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Sunday Read: JRR Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary to be Published with His Story “Sellic Spell”

 
JRR Tolkien’s 88-year-old translation of the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, will be published for the first time this May along with his academic commentary on the poem and a story, titled “Sellic Spell”, which it inspired him to write.

HarperCollins, the publishers of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, have revealed little about “Sellic Spell”, only mentioning that it is “JRR Tolkien’s idea of the kind of folk tale that might have been shared by the Anglo-Saxon bards”, writes John Garth in The Guardian. Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic SpellTolkien and the Great WarThe Lord of the RingsThe HobbitBeowulf

Although there have been other translations of Beowulf, the oldest-surviving epic poem in English, including one be Seamus Heaney, Garth believes that this one, by the author of The Lord of the Rings and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, is sure to be of special significance. Critics such as Dr Stuart Lee of the University of Oxford and Emeritus Professor Edward James of Anglia Ruskin University concur in an article in The Independent.

While other translations might be purely academic or purely literary, Garth points out that, “Tolkien bridged the gap between the two worlds astonishingly well.”

Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf is worth reading because “it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship”. While other scholars had focused on linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, dismissing the fantastical elements of the poem, Tolkien “pushed the monsters to the forefront”, arguing that “they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear”.

Futhermore, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary might be of interest because of the influence the poem had on Tolkien’s own fiction. “It should be interesting to fans of his fiction, because Beowulf was probably the medieval text that influenced him the most,” Lee says.

This week, HarperCollins announced that a long-awaited JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf is to be published in May, along with his commentaries on the Old English epic and a story it inspired him to write, “Sellic Spell”. It is just the latest of a string of posthumous publications from the Oxford professor and The Hobbit author, who died in 1973. Edited by his son Christopher, now 89, it will doubtless be seen by some as an act of barrel-scraping. But Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and his own literary powers give us every reason to take it seriously.

Beowulf is the oldest-surviving epic poem in English, albeit a form of English few can read any more. Written down sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries – a point of ongoing debate – its 3,182 lines are preserved in a manuscript in the British Library, against all odds. Tolkien’s academic work on it was second to none in its day, and his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, the epic that helped inspire The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, is to be published for the first time almost 90 years after completion.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary will be published in May with the “distinctive” 1926 translation alongside a commentary taken from his lecture notes made throughout the 1930s.

Book details

  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
    EAN: 9780007590063
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Image courtesy Mental Floss

 

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