Beowulf by Tolkien


J.R.R. Tolkien, known world-wide for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was a professor at Oxford University. He specialized in languages, particularly Old English and Old Norse. The poem Beowulf, written in Old English, is often cited as a major inspiration for Tolkien. The influence the poem had on his own work is hidden in plain sight. He studied, wrote about and even translated what he called the “greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art.”

He was, however, skeptical of any attempts to translate Beowulf into modern English, referring to such as abusive. He did, however, take a stab at one. Finishing a prose translation in 1926 Tolkien, not liking the results, tucked the manuscript away and hardly gave it another thought.

Eighty-eight years later, the translation is published and will be released on Thursday as Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. The translation itself is only 90 pages of the over 400 page publication. The rest of the book offers some of Tolkien’s notes on Beowulf, as well as a poem and a story, both inspired by Beowulf.

When Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced the publication in March, it was met with much excitement and a bit of grumbling. Not surprisingly, there are many fans out there who would like to read more of Tolkien’s work. Some folks, however, are dubious. They question the ethics of the publication of a work that Tolkien had hidden away, never intending on sharing the translation with the world.

Tolkien’s son, Christopher, is the editor of the translation. He points out that his father never seems to have been interested in publishing the work, but had at some point made some corrections to it. When the senior Tolkien died in 1973, Christopher became both editor and publisher of many unfinished works. One of the most anticipated was The Silmarillion. With the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, this history of the Exiled Elves was published in 1977.

Though much of his career was spent creating the tales and myths of Middle Earth, Tolkien also wrote about his favorite poem. In 1936, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics proved to be so influential, it is now given credit for breathing life back into the poem and creating a whole new audience for it.

For the book, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is actually a combination of three different manuscripts. His son has noted where the discrepancies are between the different versions. The commentary is taken from lectures Tolkien gave in the 1930’s on the topic of Beowulf. The poem that is included in the book, The Lay of Beowulf, has special significance for Christopher Tolkien. He remembers his father singing it to him when he was a child.

The story that is also included in the book is called Sellic Spell, written by Tolkien in the early 1940’s. Tolkien himself described it as a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon tale that is the foundation of the folk story element in Beowulf.

Whether anyone believes Tolkien would approve or not of this publication is a moot argument. Had he never wanted any eyes to see it, he could have simply destroyed the manuscripts. He did not. There are more than enough fans and scholars who are eager to read the book to justify the publishing of it. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, though possibly flawed, will grant his readers greater insight into a writer who is beloved and treasured.

Opinion by Stacy Lamy


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