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don't eat the yellowed manuscript
January 8, 2003 8:25 AM   Subscribe

"and then beowulf, hero of the hairy peoples of upper-earth, cut the hand from the evil lord grendel... afterwards, they hung it above the mead hall door..."

okay. maybe not. but a "yellowed manuscript" containing a translation and analysis of the venerable beowulf has been found in an oxford library. the author? none other than the late j.r.r. tolkien. with all of the interest in anything even remotely hobbit-esque, this is quite a find.
posted by grabbingsand (40 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. I'm heading to the bookstore now.
posted by maniactown at 8:30 AM on January 8, 2003


oooohhh... I know what I'm adding to my Christmas list.

Years ago, while working in my aunt's bookstore, I was able to pick up his translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "The Pearl". She had a copy of one of his latin lectures and its English translation for sale at the time. I regret that I didn't have the money for it at the time.
posted by onhazier at 8:42 AM on January 8, 2003


I am delighted that the news made it to Metafiltler. I had posted this story the day it first was annnounced at my site, a spot visited by at least 4 people every day.
posted by Postroad at 8:55 AM on January 8, 2003


Anyone read Seamus Heaney's translation? It was excellent - Tolkien's might be hard pressed to beat it.
posted by starvingartist at 9:04 AM on January 8, 2003


starvingartist -Heaney's translation is excellent, I agree. I bought the book when it first came out, and zipped through it one night cover to cover. I couldn't stop reading, that's how good it was.

However, as a Tolkien fan, I look forward to reading this piece of work for different reasons, largely for the history behind Beowulf The Monsters and the Critics," a piece of work which is arguably THE most important support for a Beowulf. Before Tolkien gave his lecture, Beowulf was largely thought to be a trivial piece of confusing and inferior work with no real historical significance.

Tolkien had some views on the Christian elements of the work which I disagree with, and I would love to find out in detail how he came about his views on the origin of the work itself.
posted by bradth27 at 9:26 AM on January 8, 2003


a spot visited by at least 4 people every day.

Anone pitying poor Postroad should know the blog is NSFW.
posted by piskycritter at 9:30 AM on January 8, 2003


Mine is another vote for the Heaney translation. Excellent. I haven't read Gawain, but if I remember right the Pearl was pretty easy to read in the original. I can't say the same for Beowulf though, certainly a tough read in the original. Heaney's is the most compelling of the 3 versions I've read. I am unable to comment, however, on Christopher Lambert's translation of Beowulf to the big screen. Does Connery do a cameo?
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:47 AM on January 8, 2003


Professor Drout, who reads Anglo-Saxon prose to his two-year-old daughter at bedtime, said: "I was sitting there going through the transcripts when I saw these four bound volumes at the bottom of the box.

"I started looking through, and realised I had found an entire book of material that had never seen the light of day. As I turned the page, there was Tolkien's fingerprint in a smudge of ink."


Ahem. Two things: This guy's daughter is going to grow up to be one very, very interesting woman, and two - he knew it was Tolkien from a fingerprint? WTF? I bet there are thousands of Hobbit-ites out there saying to themselves, "Yeah, I could do that too."
posted by risenc at 9:57 AM on January 8, 2003


Before Tolkien gave his lecture, Beowulf was largely thought to be a trivial piece of confusing and inferior work with no real historical significance.

I am...skeptical about this claim. Do you have any supporting information?
posted by lbergstr at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2003


I don't know if I should do this to him, but... Drout has a blog. Don't all go at once, y'hear?

In this entry he corrects a couple of reportorial errors:
First, though the Sunday Times calls it a "discovery," I'm a little uncomfortable with the term, since the material was right there in the Bodleian the whole time. The Bodleian's librarians and Christopher Tolkien certainly knew what it was. Second, there is almost no way I can see the Beowulf translations being published in 2003. While I've already done a lot of work on the translations (and they are pretty "clean" manuscripts, anyway), I really have to finish the volume of commentaries before I can publish the translations, since the commentaries explain the translations and I need to be clear in my own mind about Tolkien's intent before I make major editing decisions. I think I unintentionally confused the reporter when I said that I would probably be done with the translations at the end of the summer. That's true as far as it goes, but being done won't be enough, unfortunately....

All that said, the Beowulf translation is great and lovers of Tolkien will love it.
So don't put it on this year's Xmas list.
posted by languagehat at 10:05 AM on January 8, 2003


Thanks for finding that blog, languagehat. I'm finding it interesting, and not just the Tolkien bits.
posted by dnash at 10:17 AM on January 8, 2003


lbergstr-

Have you read any part of the speech we are referring to? The speech by Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” , is about this very issue. Tolkien was trying to convince the critics and scholars that Beowulf WAS of literary merit, and not a simple document of use only for historical value or for knowledge of folklore or geographical reasons.
posted by bradth27 at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2003


Hwæt! You ain't nuthin' if you haven't read it in the original Old English.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:33 AM on January 8, 2003


lbergstr: also, Heaney in the forward to his translation makes a similar remark.
posted by silusGROK at 10:34 AM on January 8, 2003


Not to be a contrarian, but I'll cast vote against the Heaney translation. Lots of elements that make Old English poetry Old English were missing, like the kennings. (Kennings are metaphorical poetic descriptions of commonly used objects, such as "whale road" for "sea" or "oar-steed" for ship.) The alliteration was inconsistent, and the rhythm was lost.

