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From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.
But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is "the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history" that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure’ is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination."
Sellic spell, a "marvellous tale", is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the "historical legends" of the Northern kingdoms.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-05-26
- Reviewer: Staff
More than a decade before writing The Hobbit, Tolkien completed his translation from the Old English of this epic poem, whose influence on his Lord of the Rings Trilogy is well known. Tolkien continued to refine the phrasing even after 1926, but this rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans. Tolkien conveys both the pageantry of the fifth-century Danish court and the physicality of the battle between Geat hero Beowulf and man-eating monster Grendel. His alliterative phrasing—"biting the bone-joints...great gobbets gorging down," "a dragon, even he who on the high heath watched his hoard"—finds some of the same poetry in the archaic prose as Seamus Heaney's celebrated 2000 translation. In Beowulf's fight to the death with a gold-hoarding dragon, readers familiar with Tolkien's fiction will see a precursor of his dragon nemesis Smaug. Editor Tolkien includes lengthy commentary extracted from his father's lectures at Oxford University, as well as "Sellic Spell," a previously unpublished fantasy that imagines Beowulf's biographical backstory, and "The Lay of Beowulf," two versions of a poem on the epic's theme. Scholars will no doubt continue to debate Tolkien's interpretation, but lovers of Tolkien's work will agree that this is a book long overdue. (May 22)