Book Reviews    April 3, 2015     Eric Larkin

Other than Caedmon’s hymnsBeowulf is the first English literature, our first poetry.  It barely survived extinction twice.  It is not valued just because of its age and unlikely survival but because it’s really damn good.  Don’t feel bad if you consider yourself somewhat educated, but have never read Beowulf.  It proves the paucity of American education to me that I wasn’t exposed to it until I was in an actual Old English course in college. That’s short-shrift for a work that captures the transition from pagan to Christian, is history and legend and myth, is exciting and deep and can be interpreted in so many ways.  Also, it represents a specifically English style of verse (by way of our Germanic roots), ignoring rhyme for alliteration and a particular meter. (Please see CS Lewis’s essay “The Alliterative Metre” in his Selected Literary Essays).

It’s the story of Beowulf the warrior (then king), who faces down three terrible monsters.

We are doomed as a culture because Beowulf is not the first poetry we study in English classes. DOOMED, I TELL THEE.  We’d be better equipped if we started out learning to face our unbeatable monsters and dragons with our bare hands. As CS Lewis said (on geek boards all over Pinterest), “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”

Here is a brief look at three translations: Heaney, Raffel & Tolkien.


photo courtesy of Joel Hay, CC2.0

Tolkien’s recently published translation is actually the oldest of the three. His translation is from the ‘20s, but Christopher Tolkien has coupled it with his father’s several decades’ worth of notes from lectures and studies. The translation is prose – which strikes me as odd, since Tolkien was certainly a gifted poet – and the language has a medieval feel “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.”  You get used to it. The real attraction of the book is Tolkien’s notes. It’s an excellent thing to watch him parse his way through the text like a boss, eliminating possibilities until only the inevitable is left. Also, Tolkien is funny as hell: “They got their sense of ‘horror and woe’ not just crudely because an announcement in an ancient English hall ‘no beer tonight’ would have caused horror and woe (or even panic), but because ealu [ale] and meodu [mead] were symbols of the mirth and pleasure of peace, and life at its brief and passing best.” You can almost smell the pipe smoke. He also wrote the most important single piece of Beowulf scholarship, like, ever – Beowulf- The Monsters and The Critics. Or here are excerpts, if you don’t want to read 20+ pages of brilliance (your loss, lazybones). The notes really feel like you’re getting a tour backstage of all things Anglo-Saxon.

Burton Raffel’s offering is from the ‘60s, and is in verse. His intro – as with that of both Tolkien and Heaney – is absolutely worth the read.  The language is a bit  more contemporary than Tolkien.  Here is the same opening line I quoted above: “Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes/ Ancient kings and the glory they cut/ For themselves, swinging mighty swords!”  Pretty damn different from the Tolkien. Raffel is known not specifically for his Beowulf translation or for his poetry (Beethoven in Denver), but for his developed technique for translation.  Check out his essay in CipherJournal for a taste of the approach he details in The Art of Translating Poetry and The Art of Translating Prose. His list of translations reads like a world literature syllabus: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (and a stack of other medieval romances), The Canterbury Tales, Gargantua and Pantagruel (the French gave him an award for that one), Das Nibelungenlied, The Red and the Black, The Divine Comedy, etc., etc. with a special mention for his Norton Critical Edition of Don Quixote.  Calm down, Professor Raffel, pace yourself, please. If you want a taste of Old English poetry right in your earhole, check out these recordings he made with Robert Payson Creed. Pretty stellar.

Seamus Heaney passed in August 2013.  He was 25% more Irish than Bono, and, with his Nobel Prize, in the company of Shaw, Yeats and Beckett. His translation, from the late ‘90s, doesn’t feel like a translation to me. There is no way I could know this, of course, but it feels like I imagine it would have felt to an Anglo-Saxon.  “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness./ We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”  I mean that it doesn’t feel presentational; it feels like story-telling. It doesn’t feel old. It’s not contemporized, though. “Spear-Danes” sticks out, but you don’t have to rummage through your college notes to understand what it means. Your brain lands where it should: those guys “had courage and greatness.” That’s what the poet is saying, and the translation doesn’t get in the way. Here’s Heaney himself reading the Grendel fight section. [spoiler alert]…

So solid, so sharp – all these guys. THIS IS OUR HERITAGE, ENGLISH-SPEAKERS. Stoked.

It would be the dumbest thing ever for me to criticize Heaney, Tolkien or Raffel in their approaches to Beowulf, as they are scholars and poets.  (All I have are reams of shitty poetry from college and a lucky B in Old English.) Each approach offers something different. I’ve heard that Heaney’s translation is not considered the most accurate, but so what? It’s a version. (Speaking of the Irish, have you heard Vieux Farka Touré’s cover of U2’s Bullet the Blue Sky? It’s kinda different; it’s kinda awesome. It’s a version.) If you want to recite the poem aloud in a meadhall, go with the Heaney.  If you want to root around thru the words, understand why this but not that and so forth – go with the Tolkien. Raffel is your man if you are thinking, “How do they do this? How can I, too, translate the great works of literature into my own language?”  And don’t think that the translation doesn’t matter. Translation is part of the literature; the details matter.   You could read them all, and it wouldn’t be a waste of time. I suppose a sleuth of translations will explore a given work better than that work in its original alone. Each light will reflect off different facets.

The real competition  between these three is, of course… merchandising.  Let’s go with coffee mugs:  a respectable, if straight-forward, Heaney mug…

He’s turning all your asinine comments into limericks in his head, but will still have something pleasant to say to you when you finally stop yapping


an interpretive mug for JRR7182793_9662820-mugs11_l












I found this amazing Burton Raffel mug on Etsy, commemorating his Frances Steloff Prize.

Not really – I made it with tape – but the man deserves a mug, dammit – was there no Steloff Prize swag?!


I guess the merchandising war is a toss-up.



NOTE:  The Tolkien Beowulf also includes his own folk-tale version of the story, called Sellic Spell , in both Old and Modern English, and two short poems on Beowulf. Says Christopher Tolkien in the notes, “I remember his singing this ballad to me when I was seven or eight years old….”. Ah, man. With that, it should be clear why Tolkien the Younger ain’t super keen on the Hollywoodization of all things Tolkien. Nuff said.



YO! Don’t forget to always check Thug Notes when you’re digging the classics!


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