Tolkien’s 88-year-old ‘Beowulf’ translation to be published this spring

BY Zachary Treu  March 19, 2014 at 5:17 PM EDT
An 88-year-old translation of ‘Beowulf’ will soon join J.R.R. Tolkien’s published bibliography

An 88-year-old translation of ‘Beowulf’ will soon join J.R.R. Tolkien’s published bibliography. Photo of “Beowulf” manuscript courtesy of Carson-Newman College.

One of the oldest, longest and most influential works in the history of Old English will soon be experienced through the eyes of one of the world’s most beloved fantasy authors.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of “Beowulf,” completed in 1926, will be published in May, his son Christopher Tolkien told The Guardian. In Tolkien’s version, the esteemed author utilizes a “creative attention to detail” that brings new life and a new perspective to the poem, according to his son.

“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 Heorot.”

Tolkien, revered author of “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” series, was also a well-known scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature. His 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” was a milestone moment in the study of the poem, significant in shaping how the piece is read and understood in modern times.

His own writing was influenced in no small way by “Beowulf.” Tolkien scholar John Garth told The Guardian that the poem had “a deep and detailed impact on what Tolkien wrote – from his earliest poem of Middle-Earth, written in September 1914, right through ‘The Hobbit’ with the theft of a cup from a dragon hoard, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with the arrival at the halls of Rohan.”

This new translation — released 15 years after Seamus Heaney’s version became an international bestseller — is expected to be well-received by Tolkien’s fans.

“I can already see it in [British bookstore chain] Waterstones — the leather-bound, illustrated gift edition, filed next to ‘The Hobbit’ and the boxed DVD ‘Game of Thrones,’” said poet Simon Armitage.

“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,” including the translations, a series of lectures given about the poem, and a “marvelous tale” written by Tolkien, will be released on May 22 through HarperCollins.