Read an excerpt from Tolkien’s Beowulf translation

JRR Tolkien fans are rejoicing this month in eager anticipation of The Lord of the Rings author’s translation of the renowned Old English poem, Beowulf – eighty-eight years after he wrote it.

Published by Harper Collins and due for release on May 22nd, 2014, Tolkien’s translation will include a commentary on the 11th century poem as well as his previously unreleased tale, The Sellic Spell.

According to the Guardian, Tolkien described the Old English poem as “laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination”, saying that “the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real”. However, the story of how the translation came to be, and why it is only being published now in 2014, is almost as bewitching as the tale of Beowulf itself.

The story behind Tolkien’s Beowulf translation

For years, Tolkien’s translation was shrouded in a cloud of mystery. Tolkien first translated Beowulf in 1926, frequently refining it in the succeeding years.

Publishing the translation, however, appears not to have been something he had ever considered. A bizarre decision, given he gave a series of lectures on the poem as a professor at Oxford University.

Rumours of its imminent release date back as far as 2003, when newspapers reported that it had been accidentally unearthed in an Oxford University Library. The man said to have discovered it – Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, Massachusetts – has explicitly denied the claim that he “discovered” it on his blog in March this year.

Tolkien’s translation has indeed long been known of within the Tolkien Estate and among Tolkien scholars. The translated excerpt below was published as long ago as 1940, in an introductory chapter to an updated edition of John R. Clark Hall’s translation poem, the chapter being entitled On Translating Beowulf. Although it is only a single verse and a single prose, it is the only excerpt that has ever been publicly published and is widely expected to conform with the translation to be released this month.

Drout was working on an edition of Tolkien’s translation with permission from the Tolkien Estate. That permission was withdrawn, however, upon the press publishing the excerpt below, which the Tolkien Estate believed Drout had leaked to the press, although he had merely pointed a reporter towards Tolkien’s On Translating Beowulf introduction. The translation was nevertheless covered by the world’s press in a fury, given that the release of the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers, was only a matter of weeks away.

Now it seems as though the Tolkien Estate has decided to take on the work itself, with Tolkien’s son, Christopher, undertaking the editing responsibilities.

Why Tolkien’s translation is a big deal

Beowulf is commonly cited as one of the most important works in Anglo-Saxon literature, it being one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in Old English and the earliest example of English literature, yet its author and origins remain unknown.

It also remains the go-to resource for students of Old English, while its many translations and adaptations are studied by millions of students learning English as a foreign language, both for its fantastical elements and its insight into the Anglo-Saxon epoch before the Norman conquests.

Recently, Seamus Heaney’s translation and dual-language version, published in 1999, has been used as the go-to resource. Now, however, the study of Beowulf seems set to undergo a dramatic revision with the release of, not just of Tolkien’s translation, but his entire series of Oxford University lectures. After all, we are not just dealing with one of, if not the English language’s most revered fantasy writer – for whom Beowulf was reportedly a major influence in writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – but also a professor and philologist.

We have aligned the Tolkien’s translation with the original and with Heaney’s from 1999. We encourage any readers of Old English to tell us how Tolkien performed and everyone else to vote for which of the translations they prefer. You can vote for your pick below.

Original Heaney’s translation Tolkien’s translation
Fyrst forð gewát flota wæs on ýðum bát under beorg Time went by, the boat was on water, in close under the cliffs. On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
beornas gearwe on stefn stigon –stréamas wundon, Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank, sand churned in surf, Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.
sund wið sande– secgas baéron on bearm nacan beorhte frætwe gúðsearo geatolíc warriors loaded a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear in the vessel’s hold, then heaved out, Gleaming harness they hove to the bosom of the bark, armour with cunning forged then cast her forth to voyage triumphant,
guman út scufon weras on wilsíð wudu bundenne. away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship. valiant-timbered fleet foam twisted.