J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014 posthumous release)

August 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Lo!  the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.  Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute – a good king was he!

To him was an heir afterwards born, a young child in his courts whom God sent for the comfort of the people:  perceiving the dire need which they long while endured aforetime being without a prince.  To him therefore the Lord of Life who rules in glory granted honour among men:  Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang – the heir of Scyld in Scedeland.  Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deed and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father’s bosom, that after in his age there cleave to him loyal knights of his table, and the people stand by him when war comes.  By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled. (p. 13)

Ever since I read extended excerpts of the poem in translation when I was a high school senior over twenty years ago, Beowulf has fascinated and frustrated me.  It contains a depth of character and theme that is uncommon even among the best epic poems of the past three millennia.  Yet there is a remoteness to it, perhaps due to the distance between Old English and its modern descendent and the attendant difficulties in rendering idioms precisely, or maybe it’s because it is difficult for teachers to convey adequately the poem’s riches to students who struggle with its form.  Whatever the reason, each time that I’ve revisited the poem, whether it be in prose or poetic translation/adaptation, it has been akin to staring at bright wonders through a smoky glass screen.

Therefore it was with great interest that I received the news that after decades of delays, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation notes on Beowulf would finally be published in book form.  I have been long aware of Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and the Old English language in general and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I found to be entrancing when I read it around twenty years ago.  But there was some trepidation as well.  Having dabbled in translations ever since a college Latin course on The Æneid twenty years ago, I am well aware of the distortions that occur when going not just from one language to another, but also from the metered poetic lines to prose.  The sense of the lines may be preserved better in prose, but the elegance is almost certainly lost.

Tolkien’s Beowulf was originally done as a sort of extended notes, one that would allow Tolkien to make easier references to specific lines in modern English without needing to translate repeatedly to suit the context of the cited passages in his lectures.  Completed by 1926, when Tolkien had recently accepted the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, his Beowulf translation largely remained locked up in his study, only updated occasionally in light of new research that indicated different ways of restoring and reading the burnt original manuscript.  Although in the intervening decades Tolkien became one of the foremost experts on the poem, there never really was any intent on his part to have his prose translation published.  Yet it still played a role in his research, serving as a point of reference whenever he would write commentary notes for his lectures on the poem, particularly its first half (which was the part studied by English students who were intrepid enough then to complete their degree through the Anglo-Saxon path).

So what value does this translation have in 2014, besides showing how one of its foremost mid-20th century experts approached the material?  Sadly, not much at all, except as a curio.  The translation itself is decent enough and after having read three 1990s-2000s verse translations (Rebsamen, Liuzza, Heaney), Tolkien’s rendering of certain expressions (such as “Lo!” for “Hwæt!”) certainly stands its ground with these translations (of which, I found the Rebsamen to best capture the alliterative poetic structure of the original).  There are moments of livelihood in Tolkien’s translation, and he certainly utilizes the original’s use of stock expressions (under the clouds, under heaven) to great effect when establishing scene and mood, but there are some flaws to his approach.  In particular, his use of now-archaic expressions, such as the above-quoted “throve in honour” or “thus both a young man bring it to pass,” while occasionally bestowing a sense of ancient grandeur, often creates stilted dialogues that weaken the effectiveness of pivotal scenes.  But these lapses can be forgiven, especially considering the apparent intent behind writing this prose translation.

I am less charitable when it comes to the remainder of the book.  The commentary section, comprising roughly half of the 425 page book, is interesting enough at times, but it lacks enough editorial framework to make it readily accessible to general readers.  While it was mostly clear for myself, I have had some background in academic discussion of texts.  Readers who have not can easily find themselves skipping over this section, as it is not worth their time trying to decipher what exactly Tolkien is referring to in quoting certain passages and explaining their word meanings.  Christopher Tolkien could have done a better job in providing more context for these discussions instead of just posting the poem commentaries whole cloth.  The remaining two sections, “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf” serve little purpose beyond illustrating how the poem sparked some playing around with the language and structure of the original poem in his creation of two (or three, counting a revision) minor poems.  Even worse, Tolkien’s famous 1936 essay on the poem’s monsters is left out of this book.  The structure of the sections is just very poorly-done.

