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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf to be published
Cover art for the new Beowulf
Cover art for the new Beowulf

On 22 May 2014 the long-awaited Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien will be published by HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The book, posthumously edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher, is being published nearly 90 years after it was originally written. Tolkien, who was an expert in Old English, completed the translation of Beowulf in 1926 but it has never before been published. However his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, first published in 1937, is widely recognised as an influential piece of Beowulf research which championed the poetic value of the story rather than treating Beowulf as simply an artefact for linguistic research.

In 2002 the 2,000-page hand-written manuscript of Beowulf was discovered in the archives of the Bodleian Library with much excitement. The publication of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary comes after The Fall of Arthur in 2013 and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún in 2009.

According to its editor, Christopher Tolkien:

The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. 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.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary also contains the previously unpublished “Sellic spell” poem:

Sellic spell, a “marvellous tale”, is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the “historical legends” of the Northern kingdoms.’

Visit the Tolkien Beowulf website to read the full press release. At 448 pages long Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary will be available in hardback on 22 May 2014.

About the Author: Daniel Helen
Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society's digital operations, including this website.