In May, HarperCollins will publish J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf for the first time. Tolkien, best known for the Lord of the Rings, was not principally an author. His books about Middle Earth did not enjoy great success until late in his life.

The bulk of the author’s working life was spent as a scholar and professor of the English language. More specifically he was an expert on the history and evolution of the language. While working at the University of Leeds and Oxford, Tolkien produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which became the standard. He also produced several other translations of works from Middle English and Anglo Saxon.

Tolkien’s 1936 lectures “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics“, part of a series of lectures on the work, continues to have a strong influence on scholars.

For those who may not be familiar, Beowulf is an epic poem set in Scandanavia but written in Old English. The work was written by an anonymous author at some point between the 8th and 11th centuries CE. It tells the story of the hero Beowulf who defeats the monster Grendel and later Grendels mother and a dragon and becomes king of the Geats (sometimes known as the Goths) in ancient Sweden. Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic poem written in Old English.

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon was an ancient ancestor of modern English but it would be almost entirely foreign to English speakers today. The language was spoken by a mixture of Germanic peoples who lived in parts of, what is now, England from the 5th century CE until the Norman conquest of 1066. It was written entirely in runes.

A snippet from Tolkien’s translation was posted by Open Culture, along with the same lines from Seamus Heaney‘s 1999 translation.

Heaney’s translation:

Time went by, the boat was
on water,
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the
sand churned in surf, warriors
a cargo of weapons, shining
in the vessel’s hold, then
heaved out,
away with a will in their
wood-wreathed ship.

Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and his men setting sail:

On went the hours:
ocean afloat
under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely
brave man aboard;
breakers pounding
ground the shingle.
Gleaming harness
they hove to the bosom of the
bark, armour
with cunning forged then cast
her forth
to voyage triumphant,
fleet foam twisted.

With all due respect to Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is very different and much more accessible.

For those who are interested, still more translations of the Beowulf, as well as scholarly works on the subject, are available for free from Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

It will be interesting to see, in the years to come, how Peter Jackson manages to turn the 3,182 lines into three films.