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Christopher Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: a translation and commentary together with Sellic Spell’

An introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 2014.

‘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 It is intended rather as a memorial of J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinctive scholarship, exemplified in his own until now unpublished words.’

Edited by Christopher Tolkien, this work contains J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf, together with his notes and commentaries; also the author’s tale entitled Sellic Spell, his version of the same in Old English, and two versions of a poem, The Lay of Beowulf

A prose translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was completed by 1926, when he was thirty-four, and at the time he was elected to the professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. The text was ‘completed’, in the sense that it ran from the beginning to the end of the poem, but cannot be called ‘finished’, for he returned to it in later years for hasty corrections where his view of the interpretation of Old English words or passages, or the suitability of his modern words, had changed. But much light is shed on the translation in his university lectures of the 1930s that were expressly devoted to the text of the poem, and from them a commentary has been devised for this book.

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 ‘snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup’.

However 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’.

To the translation and the commentary has been added 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. In the only extant note on this tale, J.R.R. 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 – in many points it is not possible to do that with certainty; in some points (e.g. the omission of the journey of Grendel’s dam) my tale is not quite the same.


Its principal object is to exhibit the difference of style, tone and atmosphere if the particular heroic or historical is cut out. Of course we do not know what precisely was the style and tone of these lost Old English things. I have given my tale a Northern cast of expression by putting it first into Old English. And by making it timeless I have followed a common habit of folk-tales as received.

As far as Beowulf goes I have attempted to [?draw] a form of story that would have made linking with the Historial Legend easiest – especially in the character of Unfriend. And also a form that will “explain” Handshoe and the disappearance of the companions in the tale as we have it. That the third companion “Ashwood” is in any way related to the coastguard is a mere guess.

The only daughter comes in as a typical folk-tale element. I have associated her with Beowulf. But here the original process was evidently actually more intricate. More than one tale (or motive of tales) was associated with the Danish and Geatish royal houses.’

Finally, the book contains two versions of the author’s own Lay of Beowulf, a rendering of the story in the form of a ballad intended to be sung.

Grendel came forth in the dead of night;
the moon in his eyes shone glassy bright,
as over the moors he strode in might,
until he came to Heorot.

Dark lay the dale, the windows shone;
by the wall he lurked and listened long,
and he cursed their laughter and cursed their song
and the twanging harps of Heorot.