J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf Translation

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Though known to most people today as the author of ''The Lord of the Rings'' and ''The Hobbit,'' J.R.R. Tolkien was also one of the most respected scholars of medieval literature in the 20th century. His translation of the medieval poem ''Beowulf'' was not published until 2014, nearly 90 years after it was completed.

Author and Scholar

Readers and movie fans worldwide know J.R.R. Tolkien as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its prequel, The Hobbit. Tolkien's books are among the most widely-read and beloved novels of the 20th century and are foundational in the genre of fantasy literature.

However, before his books became bestsellers in the 1950s and 1960s, and way before they formed the basis for a gigantic movie franchise, Tolkien was already well-known in the world of literature studies. As a professor at Oxford University, he became one of the most respected scholars of medieval literature, or the literature that was produced in Europe's medieval period, which is roughly identified as between the years 500 and 1500 CE.

As a professor, Tolkien translated the Old English poem Beowulf, but never published it. However, he still became an influential figure in studies of the poem through his lectures and criticism. In 2014, Tolkien's son Christopher published the translation and Tolkien's Beowulf lectures, highlighting both his outstanding academic work and the influence that work had on Tolkien's novels.

About Beowulf

Beowulf is a poem by an anonymous writer that was probably written around the 8th century CE. It was found in a single manuscript copy in the 15th century. Beowulf is considered one of the earliest and most important works of English literature. However, the poem is written in Old English, an ancient form of the language that is indecipherable to modern English speakers without special training. For example, this is the first line of the poem: ''Hwaet! We Gardena in geargadum.''

The poem tells the story of the heroic warrior-king Beowulf and is divided into three parts, each centering on a conflict with a monster: the giant Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a dragon. Beowulf successfully slays all three monsters but dies in battle with the dragon.

Tolkien's Beowulf

Tolkien began translating Beowulf in the mid-1920s while a young professor at the University of Leeds. He completed it in 1926 but never published it, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Some speculate his perfectionism led him to not feel that it was ever ready for publication.

However, he still became one of the primary Beowulf scholars thanks to his 1936 lecture and essay 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.' In this essay, he criticized the typical scholarly approach to the poem, which, to him, focused on Beowulf primarily as a historical artifact rather than a work of literature. He argued the poem is valuable not just for its vivid portraits of early medieval culture, but also as a powerful story of mortality, tracking Beowulf's progress from a young warrior battling Grendel to an aged king dying in battle against the dragon.

This focus on the thematic content of the poem comes through in Tolkien's translation. Unlike other translators, such as Seamus Heaney, Tolkien does not attempt to recreate the original poem's unique poetic structure, but is instead written in prose, or non-poetic writing. This allows Tolkien's version to focus on the themes of heroism and mortality.

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