Drudge Retort: The Other Side of the News
Friday, May 30, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien finished a translation of the epic "Beowulf" in 1926, when he was 34, but he put it in a drawer and never published it. Forty years after his death, his son Christopher is releasing it. "[T]here were probably few people better qualified to translate 'Beowulf' than J. R. R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien," writes Joan Acocella for the New Yorker. "He had learned Old English and started reading the poem at an early age. He loved 'Beowulf' and would declaim passages of it to the private literary club that he had founded with his schoolmates."


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There's more lost Tolkien lore coming out, per Noble Smith in Huffington Post:

Over 20 years ago, a lost recording of Tolkien was discovered in a basement in Rotterdam, but the man who found it kept this important reel-to-reel tape hidden away. Until recently, only he had heard the recording.

But now, I am one of those lucky Middle-earth lovers who has listened to this magical magnetic tape, and I happily declare that it is awesome. For it proves once and for all that Professor Tolkien was, in fact, very much the hobbit that we all suspected him to be. What's more, we get to hear Tolkien reading a lost poem in the Elven tongue which he translates into English.

And to top it off, he states in unambiguous terms (cue Rohirrim war trumpets) the real meaning of The Lord of the Rings!


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The Rotterdam Hobbit Dinner was the first of its kind, and also the last. For Tolkien never again attended another party like this in his honor. But now we have the proof of what took place on that wonderful night, and what the great author said. And the sound of Tolkien's voice, like his works, will outlast death.


#1 | Posted by Corky at 2014-05-29 11:10 AM | Reply | Flag:

Beowulf was written in Britain? You see, that's why I participate in the Drudge Retort. Not only do we get informative opinions on various topics and make awesome new friends, we learn something new everyday.

#2 | Posted by CrisisStills at 2014-05-29 02:14 PM | Reply | Flag:

GREAT GOBBETS BATMAN! His olde English is soooo refined, this translation is perhaps yet again going to break best-seller record in both nations. Layered nuance from the formally literate master of a dead language is one thing, Tolkien's deeper comprehension of glottal-rhythm makes this read sound impressively catchy. In a better world David Tibet and Douglas Pearce would see past their selfish motives and collaborate on recording this for me.

#3 | Posted by redlightrobot at 2014-05-29 03:01 PM | Reply | Flag: | Newsworthy 1

Ah, good. There are still some readers around here.

#4 | Posted by Corky at 2014-05-29 07:09 PM | Reply | Flag:

There's probably a reason he never published the translation. It's not as if he didn't have the oomf to get it out there.

#5 | Posted by pragmatist at 2014-05-30 08:42 AM | Reply | Flag:

Interesting article (the linked one). Got some new stuff about the Professor. But you know, the author blew it by referring to Lord of the Rings as the Hobbit's "three sequels." One basic thing a Tolkien commentator should know: He saw LotR as one book, not as three, and the concept of sequel, well, he would have laughed or snorted. It's all part of the tapestry, not some linear thing built to sell product. Piffle.

Anyway, cool article about the translation and his professional-artistic life.

#6 | Posted by pragmatist at 2014-05-30 08:51 AM | Reply | Flag:

Okay, so what's the true meaning? The 12 seconds of clear audio don't tell us. Okay, it's a teaser, and that's just annoying.

#7 | Posted by pragmatist at 2014-05-30 08:57 AM | Reply | Flag:

As much as I admire Tolkien, I don't think he ever meant to publish this translation. From what I can see and read it is a prose one, and probably meant for his own use. I had read that he had an unfinished alliterative translation--one that captures better the prosody of Old English poetry. He probably intended to publish that. (His translation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is very good and mimics the alliterative style.) I do not know how much of his alliterative translation of Beowulf was completed, but I would rather see that filled in with the prose translation in the gaps.

As far as the true meaning of the LOTRs is concerned, it should come as no surprise to any reader that the themes of his fantasy works are all Judeo-Christian, a major one being pride and the ego's quest to dominate corrupt and corrode the physical and spiritual world and self. These are in turn vanquished by the humble in acts of small and great self-sacrifice.

