A full decade before he penned The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien completed a prose translation of the epic Old English poem Beowulf.
Even if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, his name was well-known in scholarly circles for his interest in Beowulf. Tolkien was a linguist with a special interest in Old English, and as Beowulf is considered to be one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature it is no surprise that Tolkien tried his hand at a translation of the epic poem. While his own translation remained tucked away for decades, his knowledge on the subject was widely-known during his life.
Tolkien’s famous 1936 lecture, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, has long been regarded as a key piece in modern studies of Beowulf, and a turning point in the scholarly review of the epic. Seamus Heaney widely credited Tolkien’s take on the poem in his own well-read New Verse Translation. Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter suggests that students in Tolkien’s lectures on Beowulf would have gotten a taste of his passion for the subject: ”He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon… it was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that Beowulf was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of examination, but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry.”
In spite of this passion (or, perhaps, because of it), the Tolkien Beowulf remained unpublished. Tolkien later wrote an essay, On Translating Beowulf, in which he cautioned against the reduction of the epic to “plain prose.” Tolkien returned to his own translation infrequently through the remainder of his life and did not see to its publication.
All that changes this Thursday with the HarperCollins publication of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christpher Tolkien, served as the editor, combining several versions of his father’s work for the publication. The book promises Tolkien’s translation of the Old English epic, selections of commentary from his lectures on the subject, and the short story Sellic Spell, which is a recreation of a Norse folk story.
Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary will be available on Thursday, May 22, 2014.