Heaney's translation might have been an easier read than some of the others I've read, but it came at the cost of an Old English feel to the poem.
posted by ptermit at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2003


Have you read any part of the speech we are referring to?

Hmmm...googlegooglegoogle...can't find the speech itself, but this looks like a decent summary of his impact.

Tolkien was trying to convince the critics and scholars that Beowulf WAS of literary merit, and not a simple document of use only for historical value

Right, as long as you're not contending that scholars before Tolkien considered it "of no real historical interest", we're in agreement.
posted by lbergstr at 10:51 AM on January 8, 2003


Oh..I see. It was my mistake. I meant to state that scholars often found it to be of little literary significance, not historical.
Thanks. I was a bit baffled there for a minute. Forgive me if I came off as rude in my response to your question.
posted by bradth27 at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2003


bradth said: "Before Tolkien gave his lecture, Beowulf was largely thought to be a trivial piece of confusing and inferior work with no real historical significance. "

That simply isn't the case; Beowulf was widely read and studied before Tolkien's lecture. Klaeber's 1922 edition of the poem brought it to the forefront of university graduate English and philology programs around the world.


However, Tolkien was a powerful champion of the work as a **literary** document, rather than an historical and philological artifact.

And, um, I have a copy of my translation of Beowulf somewhere--we had to do one in graduate school. I bet mine isn't as good as Tolkien's, though. Or Heaney's.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2003


Thanks, Sidhedevil.
Please read my previous post.
posted by bradth27 at 11:04 AM on January 8, 2003


Not to be a contrarian, but I'll cast vote against the Heaney translation. Lots of elements that make Old English poetry Old English were missing, like the kennings. (Kennings are metaphorical poetic descriptions of commonly used objects, such as "whale road" for "sea" or "oar-steed" for ship.) The alliteration was inconsistent, and the rhythm was lost.

It's been over a year since I read my copy, but I could swear that he had kept the spirit of the kennings. I don't know. I liked it.
posted by starvingartist at 11:13 AM on January 8, 2003


What gets lost in the sensationalism of the article is that Drout has just published Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics.

This critical edition of Beowulf and Critics presents both unpublished versions of Tolkien's lecture ('A' and 'B'), each substantially different from the other and from the final, published essay. The edition includes a description of the manuscript, complete textual and explanatory notes, and a detailed critical introduction that explains the place of Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon scholarship both in the history of Beowulf scholarship and in literary history.

So, for you fans of Beowulf and the Monsters, here you go!

As far as Heaney/not Heaney, any version that gets more people reading Beowulf is good in my book. Heaney's is a very readable modern translation. He admits as much himself, writing that he imagined this version of the poem as one that he could hear coming from the lips of some of his relatives.

I still think that Heaney's maintains a good feel for the language of the poem; many of the kennings are just too archaic for a modern audience. (He does keep some of the classic ones like ring-giver and word-hoard.)

For a more scholarly version, try Roy Liuzza's Beowulf which came out the same year as Heaney's. Even better, get them both! And the comic book graphic novel. And the Audio CD. And the Audio CD in Old English.
posted by ahughey at 11:15 AM on January 8, 2003


I hope it's as good as the movie.
posted by magnificentsven at 11:21 AM on January 8, 2003


Aspiring Tolkienaphiles may wish to treat themselves to this charming volume: Smith of Wooton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham.
posted by Lynsey at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2003


Regarding the Heany translation (which I really want to read), Drout describes it thus: "famous, and a great poem, but it's really a modern poem based on Beowulf rather than a straight translation" (here, at the very bottom of the page).
posted by Songdog at 11:39 AM on January 8, 2003


Heaney's is a very readable modern translation.

I agree that it's very readable, but I think he went several steps too far in modernizing. (As for the kennings, I agree that some are archaic and wouldn't have insisted upon retaining all of them, especially the more obscure ones, but I got really put off by seeing "sword" and "sea" and sitting there unadorned all the time in a very un-Old-English-like manner.) And I don't insist on caesuras, strict alliteration, etc., but I think that a verse translation should keep more of the the shambling, guttural, visceral impact of Old English poetry than Heaney managed.

Translating verse is really tough, and something's got to give somewhere... I just prefer the choices that other translators have made.

(On preview, what Drout said. :) )
posted by ptermit at 11:51 AM on January 8, 2003


Heaney? Doesn't use kennings? I found "whale-road" for "sea" on the very first page (that's OE hronraade, yes?). The king of the Geats is a "ring-giver", etc. Alliteration? Course he does, though not as much as the original, nor as well as Tolkien did in "The Homecoming of Beorthnoth". Heaney's alliteration is more a half-alliteration akin to half-rhyme, where the repeated sound might be on a stressed syllable rather that the initial one.