"Wes þu hal!"

#8 | Posted by Grendel at 2014-05-30 09:47 AM | Reply | Flag: | Newsworthy 1

8: Shhh, Grendel. You cannot know the true meaning until you hear the heretofore undiscovered audio tape! You presumptuous git. :)

#9 | Posted by pragmatist at 2014-05-30 10:35 AM | Reply | Flag:

I read the Lord of the Rings as one book a couple of years before the movies came out. I had read the Hobbit in school and saw the over 1,000 page book one day at the bookstore and bought it. Really good read. Loved the tracking and outdoor aspect of the book. I can't remember the characters name off hand but, remember really enjoying the guy that lived in the woods and the ring had no impact on him. He even put the ring on his finger and commented that such items don't matter to him. Anyone remember that character?

#10 | Posted by Dalton at 2014-05-30 10:46 AM | Reply | Flag:

I should have added that I never have understood why that character wasn't in the movie. Considering he was the lone character not impacted by the ring.

#11 | Posted by Dalton at 2014-05-30 10:52 AM | Reply | Flag:

#10 | Posted by Dalton
"Anyone remember that character?"

Tom Bombadil.

#12 | Posted by TheTom at 2014-05-30 10:57 AM | Reply | Flag:

Thanks Tom.

#13 | Posted by Dalton at 2014-05-30 11:07 AM | Reply | Flag:

If you read "Bored of the Rings", LOTR never has the same impact.

PS The new Hobbit movie hurls chunks. The old animated one should be the definitive one.

#14 | Posted by northguy3 at 2014-05-30 11:34 AM | Reply | Flag:

I muddled through The Simarillion about thirty years ago. I wish I hadn't.

#15 | Posted by moder8 at 2014-05-30 11:51 AM | Reply | Flag:

Maybe the world needs to read more Tolkien and less young adult vampire romance novels.

#16 | Posted by Tor at 2014-05-30 12:20 PM | Reply | Flag:

Tom Bombadil was not in the movie, I think, because he didn't need to be. It's a cool thing, to show that, to build the world more, but it doesn't really serve the narrative.

And yes, the Hobbit movie (I have seen only the first) sucked. PJ should not have made it. But his LotR is still fantastic.

"If you read "Bored of the Rings", LOTR never has the same impact."

You are too easily swayed by parody, my friend. I read Bored more than once and still have read LotR many more times and loved it each time. One can have both.

#17 | Posted by pragmatist at 2014-05-30 12:27 PM | Reply | Flag: | Newsworthy 1

My 11 year old has loved the first 2 hobbits.

just sayin....

#18 | Posted by eberly at 2014-05-30 12:28 PM | Reply | Flag:

Tom Bombadil was not in the movie, I think, because he didn't need to be. It's a cool thing, to show that, to build the world more, but it doesn't really serve the narrative.

That's probably true. It's just that when I read the book he was a really fascinating character. To be the only character not effected by the ring stood out to me.

#19 | Posted by Dalton at 2014-05-30 12:33 PM | Reply | Flag:

"Ah, good. There are still some readers around here.
#4 | Posted by Corky"

Indeed. My year-to-date:

The Fionvar Trilogy
The Mists of Avalon
The Roundhouse
Mary Stewart's Arthurian Trilogy
The Martian (en route)

#20 | Posted by mOntecOre at 2014-05-30 05:38 PM | Reply | Flag:

Oh yeah, and The Secret History

#21 | Posted by mOntecOre at 2014-05-30 05:39 PM | Reply | Flag:

Regarding Beowulf?

Anyone read "Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crichton?

It was his college project on answering one of his professor's questions on the basis of the Beowulf legend. It combined a real life account of Ibn Fadlan's experiences with the Rus (probably Swedish Vikings who had migrated to the Volga region of Russia). The book swerves into fantasy after the first three chapters, describing a Beowulf-like quest were the Volga Vikings head north in order to fight a sinister force that has been killing off northern Vikings.

I think it was the same sort of construct that was touched on in this article-what was the historical basis for the Beowulf legend. I think that's even more interesting than the legend itself.

