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.Yeah, no kidding this is serious stuff. Tolkien was a genius when it came to languages - not only was he an Oxford Don, scholar of Anglo-Saxon (the still Germanic Old English root of our modern tongue), but he taught himself medieval Icelandic to read their tales in the original, and taught himself Finnish - a language seemingly unrelated to any other and very, very different from Indo-European - so that he could translate (!) their great saga, the Kalevala.
This is a big deal, as the Guardian points out:
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.Yeah, me neither.
Tolkien was often criticised by his academic colleagues for wasting time on fiction, even though that fiction has probably done more to popularise medieval literature than the work of 100 scholars. However, his failure to publish scholarship was not due to laziness nor entirely to other distractions. He was an extreme perfectionist who, as CS Lewis said, worked "like a coral insect", and his idea of what was acceptable for publication was several notches above what the most stringent publisher would demand. It will be fascinating to see how he exercised his literary, historical and linguistic expertise on the poem, and to compare it with more purely literary translations such as Seamus Heaney's as well as the academic ones. Tolkien bridged the gap between the two worlds astonishingly well. He was the arch-revivalist of literary medievalism, who made it seem so relevant to the modern world. I can't wait to see his version of the first English epic.