, but such things should really be fairly minor versus previous translations.
  • by T.E.D. (34228) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @11:10AM (#46574059)
    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.

  • by Steve_Ussler (2941703) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @04:48PM (#46577545)
    100 years almost...

Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time alloted it.

Working...