#22 | Posted by madbomber at 2014-05-30 08:25 PM | Reply | Flag:

Eaters of the Dead

Excellent book and easier to read than Beowulf

#23 | Posted by goatman at 2014-05-30 08:27 PM | Reply | Flag:

#19 | Posted by Dalton
"It's just that when I read the book he was a really fascinating character. To be the only character not effected by the ring stood out to me."

Tolkien never explained who Bombadil was, either.

#24 | Posted by TheTom at 2014-05-31 12:06 AM | Reply | Flag:

#20 | Posted by mOntecOre
"The Fionvar Trilogy"

Ah, thank you for this! Kay is my favorite living author.

#25 | Posted by TheTom at 2014-05-31 12:09 AM | Reply | Flag:

Very cool find. Tolkien was an amazing author - certainly for beginning an entire genre, but also imagination, dedication, back story. Plenty of authors have ripped off his style. How many have created world histories, nuanced religions, and whole languages complete with syntax and grammar though? Even ones whom I believe have advanced the craft and may well be better writers (Martin, Erikson) have rarely devoted so much to create an entire other reality.

Side note on Beowulf - amazingly easier to read after you learn German. Really shows the living quality of how old English branched off from the Germanic languages and became modern.

#26 | Posted by zeropointnrg at 2014-05-31 01:07 AM | Reply | Flag:

#8 - thanks Grendel. I was curious about why the excerpts from this translation were al in prose when I assumed that a literary icon like Tolkien would do a verse translation (and likely an alliterative one at that). Your explanation makes sense to me. I really enjoy the Heaney translation. Is there another you'd recommend?

#27 | Posted by dylanfan at 2014-05-31 07:37 AM | Reply | Flag:

Thanks for the thread corky.

Cool stuff.

Fr0d0 was my first password ..ever. So many people used it (and bilbo) that now it is on the list of banned passwords because it is one of the first to be tested by cracking software.

I remember Bombadil. As Tolkien would say...Some things are an enigma and a mystery and to be left untold for perhaps another day.

#28 | Posted by donnerboy at 2014-05-31 03:05 PM | Reply | Flag:

#28 left untold for perhaps another day

Or till the next trilogy, "Things We Filmed Cause We Need The Money".

#29 | Posted by 88120rob at 2014-05-31 05:20 PM | Reply | Flag:

#27. Dylanfan. I love Seamus Heaney's poetry. I even met the man a couple of times, great person and story teller, but I am not necessarily a big fan of his version of Beowulf. I have some misgivings about his introduction of his Hiberno-English dialect into a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon work. The results is colorful to be sure, but I am a bit of a purist when it comes to the poem. I also dislike his translation of "Hwaet," the opening word of the poem, as "So." It seems too colloquial, characteristic of a informal conversation rather than the opening of an epic. Recently, there have been some new interpretation of that word as not being an interjection. Finally I will finish my rant on Heaney in that to call him a translator is to call him a bit too much. He didn't read Old English. He studied the poem with the assistance of scholars who did and did an adaption that. Again, great poet and great man--but still . . .

I have found Breeden's translation of the work to capture the original in a way that is accessible to a modern non specialist.

Like Tolkien I have a prose translation stuck in a drawer, (of course that is where the similarity ends) and I have thought about trying to adapt that into a verse one, but I am don't think the world really needs or wants another translation. Tolkien's is interesting because it's Tolkien.

#30 | Posted by Grendel at 2014-05-31 05:29 PM | Reply | Flag:

Grendel- Thanks for the recommendation! I have to laugh because this is the second time on the Drudge that I've brought up some Beowulf related work and you've been underwhelmed by it. I have a deep interest in many things Old English, but really only an undergraduate class on the History of the Language and the one book that you thought was a bit of a stretch (I forget the title offhand, but it dealt more with social history than the language anyway) under my belt. I love these small opportunities to pick your brain because I'm always looking for more ways to expand my knowledge in this area. I hope you don't mind.

