Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan, and I always said I would read his translation of Beowulf if it was ever published in a book. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell, edited by Christopher Tolkien, was published in May 2014.

I give this book five stars because (1) it’s Beowulf, (2) it’s Tolkien, and (3) it has a lovely cover. I confess to being thoroughly lost much of the time, both while reading the poem and while reading the commentary. But how fabulous it would have been to attend a Tolkien lecture! At least I got some sense of that. I most enjoyed finding little items in the commentary that resonated with my knowledge of The Lord of the Rings.

The most readable part of the book for me was Sellic Spell. Tolkien wrote:

This version is a story, not the story. It is only to a limited extent an attempt to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf .... Its principal object is to exhibit the difference of style, tone and atmosphere if the particular heroic or historical is cut out. ... And by making it timeless I have followed a common habit of folk-tales as received.” (p. 355)

Whatever its principal object, Sellic Spell was very readable and understandable compared to Beowulf itself.

My absolute most favorite part of the book is this line from Christopher Tolkien about including the Old English version of Sellic Spell:  “[T]he interest of this text lies chiefly, in my view, in its demonstration of my father’s fluency in the ancient tongue.” [p. 407] 

It’s touching that Christopher Tolkien is so fiercely proud of his father’s accomplishments. I'm glad I made my way through this book, and will probably purchase a copy at some point to add to my personal library.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell can be found at the Galesburg Public Library in the Fiction section under Tolkien and in the Nonfiction section at 823.912 TOL.

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