In the published selection from the author's lectures as a companion to his translation there can be seen, on the one hand, his very close attention to linguistic detail in the original, his search for the right meaning in descriptive words and passages (often obscured by the makers of the manuscript): such as the shaking of their mailcoats by Beowulf and his men as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, their reception by the coast-guard, the structure of the great door of Heorot, torn apart by Grendel, or the nails of his terrible hand.
On the other hand, rising above this strong sense of physical 'actuality' are views of wider significance and resonance: Heorot with its benches adorned with gold and its tapestries on the walls is seen as a great pagan sanctuary ('on this coveted site Hrothgar built his great hall'), doomed to be burnt in a ferocious vendetta. The dragon that slays Beowulf is seen 'snufffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup'; but this is not 'just another dragon tale: it is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.'
This book is not an 'edition' of Beowulf; still less does it offer a critical analysis of his views. It is intended rather as a memorial of J.R.R. Tolkien's distinctive scholarship, exemplified in his own until now unpublished words.
To the translation and the commentary has been added therefore his work Sellic Spell, 'wonderful tale', in which he imagined an early and simpler form of the story of Beowulf before there would have been any association with 'historical legends' of the ancient Scandinavian kingdoms; and two versions of his Lay of Beowulf, a rendering of the story in the form of a brief ballad intended to be sung. (cont'd)