I had to look up "Hiberno-English." Your criticism there seems completely valid. His use of such language seems entirely valid. I was somewhat aware of the controversy regarding the first word, and honestly I always felt "So" seemed a bit anticlimactic. And I had no idea that he didn't really "translate" it; I'll have to keep these things in mind when I finally reread it, which I've been meaning to do for quite some time.

I'm actually curious as to whether you'd recommend Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue." It's been on my read list for a while, but I also read some very heavy criticism of the book from some linguists, and while their criticism focuses on things I'd hardly notice myself, I'd still like to be reading accurate material.

Speaking of which - I'm also listening to a podcast about the history of the language. It's done by a lay person, but it seems very well researched, and I find it very entertaining in an intellectual sort of way. It's titled "The History of English Podcast," (www.historyofenglishpodcast.c
om), and while I doubt you yourself would need such a resource, you might recommend it to your students (I've always assumed you're a University professor somewhere; forgive me if I'm wrong).

Anyway, thanks for always humoring me. I think I'm done hijacking the thread now. Unless of course you respond with anything else I find fascinating.

#31 | Posted by dylanfan at 2014-06-01 12:15 AM | Reply | Flag:

Not done yet - I find it really impressive that you have a personal translation of Beowulf just sitting around. I'd love to encourage you to pitch it around some, but I assume you know the market better than I do.

As for the podcast, the publisher is actually on Beowulf right now, so this is all very timely for me. I'm loving all of it.

#32 | Posted by dylanfan at 2014-06-01 12:24 AM | Reply | Flag:

Still not quite done, but this one's for everyone:

I came across this on YouTube a few weeks ago. I'd LOVE to see this guy live!


#33 | Posted by dylanfan at 2014-06-01 12:32 AM | Reply | Flag:

Very cool reading.

#34 | Posted by Corky at 2014-06-01 01:05 AM | Reply | Flag:

"I also dislike his translation of "Hwaet," the opening word of the poem, as "So." It seems too colloquial, characteristic of a informal conversation rather than the opening of an epic."


"Recently, there have been some new interpretation of that word as not being an interjection."

Has to be one of the hardest things about translation: Idioms.

If I understand correctly, hwaet is perhaps a modifier of gefrúnon, as in "Thus have we heard", or "Jiminy Crickets, how we've all heard this!"

#35 | Posted by TheTom at 2014-06-01 01:45 AM | Reply | Flag:


I am not a big fan of Bryson's book. It is a pleasant read, but there are a number of factual errors that litter the book.

In regard to your suggestion about publishing a Beowulf translation, I think if I ever do anything, I would rather publish an on-line interactive site with the original text and hyperlink for each word--parsing it out--giving the user a kind of anatomy of the grammar, snytax and vocabulary of the original text and a very raw kind of translation. I thought about having layers of translations--from a close word for word translation, to a fairly direct but more readable prose one, to a poetic verse one that attempts to capture the poem for a modern audience. Thus the web site could be useful for scholars as well as casual readers or students.

Breedon's translation is a good read. You can find it on-line. For a close translation--with dual language-- Old English on one side and Modern on the other--find Chickering's translation. The appendices are a bit dated now, but still very useful for the beginning student.

I am curious as to what text I disparaged before in a comment.

Thank you for the link; I will check it out when I get a chance.

By the way, I am a big Dylan fan too.


Yeah, that is the gist of the newer take on the opening phrase. When I first read Heaney's, I was inclined to say, "So Hwaet"? Comically, I had thought about translating it with the British slang use of the word, "Right" for a kind of Monty Pythonesque sound: "Right! We have heard of the Spear Danes . . ."

#36 | Posted by Grendel at 2014-06-01 02:39 PM | Reply | Flag:

Grendel - love the idea for layers of translation. And I like the side by side look as well. It's one of the things that drew me to the Heaney edition in the first place. That and the snazzy cover.

The other book I had mentioned once was "Beowulf and Grendel," by John Grigsby. I finally slogged to the end of it and really enjoyed the comparative mythology bits, but a lot of it also left me in the dust.

#37 | Posted by dylanfan at 2014-06-01 05:59 PM | Reply | Flag:


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