J.R.R. Tolkien, legendary author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, completed a translation of the Old English epic Beowulf in 1926, but died in 1973 without seeing it published. This was no literary tragedy; Tolkien seemed to have treated it as an academic exercise, and though he lectured on the story he called “laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song” in the ‘30s, he seemed to have no desire to publish his translation. That’s set to change this year, The Guardian reports. As part of the Tolkien estate’s new deal with Harper Collins, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary will be published on May 22. Edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher, it will also include the lectures he gave.
Beowulf dates back to the early 11th century, and the original manuscript has inspired translations by authors like Seamus Heaney, whose award-winning 1999 re-telling was widely praised. The story centers on the title hero, a Scandinavian warrior who aids the king of the Danes in slaying a beast called Grendel. Successful, he returns home and becomes king of his people, and dies 50 years later after slaying a dragon.
One of the fascinating elements of this release will be comparing the translation of a fantasy writer with that of Heaney, a poet. Beowulf is the oldest example of a written English vernacular, and the famous opening lines, translated by Heaney into modern English, read as follows:
“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”