Publishing company HarperCollins has announced this week that a new translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf by celebrated fantasy author J.R.R Tolkien is to be released in May. The translation, including commentary, will be edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who has previously been responsible for the posthumous publication of other Tolkien works including The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin.
The Significance of Beowulf
Beowulf is the oldest surviving Old English poem, and is an excellent example of early Anglo-Saxon culture. It dates from between the eighth and eleventh centuries, and survives today as part of the “Nowell Codex”, a manuscript kept by the British Library. The poem itself is a sprawling epic spanning decades which involves Beowulf, a great hero who comes to the aid of the King of the Danes who is beset by the monster Grendel. Beowulf defeats the monster and eventually becomes King himself only to perish in a battle with a dragon. Although the poem is fantastical in nature, it is widely considered to be a window into to the world of the Anglo-Saxon warrior classes and an important depiction of their oral histories.
J.R.R Tolkien’s relationship with Beowulf is interesting in two ways. Firstly, his exposure to the poem, coupled with other works of Norse mythology, at an early stage in his literary career was higly influential in his later development of his famous high fantasy concepts which would become the world of Middle Earth. It is said that the “eorclanstanas” (precious jewels) from Beowulf directly inspired the Silmarils, the jewels so crucial to his invented mythology, and the Arkenstone, one of the central plot points in his famous children’s novel The Hobbit. Secondly, Tolkien’s treatment of Beowulf in 1926 was perhaps one of the first academic works to truly recognise the literary, as opposed to the historical, value of the poem. His translation is in full prose and will also include commentaries taken from a series of lectures he gave on the topic at Oxford in the 1930s. The new publication, then, will no doubt be of great interest to scholars and fans of Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon literature alike.