Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beowulf translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien

Beowulf translated by J.R.R. Tolkien,  and Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien
Beowulf is a an Old English Epic poem, possibly the oldest surviving Old English long poem. The author is unknown. The date of composition is uncertain – 8th to early 11th century. Professor Tolkien ascribes to the earlier date. The setting is late fifth century, primarily in Denmark and Geats (modern Sweden).

Beowulf, a Geat warrior travels to Denmark as he has heard that land is troubled by the demon Grendel. Hrothgar, king of the Danes has built a glorious mead hall, but the hall is terrorized by Grendel, who regularly kills and devours Hrothgar’s mightiest knights.

Beowulf arrives and boasts that he will make battle with Grendel. He vows to face Grendel bare handed, without weapons:

No whit do I account myself in my warlike stature a man more despicable in deeds of battle than Grendel doth himself. Therefore I will not with sword give him the sleep of death, although I well could. Nought doth he know of gentle arms that he should wield weapon against me or hew my shield, fierce though he be in savage dees. Nay, we two shall this night reject the blade, if he dare have recourse to warfare without weapons, and then let the forseeing God, the Holy Lord, adjudge the glory to whichever side him seemeth meet.

Beowulf does indeed fight Grendel barehanded, rips one of his arms of at the shoulder, and Grendel flees to his death.

There is great rejoicing and the mead hall is site of revelry and celebration. But a new terror emerges as Grendel’s mother, an ogress and enchanter now seeks revenge, killing another knight.

And again Beowulf vows to destroy her. He tracks her to her lair, which lies deep under a lake, in a cavern. Beowulf does not fare well at first, but during the struggle he sees a giant sword, indeed it was giant’s sword, hanging in the lair, he uses it to kill the ogress. He also finds Grendel’s body and beheads it. After this the blade of the sword melts. Beowulf returns to the Danish king, and there is renewed celebration. This time, there is no new terror.

Beowulf returns in glory to his home, the land of the Geats. He is eventually made king, and does battle with a great dragon. He slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded in the contest. A proper funeral is observed – and thus ends the tale.

Even in translation, this is still a bit challenging to read in spots. Still, it is an exciting tale, and an important piece of literature.

Sellic Spell is Tolkiens retelling of Beowulf in modern English prose. It was of course much easier to read.

Reading Beowulf and Sellic Spell satisfied part three of the Mini-March Reading Challenge: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, WilliamShakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien.


  1. I found it challenging to read too (I had to read it once for an English class). I like the tale though, but enjoyed the movie than the poem itself.

  2. It is challenging for sure. I liked the movie too...but it was a significant departure from the original.

  3. If you have not read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, then I highly recommend it! The Tolkien translation had some interesting bits (particularly in the notes) but the Seamus Heaney translation is probably more readable. I have read it twice.


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