Tue 25 Mar 2014
News last week that a translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien is forthcoming caught me by surprise. I had presumed that we had reached the end of Tolkien’s major works to be published posthumously by his son (following the 2013 publication of the incomplete Fall of Arthur and the 2009 publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún). Clearly I was wrong.
I can think of no better person to translate Beowulf than Tolkien. In fact, it’s thanks to him that most of us have even heard of the Anglo-Saxon poem. While many people think of Tolkien primarily as a fantasist, his day-job was actually as an English professor. And his major focus was in Old English—the language of Beowulf. But in Tolkien’s day, texts like Beowulf were not studied for their literary value. Instead, scholars merely attempted to extricate historical data from them, with philologists using them primarily as source material for the study of the evolution of the English language. The idea that Beowulf was literature was not a question even entertained.
This all changed in 1936 when Tolkien gave a lecture entitled“On the Monsters and the Critics.” “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy,” he argues in the opening of the essay, “far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.” So what Tolkien did in his own lecture came as a surprise: he “took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered,” as Seamus Heaney puts it in the introduction to his own translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s lecture sounded as a clarion call to something new. Heaney again: “Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.”
Today scholars debate numerous things about Beowulf. They debate the date of authorship, whether the Christian elements are original (or tacked on later), and many more things besides. But they do not really question whether the poem is a work of art. That seems obvious now. But the fact that it seems obvious is thanks to Tolkien.
How fitting that the man who resurrected Beowulf in the imagination of our generation should at last have his own translation of the poem likewise resurrected. I for one couldn’t be more eager to read it.