J. R. R. Tolkien’s 90 year-old translation of the 11th century poem “Beowulf” was released last Thursday all around the world under the title of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. The volume, itself more than 400 pages long, includes prints of Tolkien’s lectures on the topic from his times as a lecturer at Oxford in the 1930s, the short story “Sellic Spell”, written by Tolkien as a simplified version of “Beowulf”, two songs about Beowulf which he wrote for his children, as well as various notes and passages from the original.
New and Different
Until last Thursday, the translation (together with various other materials) was kept from the common public. But Christopher Tolkien, the writer’s 89 year-old son, finally decided to edit and publish the manuscript. The publishing house responsible for it is HarperCollins, which has already dealt with other previously unpublished material from the author. David Brawn, from HarperCollins publishing, has stated that the book is being marketed carefully in order to avoid confusion among Tolkien’s fans. The new volume is in fact a very long, scholarly book which, although deeply related to Tolkien’s own writing (he recognised himself the deep influence that “Beowulf” had on The Hobbit and Middle Earth in general), it is far from being aimed at Tolkien’s regular readers.
“Beowulf” and its Influence
Tolkien’s comments on “Beowulf” regard the latter as a story laden with history and appealing to imagination for it being unreachable within the limits of memory. He translated “Beowulf” in 1926, but he continued to study the poem for many years after that. Brawn stated his belief that the translation was never meant to be published and added that had the author intended to publish it, he would have continued to work on it in later years.
The story behind the poem deals with the classical opposition between man and monster, and was written in Old English between the 8th and the 12th century. Since then, it has been translated into Modern English in several occasions, and deeply studied by scholars.