Tolkien’s Translation of Beowulf To Be Published in May

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

cover beowulfThe Guardian reports that nearly 90 years after JRR Tolkien translated the 11th-century classic poem Beowulf (and just 15 years after Seamus Heaney’s translation won the Whitbread Book of the Year), the Lord of the Rings author’s version is going to be published, in an edition that his son Christopher says see his father “enter[ing] into the imagined past” of the heroes.

Beowulf which dates back to the 11th century and survives in a single manuscript (to be found at the British Library) tells the story of how the Geatish prince Beowulf came to the aid of Danish king Hroogar, slays the monster Grendel (and his mother) before finally being killed by a dragon years later.

The Guardian quotes Tolkien as calling the story “laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination,” adding that “the whole thing is somber, tragic, sinister, and curiously real.”

While Tolkien finished his translation in 1926, it appears that he “seems never to have considered its publication,” said Christopher Tolkien while announcing the deal between the Tolkien estate and HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S. to publish Beowulf: A translation and Commentary on May 22nd of this year. The book, edited by Christopher Tolkien, will also include the lectures that Tolkien gave on the poem at Oxford in the 1930s, as well as his “marvelous tale,” Sellic Spell.

Christopher Tolkien said that his father’s “creative attention to detail” in his lectures make clear “the sense and immediacy 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 Herorot.”

In the Telegraph, John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, said that the new translation would allow Tolkien’s fans to read one of the texts that was “absolutely primary” in triggering the writer’s imagination.

“If you took Beowulf away, Tolkien would not be the writer he became,” said Garth.

“It appealed to his sense of storytelling, to his sense that the world was a dark place where we all face ultimate defeat, and to his taste for sleuthing over the ancient stories that were only partially written down by the earliest writers.

“This translation unites Tolkien’s academic and imaginative sides. And there is no doubt that it will be superb. We can read Seamus Heaney’s translation, which is beautiful, but it is not written with the academic knowledge of the kind Tolkien had.

“He was an expert without equal.”

And in The Independent, Stuart Lee, a member of the English faculty at the University of Oxford said: ‘Beowulf was a text that thrilled Tolkien throughout his lifetime. He taught it and studied it and, along with many medieval texts he worked on, they found their way into his fiction.”

(Edward James, emeritus professor of medieval history at Anglia Ruskin University told the Independent that, “[Tolkien] gets the dragons in The Hobbit straight from the dragons in the final section of Beowulf.”)

James also observed that “Heaney’s translation helped sell an enormous amount of copies to people who wouldn’t otherwise have read it. This should sell to a different community who won’t perhaps have heard of Heaney but will read anything Professor Tolkien has written.”

And finally poet Simon Armitage, whose translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight hit the bestseller lists, expressed doubts about Tolkien’s translation, telling the Guardian:

“As a Prof of Old English, Beowulf would have always been in his mind and in his sights. The fact that his Beowulf has slept dusty and unpublished for so long makes me wonder if he felt confident about publishing it at all. But given the current taste for his work and the film versions of his books, it will be interesting to see if it gives Heaney’s Beowulf a run for his money, which was a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and seems to be regarded at the moment as the definitive contemporary version. I can already see it in Waterstones – the leather-bound, illustrated gift edition, filed next to The Hobbit and the boxed DVD Games of Thrones.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.