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JRR Tolkien was an acknowledged expert on the Old English heroic poem "Beowulf", the longest alliterative work surviving in that language. His best-known commentary on the poem is the essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", which was given as the Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on 25th November 1936 and published in Volume XXII of the Proceedings of the Academy. The essay is available in reprint form, and as part of the collection JRR Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics (HarperCollins UK, 1997).
Dr. Michael Drout, assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, was researching Anglo-Saxon scholarship at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England when he noticed the manuscripts of Tolkien's Beowulf translation in the library storage box that also contained the type carbons of the "Monsters" lecture. He was delighted and, unlike the many previous scholars who have leafed through the box, immediately approached the Tolkien Estate for permission to prepare and publish an edition of the work.
However at present the future of this project is not known.
Dr. Drout has already published Tolkien's earlier unpublished collection of notes on Beowulf criticsm, Beowulf and the Critics (not to be confused with any of the volumes above), in the USA in 2002. Tolkien used these notes as part of the material from which to write his famous essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics".
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, now in the British Museum, probably written out around the year 1000 in the "classical" West-Saxon of the Wessex kingdom of Alfred and Ethelred. Scholars believe, on linguistic grounds, that the poem took its present shape in the eighth century in England somewhere north of the Thames, in Mercia or Northumbria. The events of the poem are set not in England, but in Denmark and Sweden (as they are now) in the 5th or 6th century.
The poem contains a cup-conscious dragon (less conversational than Smaug) and passing references to ylfe (elves, used to refer both to traditional Germanic and Classical otherworld people in Old English), orc-neas (evil spirits or monsters of an uncertain kind; "orc" singly in Beowulf is a different word meaning a large drinking vessel) and ent, an Old English word for "giant". Elves and giants are mentioned in various Old English sources, but Tolkien is the only author to cast his own "giants" as walking tree-people.
Tolkien borrowed very little from Old English for his elvish languages (among his borrowings was the name "Earendil", from an Old English star-name Earendel, one of the starting points for his Arda mythologies), since his earliest writings contain an Anglo-Saxon hero alongside his elvish peoples. But he had a great love for Old English, translated some short sections of his Silmarillion stories into Old English prose, and gave the language to his "heroic" people, the Rohirrim, in The Lord of the Rings. The version spoken by the Rohirrim is said to be the Mercian dialect, very similar but not identical to the Wessex dialect of Beowulf.
7th December 2002 - 12th January 2003
Here are some photos from Ted Nasmith's London exhibition in 2003. The exhibition opened on Saturday 7th December, and several members of the Tolkien Society went to see it on the first day. There were some impressive pictures, and the entire first floor was devoted to Ted's work. It is well worth a visit, but be warned: if you are hoping to buy something, the prices are quite serious, and some works had been sold by 17:00 on the day of opening.
Clearly Ted Nasmith's popularity has not declined. Here are some views of the gallery:
The webmaster and another Northfarthing Smial member admire one of the paintings.
Looking in the other direction in the main room.
This little book has Tolkien's essential short story Leaf By Niggle, the companion essay On Fairy-Stories, and the oft-quoted but little published poem Mythopoeia. Also The narrative poem The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son and the companion essay Ofermod. Available from UK dealers, £6.99.
If you have this and the volume The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (HarperCollins) you have the majority of Tolkien's popular essays and lectures.