hwæt: now, indeed; what; what!, listen!, hark!, lo!
Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
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
J R R Tolkien would’ve been astonished to survey our literary landscape. It changed beyond recognition in the four decades since his passing. He is certainly gained in popularity posthumously and is more famous around the world now than his beloved Old English “fairy stories” were at the time when he taught at Oxford.
Even writings he never intended for publishing became published books. Beowulf is one of such books.
While Tolkien’s true fans happy to welcome Beowulf — and anything that he ever wrote with or without intention of publishing — some Tolkien scholars aren’t all that happy.
Why Tolkien hated his translation of Beowulf? asks Kevin Kiernan (Conversation UK.)
After all, it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an “abuse” and “hardly to my liking”. He left it behind and forgot about it. 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”. His own assessment suggests he would have destroyed it, if he imagined anyone might publish it with selections from his undergraduate lecture notes.
In his story “Leaf by Niggle”, J R R Tolkien wrote about an artist who is painting a picture of a leave caught in the wind. He deems it forever incomplete but cannot abandon his work.
There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations…
…Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do…
…There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots.
Some suggest that the artist and the painting in this story are keen metaphors for Tolkien and his translation of Beowulf.
Others painstakingly take the Tolkien’s prose apart and compare the merit of his translation to the poetic verses of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
The great Irish bard, the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, Seamus Heaney died less than a year ago. Everyone who’s playing the “who has done it better” game wonder what Seamus would have said about Tolkien’s Beowulf and Tolkien’s son Christopher who made it all possible.
But never mind that. When was the last time a controversy was bad for publicity and marketing?
Besides, shouldn’t it has been for the Lord of the Ring franchise, how many people would have read Beowulf for sheer enjoyment of Old English lore?
How many people can recite a verse or two of Heaney’s Beowulf ? I certainly can’t. But my excuse is better than yours.