Yet despite this lack of interesting material outside the translation itself, I mostly enjoyed reading Tolkien’s translation.  Yes there are flaws in this 1926 prose rendering, but as I noted above, these are interesting not just because they show a writer trying to render as literally as possible words constructed in a different language and in a different medium, but because the care with which Tolkien had done this appeals to me as an occasional translator.  But outside of reading it as a look in how a 20th century expert approached his subject, there is little to recommend Tolkien’s translation to those who are already familiar with the story.  It is a good prose translation, but there are other, better translations, especially into verse, that reflect the changes in Beowulf scholarship since Tolkien’s 1973 death.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur (2013 posthumous release)

June 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

‘Now never again     from northern wars
shall Arthur enter     this island realm,
nor Lancelot du Lake    love remembering
to thy tryst return!     Time is changing;
the West waning,     a wind rising
in the waxing East.     The world falters.
New tides are running     in the narrow waters.’

– from Canto II, lines 144-150 (p. 32)

For nearly a millennium, ever since the fanciful writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth gained a wide audience and inspired generations of poets and prose writers to write about the Round Table, the betrayal of Mordred, the Holy Grail, the legend of King Arthur has fascinated listeners and readers alike.  No matter the medium selected for the story, the tale entrances readers who already know the basics by rote.  Its themes and tragic elements mixed with romance are not just the stuff of which dreams are made, but they are more “real” to us than even ground upon which we trod or the air which we breathe.

I have been a fan of “The Matter of Britain” for nearly three decades now.  I have read Arthur’s story in many forms, ranging from Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King to Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles.  Each storyteller, great and lowly alike, have explored facets of the legends that most fascinated them, often with good results.  Therefore it was with great interest that I look forward to reading the incomplete poem that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind on the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom.  Although the unfinished poem runs only just over 950 lines divided over four complete cantos and a partial fifth, there certainly is much to admire about the poem.

Tolkien decided that alliterative verse, traditionally used in pre-Norman conquest England and other Germanic-speaking lands, best suited the tale he wanted to tell.  He stripped away most of the courtly romance, focusing instead on the final, tragic part of the Arthurian legends:  the news of Guenevere’s tryst and Mordred’s betrayal.  The action begins in media res, with Arthur returning from his “Eastern campaign” to surprise Mordred and his Saxon allies:

Arthur eastward     in arms purposed
his war to wage     on the wild marches,
over seas sailing     to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm     ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time     to turn backward
and the heathen to humble,     his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships     they should hunt no more
on the shining shores     and shallow waters
of South Britain,     booty seeking.

– from Canto I, lines 1-9 (p. 17)

There is a sonorous quality to good alliterative verse, the way that “war” and “wage” rise and then on the second half-verse (the spaces denote a caesura or breath break) it descends to “wild.”  There is no rhyme nor set metre, but instead a dependence upon a rhythm set by the rise and fall of words whose first syllables alliterate.  It is not a poetic form often seen in Modern English and there is a portion of the book devoted to explaining how to read this.  Being somewhat familiar with alliterative verse, primarily through some translations of Beowulf, it was easy for me to settle into the rhythm of the poem.

Rhythm is very important here in The Fall of Arthur, as Tolkien attempts to capture a bleaker, more urgent movement of forces.  Arthur here is more the hero of an edda than the king in background of the medieval romances.  He is driven, relentless in his purpose.  Time is changing, all is under assault.  This mood might remind some of the tone present in his fantasy writings and there certainly are thematic similarities, such as the passage quoted at the beginning of this review.  The west wanes, the world falters, new tides are running.  Here the struggle against the forces of Mordor finds its immediate predecessor, as The Fall of Arthur was composed sometime between 1933-1937 according to internal evidence.  And yet here are other connotations present:  the Celtic west falling before the Saxon east, the world of the Britons changing irrevocably.  Tolkien does an excellent job of foreshadowing that calamity throughout The Fall of Arthur.  Doom certainly is more present here, with religious imagery used to underscore the differences between hero and heathen:

Foes before them,     flames behind them,
ever east and onward    eager rode they,
and folk fled them     as the face of God,
till earth was empty,     and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them     in the endless hills,
save bird and beast     baleful haunting
the lonely lands.

