Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (445 pages, Kindle Edition).
Wilson, Douglas. Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering (152 pages).
My only exposure to Beowulf was in high school literature, which clearly made no impression (since I remember nothing from it). Last year proved to be the perfect storm of (re)kindling interest in the ancient epic: N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur integrates Beowulf into the story, and Christopher Tolkien compiled and released his father’s translation and commentary on it as well.
Wilson’s “new verse rendering” is not a strict translation, he admits, but rather an attempt to convey the poetic mastery of the anonymous poet. Tolkien’s work is a true translation, one whose goal is to better convey the sense of the Anglo-Saxon original text. Reading the two together turned out to be extremely helpful; they were mutually interpreting and enlightening.
Tolkien’s commentary was more or less helpful. When he deals with sixth-century history and culture, it greatly added to my understanding of the story. The textual criticism of the Anglo-Saxon original document(s) was generally less so. Most of the comments were taken from his course in the language at Oxford, so its presence is no surprise. In my experience, it was skimmed with impunity.
Wilson’s book ends with two of his essays, the first of which argues that Beowulf is a work of apologetics at the end of paganism and the advent of Christianity in Scandinavia. It’s a powerful argument–one that definitely made me appreciate the poem even more.
Another element of Tolkien’s work that I found quite interesting is the crossover between Beowulf and The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings. I knew that Meduseld was based on Heorot, but there are several interesting parallels. The dragon that kills Beowulf (spoiler alert!) screams Smaug. The thief who stirred the dragon was the 13th member of the party led to slay him (hello, Bilbo Baggins!). Even the term “middle-earth” and several names are brought over into Tolkien’s fantasy classic.
If you’re seriously interested in Beowulf, I’d recommend reading these two together. If you need something to pique your curiosity, I’d recommend Wilson’s book first. Read the essays first, then the poem, then the essays again. It’s helpful to see what to expect, then have a refresher of what you just saw.