01 Apr 2014

Tolkien Translation of Beowulf to be Published After 90 Years

A JRR Tolkien translation of the Old English epic Beowulf is to be published for the first time almost 90 years after he wrote it.

Tolkien’s son Christopher said his father’s work, completed in 1926, sees him “entering into the imagined past” of the epic’s heroes.

The translation of Beowulf, to be published in the UK in May by Harper Collins, will also include a series of lectures Tolkien gave at Oxford University about the poem in the 1930s.

The epic work, at more than 3,000 lines long considered the longest in Old English, tells the story of the exploits of Beowulf, a prince, and his battles with a monster named Grendel.

The sole surviving manuscript of the poem is held at the British Library in London.

JRR Tolkien, best known for his fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, himself said Beowulf was “laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination”.

Tolkien, who died in 1973, left behind him a raft of unpublished works. The new work, named Beowulf: A Translation And Commentary, is the latest posthumous publication for Tolkien following his poem The Fall Of Arthur last year.

Christopher said that although his father completed his own translation in 1926, he seems “never to have considered its publication”.

Tolkien’s son, who edited the new text, lauded his father’s “creative attention to detail” and “immediacy and clarity of 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 has inspired a swath of translations over the years, including the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s 1999 work. A children’s version by Michael Morpurgo was published in 2006.

It has also been translated into numerous languages, including modern English, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Telugu (a Dravidian language spoken in India).

Beowulf opens thus: “Hwæt w GrDena in gar-dagum / Þod-cyninga þrym gefrnon, / H p æþelingas ellen fremedon.”

Heaney translated the lines as: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”


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