–  from Canto I, lines 61-67 (p. 19)

The overall effect is a melding of the later accruals of Arthurian myth (Lancelot, however, is relegated to a relatively minor role and Gawain instead rises in importance) with the style and imagery present in Beowulf.  In some respects, The Fall of Arthur feels like a “lost” work of the 10th century that has been translated into modern English; the metaphors and imagery can apply equally to the invasions of the 5th and late 9th centuries.  It is little wonder, then, that one of Tolkien’s fellow academics, R.W. Chambers, wrote to him in December 1934 saying:

“It is very great indeed… really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.”…”You simply must finish it.” (p. 10)

But yet like so much of his superior work (The Lord of the Rings I consider to be one of his lesser achievements as a writer), The Fall of Arthur tragically was left undone.  If it were complete and published during the author’s lifetime, it easily could have cemented Tolkien’s legacy as a writer.  Instead, he is now primarily known for a lesser-accomplished work that influenced over two generations of pulp writers to write fictions that are bereft of the soul of the original masters.  But for those who do love Arthurian tales and who do have some knowledge of the various poetic and prose compositions over the past millennium, The Fall of Arthur will certainly be a work well worth reading.  For those who are not as familiar with these works, Christopher Tolkien has provided three long essays on the poem’s origins, its connections to his father’s fantasy writings, and how the poem evolved during various drafts.  In addition, Tolkien’s 1938 BBC radio lecture on “Anglo-Saxon Verse” is provided as a coda to the work.  Some will find these essays to enhance the work, others might find them to be less useful due to their own prior knowledge of the subject.  Regardless, The Fall of Arthur, incomplete as it is, I consider to be Tolkien’s best composition and it is a shame that it was left unfinished during the final 30+ years of the author’s life.

1961 Nobel Literature Finalists: J.R.R. Tolkien

January 16th, 2012 § 7 comments § permalink

Back on January 5, The Guardian posted an article highlighting the previously-unreleased commentaries regarding works considered for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Although it is fair to say that the article slants the coverage of the notes of one of that year’s judges, Anders Österling, especially in regards to the somewhat surprising inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien on the list, this column received quite a bit of discussion in divers corners over the past week and a half.  Some have questioned the validity of Österling’s comments on E.M. Forster and Robert Frost, which referred to their advanced age (both died within a decade of the 1961 prize being awarded to Ivo Andrić), while others have speculated that in the case of Tolkien somehow “genre bias” was involved.

Since the list of eight novelists that were mentioned in the article are fairly well-known (to the above mentioned four, Graham Greene, the eventual runner-up; Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonymn of Isaak Dinesan, finished third; and Italian writer Alberto Moravia) to many readers, over the next several weeks (mostly on Saturdays or Sundays), there will be columns devoted to discussing these seven writers and how their writings compare to previous Nobel winners and to the criteria set forth in Alfred Nobel’s will:

“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”

Since the criteria for being selected to be a Nobel laureate in Literature are not similar to a “year’s best,” in that the committee is charged to consider the author’s full work and not just a singular work, not to mention the above-quoted part on “most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” the works considered generally possess a high degree of craftsmanship (in the three genres of poetry, drama, and prose) and have something to contribute to the global “conversation” regarding the human condition(s).  When considered through this evaluative lens, several works that have enjoyed widespread popularity over the years are going to be dismissed due to some combination of their writing and/or the lack of “an ideal direction.”

This seems to be the case with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Out of the seven mentioned for consideration, his is the most intriguing.  If one dismisses the probable bias of his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis (who, after all, was privy to Tolkien’s development of the Middle-Earth mythos for most of the 1930s-1950s period) and accepts his work as a serious candidate for the award, then what should one make of his work in light of the criteria mentioned above?  Does one agree with Österling’s assertion that Tolkien’s prose “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality?”  Or were there other factors at play when his work was rejected in 1961?

In evaluating Tolkien’s candidacy, one has to strip away all memories and associations with his posthumous works and legacy.  There is no “Tolkien as the founder of modern epic fantasy” to be considered here; after all, in 1961 he did not enjoy a huge international reputation, although a few translations of his work were beginning to be published then.  Nor was he associated in public or academic opinion with a particular genre, since there were no marketing spheres then labeled “fantasy.”  If anything, one will have to consider Professor Tolkien as the translator of some Midlands lays from a non-London Middle English dialect who created some quaint tales that were then compared to the works of the 19th century socialist William Morris and early 20th century academic/writer E.R. Eddison.

