Friday, March 11, 2016


Today I finished reading Professor Tolkien's translation of one of the oldest preserved works in Anglo-Saxon. 

Beowulf is an epic poem written in England between the eighth and eleventh centuries by an unknown author.  The text was preserved in an elaborate script but was permanently damaged in a fire.  Enough of the epic poem remains to translate, however, and countless scholars have assayed to translate both the actual words and the intended interpretation of them.  

The four-thousand line alliterative verse poem tells the story of a town terrorized by the monster Grendel, an alleged descendant of Cain, who frequently eats the townspeople.  The town's fortune changes when an impressively strong and courageous warrior called Beowulf arrives and vows to wrestle the beast to the death.  Beowulf succeeds and mortally wounds the monster.  Grendel's mother then seeks revenge upon Beowulf for the murder of her son.  Beowulf fights her in an underwater cave and eventually decapitates her, winning great honor back in in the town.  Beowulf then becomes king and rules for many years.  After many years of reign, however, a grave thief disturbs a dragon who Beowulf kills, but he is also killed in the process.

I have read other versions of the Beowulf poem before, and to tell you the truth, I'm not so well acquainted with the text to notice any differences between what I have previously read, and what Tolkien wrote.  Therefore, I am very thankful that he took the time to write hundreds of pages of commentary explaining his reasoning for the different translations he did as well as speculating about the history of the mysterious document itself.

Tolkien has been credited with bringing the studying of Beowulf back into the academic arena and he certainly has a lot of influence in that area.  I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in Anglo-Saxon (sometimes called Old English) or epic poems.

My favorite part of the entire volume was the end.  Tolkien wrote his own adaptation of the story with a few minor changes.  It is written in a much simpler, but still evocative way.  The story is called Sellic Spell, and it tells the story of "Beewolf" (so named because as a lumpy child he had a habit of eating too much honey) who is renowned for his deeds and wins great honor.

Here are some reviews:

"A thrill . . . “Beowulf” was Tolkien’s lodestar. Everything he did led up to or away from it . . . Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love." -- New Yorker

"Both scholars and lay readers have long awaited Tolkien's "Beowulf" translation and its related materials, and everyone will find something of enduring interest in this collection. For Tolkien, "Beowulf" was both a brilliant and haunting work in its own right and an inspiration for his own fiction. It is a poem that will move us as readers, not forever but as long as we last. Or as Tolkien says, "It must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes." -- Wall Street Journal

"Tolkien-as-guide is delightful, an irresistibly chatty schoolmaster in the Chaucerian mold . . . His learning and Beowulf’s patterns of gloom and fragile light feel intimately related . . . his noble translation joins the ranks of the narrowly saved." – Slate

"This rendition—edited by his son Christopher and published for the first time—will delight fans . . . lovers of Tolkien's work will agree that this is a book long overdue." – Publishers Weekly

"A marvel of vigor and economy . . . Essential for students of the Old English poem—and the ideal gift for devotees of the One Ring." —Kirkus

Beowulf manuscript
You may be interested to know that Professor Tolkien actually admits that there are a lot of things from the Beowulf poem that influenced The Hobbit.  The dragon in Beowulf at the end, is disturbed by a thief who steals a golden cup, just like Bilbo who a cup from Smaug's lair.  In Beowulf, the dragon then proceeds to destroy the village and fight Beowulf one-one-one.  While Bilbo doesn't fight Smaug directly, Smaug does proceed to attack Laketown after being robbed.  

Tolkien said, "The episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at this point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."

Beowulf was an important source for Tolkien and I recommend that you give it a try.


  1. I own this copy but haven't read it yet. I've read a different translation though and loved it.

    1. It is a really great poem--I think you'll like this translation when you get around to reading it.