Read an Excerpt of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 Translation of Beowulf Before It’s Finally Published Next Month


For the first time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 trans­la­tion of the 11th cen­tu­ry epic poem Beowulf will be pub­lished this May by Harper­Collins, edit­ed and with com­men­tary by his son Christo­pher. The elder Tolkien, says his son, “seems nev­er to have con­sid­ered its pub­li­ca­tion.” He left it along with sev­er­al oth­er unpub­lished man­u­scripts at the time of his death in 1973. The edi­tion will also include a sto­ry called Sel­l­ic Spell and excerpts from a series of lec­tures on Beowulf Tolkien deliv­ered at Oxford in the 1930s. Tolkien did pub­lish one of those lec­tures, “The Mon­ster and the Crit­ic,” in 1936. In this “epoch-mak­ing paper,” writes Sea­mus Heaney in the intro­duc­tion to his huge­ly pop­u­lar 1999 dual lan­guage verse edi­tion, Tolkien treat­ed the Beowulf poet as “an imag­i­na­tive writer,” not a his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion. His “bril­liant lit­er­ary treat­ment changed the way the poem was val­ued and ini­ti­at­ed a new era—and new terms—of appre­ci­a­tion.” This very same thing could be said of Heaney’s trans­la­tion which, true to his stat­ed goals, brought the poem out of aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences and class­rooms and into liv­ing rooms and cof­fee shops every­where. (You can hear Heaney read from that trans­la­tion here.)

Nowhere in Heaney’s intro­duc­tion to his ver­sion does he men­tion Tolkien’s trans­la­tion of the poem, so we must pre­sume he did not know of it. Long before Tolkien’s lec­tures and trans­la­tion, Beowulf had been per­haps the most revered poem in the Eng­lish lan­guage, at least since the 18th cen­tu­ry, when the sole man­u­script was res­cued from fire and and trans­lat­ed and dis­sem­i­nat­ed wide­ly. Despite that sta­tus, Beowulf was not actu­al­ly writ­ten in English—not an Eng­lish we would recognize—but in Old Eng­lish, or Anglo-Sax­on. As read­ers of Heaney’s dual trans­la­tion will know, that dis­tant provin­cial ances­tor of the mod­ern glob­al lan­guage, named for the mix­ture of Ger­man­ic peo­ples who inhab­it­ed Eng­land 1000 years ago, appears most­ly alien to us now. (To add to the strange­ness, its unfa­mil­iar alpha­bet once con­sist­ed entire­ly of runes).

The poem, more­over, is not set in Eng­land, but where Shake­speare set his Ham­let, Den­mark. Its tit­u­lar hero, a prince from Geat (ancient Swe­den), stalks a mon­ster named Gren­del on behalf of Dan­ish king Hroð­gar, killing the monster’s moth­er along the way. Tolkien’s almost uni­ver­sal­ly beloved body of fic­tion was deeply influ­enced by Beowulf. Nev­er­the­less, his trans­la­tion may be less acces­si­ble than Heaney’s, though no less beau­ti­ful, per­haps, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. In Heaney’s verse, one hears Ted Hugh­es, some echoes of Mil­ton, Heaney’s own voice. If we are to cred­it the red­di­tor who post­ed a now-defunct 2003 arti­cle from Cana­di­an news­pa­per Nation­al Post that quotes from Tolkien’s trans­la­tion, the Hob­bit author’s verse hews to a more direct cor­re­spon­dence with the Anglo Sax­on, a lan­guage made of giant rocks and tim­ber and crash­ing waves, not ele­gant, elab­o­rat­ed claus­es. The Nation­al Post arti­cle announces the dis­cov­ery at Oxford of the Tolkien trans­la­tion by Eng­lish Pro­fes­sor Michael Drout (a sto­ry he’s since debunked), and quotes from both Heaney and Tolkien. See the com­par­i­son below:

Heaney’s trans­la­tion:

Time went by, the boat was
on water,
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eager­ly up the
sand churned in surf, war­riors
a car­go of weapons, shin­ing
in the ves­sel’s hold, then
heaved out,
away with a will in their
wood-wreathed ship.

Tolkien’s trans­la­tion of Beowulf and his men set­ting sail:

On went the hours:
ocean afloat
under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithe­ly
brave man aboard;
break­ers pound­ing
ground the shin­gle.
Gleam­ing har­ness
they hove to the bosom of the
bark, armour
with cun­ning forged then cast
her forth
to voy­age tri­umphant,
fleet foam twist­ed.

One won­ders what the recent­ly depart­ed Irish poet would have said had he lived to read this Tolkien edi­tion. Might it, as Heaney said of his lec­tures, change the way the poem is val­ued? Or might he see it resem­bling oth­er dif­fi­cult attempts to make mod­ern Eng­lish repli­cate the strong­ly inflect­ed built-in rhythms of Anglo-Saxon—a lan­guage, Tolkien once said, from “the dark hea­then ages beyond the mem­o­ry of song.”

You can pre-order a copy of Tolkien’s trans­la­tion of Beowulf here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sea­mus Heaney Reads His Exquis­ite Trans­la­tion of Beowulf and His Mem­o­rable 1995 Nobel Lec­ture

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Per­son­al Book Cov­er Designs for The Lord of the Rings Tril­o­gy

“The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor” Presents Three Free Cours­es on The Lord of the Rings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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