Tolkien’s Beowulf: one man’s passion for the threshold between myth and reality

New Statesman Beowulf review by John Garth

My review in the New Statesman, including a 1914 illustration of Beowulf

Review

Beowulf: a Translation and Commentary, Together with “Sellic Spell”
J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 425pp, £20

In his story “Leaf by Niggle”, J.R.R. Tolkien imagines an artist painting a picture he can neither complete nor abandon. “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.” In the end the picture is never put on show.

The metaphor captures the scale and gorgeous impracticality of Tolkiens writing but not its fate. Most of his “tree” has been saved and his posthumous titles outnumber those published in his lifetime by roughly three to one. In this latest book, a deep root is exposed: his work on the Old English poem Beowulf. The surprise is how “fantastic” the root turns out to be, twisting thirstily through the scholarly subsoil to tap the groundwater of a forgotten folk tale – or “fairy story”, as Tolkien prefers to call it.

Continue reading at the New Statesman

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