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London’s Evening Standard ends its breezy piece on the translation by quoting the famous line in Annie Hall: “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf.” Neither Woody Allen, who took college courses in communications and film, nor Alvy Silver, his neurotic comedian in Annie Hall, ever “read”, much less translated, Beowulf in Old English.The joke is a well-understood allusion to the ubiquitous Survey of English Literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf.
Tolkien dedicated his professional life to Old English scholarship, and better than anyone, and this meticulous translation with its thoughtful, conversational notes reveal something of Tolkien as a 34-year old translator, scholar, and Oxford professor.
It is thoroughly Tolkien’s , and is brilliant in its insight. Tolkien was most dedicated to the Old English , and understood all the complexity and nuance of the Old English alliterative verse in which the poem is written.
A consummate craftsman with a special ear for contemporary idiom, Heaney does not attempt to simulate this kind of poetry, so no one gets to hear the rhythms of Old English verse in his poetic version.
But fidelity to any of the powerful sounds of poetry is not even an issue in a prose translation.
If you are looking for an unorthodox autobiography of Tolkien, this is a great resource.
If you are new to , this edition will prove a difficult, unwieldy introduction.
After all, it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an “abuse” and “hardly to my liking”. How does its unauthorised publication serve Tolkien’s reputation?
It was with his own remarks in mind that I said in a recent interview for the New York Times that “publishing the translation is a disservice to him, to his memory and his achievement as an artist”.
In line 2 the stress and linking alliteration fall on the first syllables of the first words in the two half-lines.
Then in line 3 the stress and alliteration are vocalic across the half-lines, a favourite variation in the Old English alliterative style.