Nearly 90 years after it was written, JRR Tolkien’s translation of the epic poem Beowulf is finally set to be published. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is due to hit book stores in May. The edition will include Tolkien’s 1926 translation of the epic poem, as well as commentary from lectures given throughout the 1930s while Tolkien taught at the University of Oxford in England. Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, edited the soon to be released edition.
Beowulf is an old English epic poem whose origins are unknown. Best estimates have the poem being penned sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries. Only one known manuscript remains in existence; it is currently held in the British Library in London. The epic poem tells the tale of a Scandanavian hero named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to vanquish a man-eating monster named Grendel. The hero then returns to his homeland of Geat (believed to be in Sweden), where he is made king and rules for several decades until he confronts and kills a fire-breathing dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded during the battle and subsequently dies.
It is believed that Beowulf was the inspiration for Tolkien’s most famous works The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which have become classics in their own right. There have long been rumors that a Tolkien translation of Beowulf would be published, but the release announcement still took many by surprise who were delighted to see the date so near.
Tolkien’s academic career began in 1920 when he became a Reader (equivalent to Associate Professor) of English Language at the University of Leeds following a two-year stint as Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary. His Oxford career began in 1925 when he accepted the position of Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at the University’s Pembroke College. In 1945 he changed his appointment, becoming the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature where he remained until retiring from academics in 1959.
While teaching at Oxford, Tolkien was considered a leading Beowulf scholar, though he published very little, especially by today’s academic standards. Mark Atherton, English faculty member at the University of Oxford contends that had Tolkien not written Lord of the Rings, he would still be famous for his academic prowess, if only for one of his most notable lectures, “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics.” According to Stuart Lee, also an English faculty member at Oxford, Beowulf was a text that fascinated and intrigued Tolkien throughout his lifetime. He was eager to teach and study it along with many other medieval texts, and his passion for these texts were no doubt reflected in his fictional work.
JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf being published with added commentary is sure to intrigue fans an academics alike. Many are eager to glean Tolkien’s interpretation of the epic poem and place his commentary and translation in the context of his beloved works The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. However, those eager fans and academics will still have to wait until the book’s May release, with the wait already standing at 88 years, what’s a few more months?
By Scott Merrow
Follow Scott Merrow on Twitter @SRMerrow