So a bunch of announcements went up today to the effect that Tolkien’s translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, brought to light a while back, will be published this Spring. [Edit: An except can now be checked out here, side by side with Heaney’s translation] This makes it the latest of Tolkien’s posthumously published works, and the latest of his interpretations (including translations) of the heroic material he studied, which in more recent times includes his own compositions building on/emulating the Volsung material in Old Norse literature and the Arthurian tradition in Britain. When I studied Old and Middle English lit (not my major, just some fun classes) in undergrad, I wrote on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and really appreciated Tolkien’s translation as very beautiful in its own right, and since I had a rudimentary competence in Middle English, I enjoyed being able to appreciate the ways his translation differed from others in its interpretation of the original. I did not use his edition of the poem at the time, but it is still available, co-edited with EV Gordon, the author of the introduction to Old Norse that so many of us in the field first studied with. Tolkien’s poetic treatments of some stories from his own mythos are clearly related to his translations and reworkings of the heroic material he studied–we might articulate it as different layers, each at a bit more of a remove from texts like Beowulf: 1) editions (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), 2) translations, 3) interpretations/original contributions to the “old” material, 4) homages from his own original universe (which, as you will see if you read some of his son’s commentary in the posthumously published Middle Earth series, could also be understood contributions to the “universe” of the older sources, related, I would argue, to the euhemeristic reimaginings of pagan myth in the Middle Ages).
Tolkien was, of course, a respectable scholar of Beowulf, and most of his “serious” fans are familiar with his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which had a significant impact on the way we study the poem (though one might also argue that it was simply a sign of the times, as things shifted in academia–but I do think Tolkien’s sympathy with a fellow poet, even across a millennium, shows through here). He also wrote an essay introducing a translation of the poem, some of the points of which are summarized here (sorry, couldn’t find an online text at the moment). This particular translation (and, I assume, the notes that go with it) belong to Tolkien’s younger days, but I am still pretty interested in seeing this (maybe HarperCollins could send me a review copy…? Maybe?). In particular it will be interesting to see the choices he makes in contrast to Seamus Heaney’s translation–both are poets, but will Tolkien’s additional qualifications as a scholar of Old English affect his translation at all? (Incidentally, I discuss Heaney’s translation as well as some notes re: the context of the composition and content of the poem here).