5 Reasons Why I’m Excited for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Translation of Beowulf

J.R.R. Tolkien, noted author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has a new book coming out this May, eighty-eight years after he wrote it. Also, I should probably mention, the book itself is a story written between 975-1025 AD. Yes, I know those numbers can be confusing, but they are accurate. In 1926, Tolkien finished a work of passion—a translation of Beowulf, the oldest Anglo-Saxon poem still in existence and the earliest example of English literature we have.

Translations aren’t an easy gig—the subtleties of language and the nuances of meaning leave a lot of room for differences between translated texts. Don’t believe me? Play with Google Translate for a few minutes, and you’ll get what I mean. Enter in a phrase and run it through a few languages, then back to English, and you’ll see how meaning can change.

Anglo-Saxon wasn't an option, but you get the gist. It's a subtle change, but subtly is a big part of story telling.
Anglo-Saxon wasn’t an option, but you get the gist. It’s a subtle change, but subtly is a big part of story telling.

All that being said, J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of Beowulf has me excited, and I’ll tell you why, in no particular order.

1. His academic background in Old English.

Tolkien was more than an author—he was a professor. He was a passionate professor that studied mythology, literature, poetry, and language, or more specifically, Old English. The English language of yore is hardly recognizable as the English we know today.

A sample of Old English from Beowulf.
(Credit: www.Omniglot.com)

Beowulf has been translated many times, and with each translation decisions about the meaning of words have to be made by the translator. Tolkien’s familiarity with the original language of the poem leads me to the next reason I’m excited for his translation.

2. His diction.

Because of Tolkien’s familiarity with Old English, his word choices will be strong. I like his diction—I’m a fan of his books, and I like the way he thinks and phrases his texts. This skill with word choices in his own writing and his familiarity with Old English will lead to a skilled, well phrased translation of Beowulf.

3. His appreciation for the poetry as well as the history of the poem.

Tolkien appreciated history—he used history and mythology within his texts, and that same appreciation for history is what drove him to translate Beowulf, for his own pleasure, in the first place. But more than that, Tolkien appreciated the poetry of the poem. It’s easy for people working with Beowulf to simply treat it as a historic text, but it’s not just a historic text. It is a poem. Tolkien’s appreciation for history as well as his appreciation for poetry combine in Beowulf and that has me giddy.

4. His familiarity with mythology.

Speaking of being well versed in mythology, Beowulf is full of it. While Tolkien’s stories centered around Norse mythology, his overall familiarity with the common mythological plots, the use of allegory and symbolism within these tales, as well as the methods of figurative language used in Old English and its fables leads me to believe that his version of Beowulf won’t fall short on these elements.

5. His name recognition.

Last, but not least, his name recognition. Beowulf has name recognition in its own right, but combined with Tolkien, I feel this will sell well and get a lot of people reading. I’m always for more people reading, but I have another, selfish reason for being excited for many people reading this translation. The more people that read this book, the more I can discuss it with them. When I find a good book, I love to discuss it, and I feel that this book will be one I will be happy to engage in conversation over.

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