Beowulf was my first major introduction to original myth. The translation I read was a bilingual edition by Seamus Heaney which I had purchased at the gift shop in the British Library in London, England. Some years later I also read J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation. I now lay before you, briefly, my reflections on the two translations.
Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf into poetic form. Being at the time new to all Anglo-Saxon literature, I was struck by the overall ring of the text. The style was almost blunt, yet supremely elegant in places. The metaphorical language enchanted me: mail-shirts ‘grey as hoar-frost’,1 ‘ring-whorled’ ships’ prows, ‘ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince’,2 as well as the myriad of compound words common in the Anglo-Saxon language.
J.R.R. Tolkien translated Beowulf into prose. His translation is somewhat less direct than that of Heaney. The style is more elaborate. It is richer, thick with solid description, though nonetheless still strong, resonant, and forceful. Many of the metaphors and compound words used in Heaney’s translation are still present in that of Tolkien, though the overall quality is more high-flown.3
Tolkien translates hwæt, the first word of the poem, as ‘Lo!’, a word which I hear in my head as Behold! listen to this grand story which I will tell you. This sets and matches the imposing tone of the text. Heaney translates hwæt as ‘So.’, which he confesses is somewhat unconventional.4 Nevertheless, it too flows with the simplicity and authority of his translation.
I know not whether it was by some trick of the teller or by the prose form itself, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation changed the way I read Beowulf. When I read Heaney’s poetic translation, I was able to envision the setting in which the story would have been told: a thane and his company seated about a bard, the firelight flickering on tall pillars and lofty wood beams, the timbered harp trembling with sweetness at the poet’s touch.5 However, in reading Tolkien’s prose translation I was in the story itself, mounting the prow of that good ship and speeding over ‘the waters where the swan rides’6 to the succour of Hrothgar, son of Halfdane.
Despite being a loyal Tolkien fan, I must confess my preference for Seamus Heaney’s translation. The overall flavour of his text has stayed with me and is the one that comes to mind at every mention of ‘Beowulf’. I also delight in the literary experience of mentally hearing the story in its historical setting. However, there is still much to be said for the experience of being in the story itself. Also, at the time I read Tolkien’s translation I was much more linguistically and mythologically aware and able to have a greater appreciation for the poem itself, regardless of the translator. Perhaps I am biased towards my first reading, or to the beautiful copy of it I own, but I think not.
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1Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, l. 2153. (This is the copy I own. However, I have not purchased from this company before. Here is a copy available on Amazon, though I have no experience with this publisher.)
2Ibid. ll. 32-33
3However, I did miss Heaney’s ‘mail-shirt grey as hoar-frost’ (l. 2153), which in Tolkien’s translation only reads ‘the grey corslet’ (l. 1808).
4Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Introduction. Hwæt has no direct English translation. It is a sort of commanding word-of-introduction and usually translated as lo, hark, listen or other such words.
5Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, ll. 2107-2108
6J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf, l. 162