It's a classic translator's dilemma - how much of the syntax and idiom of the original can you preserve without rendering the result totally unreadable in the new language? I don't think Heaney's done a bad job at all. (Confession - I need a copy of Sweet and an OE dictionary to make any headway on Beowulf at all). Heany discusses his approach in the preface, and it's quite defensible, I thought.

Still, I'd love to see Tolkien's. He was really good at simulating AngloSaxon prosody.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:02 PM on January 8, 2003


Thank you grabbingsand for starting such an erudite thread. However, I must admit as much as I love the intellectual aspects of 1000 year old literature, "Beowulf" delights in a very visceral sense as well.

Eagerly watched Hygelac's kinsman his cursed foe, how he would fare in fell attack. Not that the monster was minded to pause! Straightway he seized a sleeping warrior for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly thus the lifeless corse was clear devoured, e'en feet and hands. (from the Gummere translation)
posted by caddis at 12:04 PM on January 8, 2003


Just for comparison, here's Heaney's translation of the same:

...Might and canny
Hygelac's kinsman was keenly watching
for the first move the monster would make.
Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-leppings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving his body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.


Gorged on him in lumps! Eek!
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:11 PM on January 8, 2003


That should be "Mighty" and "bone-lappings". Damnit.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:15 PM on January 8, 2003


Good thing you posted that correction so fast, joe's_spleen; I was all set to complain that Heaney used a word that wasn't even in the OED (and then do a major research job to find out what the hell a "lepping" was and where he got it from). Anyway, that excerpt definitely makes me want to read the translation; like you, I can struggle through the original with gun and camera -- I mean grammar and dictionary, but a good new version is welcome.

And magnificentsven, thanks for linking to that unjustly neglected movie, which I must run right out and see. I mean, Diana Dumbrava is in it! Not to mention Rhona Mitra as... Kyra? Whatever. Anyway, I can't believe this reviewer was a fair judge:
Summary: This sucks

Why did I do this? Why, when I saw this film on the video rental wall, did I hope that it would be another 13th Warrior? All I did was set myself up for disappointment. This movie is terrible. Don't rent it, don't watch it, ignore it. When was this thing released, anyway? I see it says 1999, but it was never released in the US. I don't even know when the video release was. Should have kept this one overseas...
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on January 8, 2003


Starring Christopher Lambert as Beowulf ...
posted by Songdog at 1:12 PM on January 8, 2003


Heaney? Doesn't use kennings?

He uses them occasionally, but if I recall correctly, most of them were gone -- I remember getting annoyed when I kept spotting place after place where the kennings were conspicuously absent.

And yes, there's some alliteration, as I alluded to, but I didn't think it preserved the flavor of the original.

It's all a matter of taste.
posted by ptermit at 1:14 PM on January 8, 2003


I can live with differing on taste. I'm guessing your greater familiarity with the original makes the difference. Since I read Drout's comment, I've been through a few lines (yay for annual leave!) and I can see what he means about the lack of fidelity in Heaney's translation.

But I still like it. Perhaps my love of Heaney's other work is colouring my assessment.

ALLuding to ALLiteration! You crack me up!
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:25 PM on January 8, 2003


Many, many authors have translated "Beowulf." Syd Allan provides a comparison of an extraordinary number of these translations for key passages such as Beowulf sailing to Denmark and several of the important fights.
posted by caddis at 1:48 PM on January 8, 2003


Wow caddis, that's fantastic. I've just been rereading his pages on kennings and alliteration. Thanks very much.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:00 PM on January 8, 2003


The Liuzza version is pretty readable -- a bit scholarly, as ahughey, but generally pretty decent.

At least, it was when I had to read it in his Intro to British Literature class. And, apparently, if you got him drunk, he'd walk through the French Quarter shouting the first few verses in Old English.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:03 PM on January 8, 2003


Grendel...
posted by Shane at 2:03 PM on January 8, 2003


I once saw a translation (in a bookstore in Lancaster, PA) that started "What ho!"
posted by languagehat at 5:57 PM on January 8, 2003


Thank you, bradth. Note the time on our respective posts. Your retraction of your previous dumbassedness hadn't hit my server yet. You have now demonstrated that you can't write *or* read for toffee (mmm.....toffee...)

And, languagehat, I had a friend in my Beowulf seminar who translated 'hwaet' as "Yo!"
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:51 PM on January 8, 2003


Sidhedevil-

Thanks for calling me a dumbass and informing me that I "can't write *or* read for toffee."

In my defense, I'm not writing a thesis here, only light commentary. I simply reversed the order of my words in my head as I was typing, and didn't bother to read over what I had done. Dyslexics tend to do that occasionally.
As for my writing skills, I will agree that my own are not the best. Still, I managed to grab a decent GPA as an English major.
posted by bradth27 at 6:58 AM on January 9, 2003


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