If evaluated in light of Morris’ lush The Well at the World’s End, which utilizes archaic speech to create an atmospheric effect of loss and desire, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would doubtless appear to be wooden and turgid in comparison.  Consider the early parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, namely the part where Frodo discusses the Black Riders with the elf Gildor:

‘I am deeply grateful,’ said Frodo; ‘but I wish you would tell me plainly what the Black Riders are.  If I take your advice I may not see Gandalf for a long while, and I ought to know what is the danger that pursues me.’

‘Is it not enough to know that they are servants of the Enemy?’ answered Gildor.  ‘Flee them!  Speak no words to them!  They are deadly.  Ask no more of me!  But my heart forbodes that, ere all is ended, you, Frodo son of Drogo, will know more of these fell things than Gildor Inglorion.  May Elbereth protect you!’

There is a narrative dissonance here, between the plain hobbit speech of Frodo (despite being educated and well-versed in at least the basics of the Elvish tongues) and the elevated diction of Gildor.  Although Tolkien notes that this effect was intentional, what it also does in certain other occasions, namely in the fighting in the halls of Moria is to create dialogue that sounds odd, if not ridiculous, to the ears of those who are equally familiar with epic poetry of the classical and medieval eras as well as with more modern prose:

‘One for the Shire!’ cried Aragorn.  ‘The hobbit’s bite is deep!  You have a good blade, Frodo son of Drogo!’

The problem here is that Tolkien is trying to adapt the structure of an early medieval saga to the novel genre.  Although there are cases in his writing (although very rare in his pre-1961 original fiction) where Tolkien manages to achieve a striking literary effect through the use of alliteration and judicious repetition of patronymic phrases, often, as in the case above, the desired effect is not achieved.  Those familiar with the “source material” possibly could be left feeling as though Tolkien had struck a flat note, as the dialogue feels off and somewhat anachronistic, especially when the lower speech of the hobbits clash with those of the knights and elves.  In addition, Tolkien is handicapped by his need to introduce elements of his invented setting into the narrative.  Although certainly this is appealing to readers who are familiar with the existence of The Silmarillion, in 1961, the overall effect was, for several readers at least, the sense that the importance of the narrative was being continually interrupted by those other creations.  As a member of the Inklings society, of which Tolkien was a member, was reported to say,  “Oh God, not another fucking elf!”, so might several contemporary readers have reacted to another poem fragment about Eärendil or Elbereth with an eye roll or a despairing thought about another intrusion into the narrative.  Today, such elements are (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as “infodumps”; for others then, they were considered to be asides that weakened the focus on the narrative.

Therefore, when strictly considered on the prose level, Tolkien’s writing plausibly can be seen as not being at the same level of the others considered in 1961.  As will be seen later when I cover their works, there is not the same degree of focus on the narrative, on the characterizations, or on thematic issues, all of which are essential items usually considered by the Nobel committee.  Tolkien in 1961 had not “founded” anything; he was a respected academic who contributed heavily to the understanding of the poems and songs of the Midlands during the Anglo-Saxon through the Plantagenet eras, but his fiction was more of a curiosity than a key contributor to global belles-lettres.  Although Österling’s criticism in the abstract sounds rather harsh to those familiar with Tolkien’s writings in 2012, in 1961 it certainly is a justifiable commentary on his work in comparison to not just the others, but also in how well he was adapt to adapt the mechanics of saga storytelling to the novel mode.  Although short shrift has been given here to comparing Tolkien’s writing to the provision spelled out in Nobel’s will regarding works of “an ideal direction,” it should suffice to say that a work that was considered to be an interesting yet flawed exploration of mapping out a fictional equivalent to a national English mythology was not going to be considered in the same light as those other works who spoke of more contemporary and less mythical social concerns.  Tolkien’s work is undoubtedly influential nearly 40 years after his death, but it would be a disservice to what he did accomplish to claim that his work would fit in well with those who were awarded Nobel prizes in Literature because his prose is not as polished nor are the thematic issues of his pre-1961 works a natural fit with the prize’s legacy.  If it had to be placed among the seven, it likely would rank at or very near the bottom due to the reasons mentioned above.  This may be a harsh assessment, but in light of the others considered in that year, it is the fairest.

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