Okay. So I am going to come clean. Many of you will be
disappointed in me, and I fully expect to be emailed and then picketed by a
thousand angry fantasy lovers, but here goes:


I am not a Lord of the Rings fan.

I tried. I promise you, I tried. I have given it ‘another go’ every year, and every time I just could not get past the dense prose style. And so I consigned myself to the hell of being the only student on an English degree who did not salivate at the mention of hobbits.

But this does not mean I am not a Tolkien fan.

Because Tolkien was not just the writer of books about hobbits and elves. He was also one of the greatest Old English/Anglo-Saxon scholars to have ever lived. As a philologist (an expert on language), he understood language on a much deeper level than many of us could ever hope to. And that is why I think the publishing of his translation of and commentary on the great English epic Beowulf on 22 May is one of the best things to happen to literature in practically forever.

Translating Old English poetry is…. Well, I just did it in an exam a couple of weeks ago and I can say with confidence that it is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Old English is a mental language; at times it bears a resemblance to Modern English (so hwī is why, freond is friend, and so on), but some of it is completely mad (orc-neas is, at the best guess I can make, “demon-corpses” – which not only gives you an insight into some of Tolkien’s inspiration, but also makes you worry about the Orkney Isles…) In poetry it is even crazier because about two-thirds of the words are implied – Old English is brilliantly expressive so that is fine, but reading it through a modern lens is really difficult. If your Old English is good and you are feeling very very brave, you can actually view the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf online at the British Library website here. But if you just want to read a great story of adventure with lots and lots of fighting, then a good translation is what you want.

Of course, there have been loads of Beowulf translations over the last 200 years. The most famous, and the one that is used in schools, is Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation, which is a pretty good read. “So why…”, I hear you asking from behind your ‘Get Mabel Fired: LOTR 4Ever’ placard, “…is Tolkien’s translation so important? Not that he is not brilliant because he is, he wrote Lord of the Rings – why do you hate Lord of the Rings?!”

Well…slightly creepy imaginary people, like I said, Tolkien was a philologist. My Old English lecturer, Filip, refers to him as “the closest thing to a native Old English speaker we have had since the Anglo-Saxons”, and considering that I secretly suspect that Filip is actually an Anglo-Saxon who stumbled upon time travel, that is pretty high praise. He was also a great scholar of Beowulf. His lectures on the poem moved forward scholarship in such a way that the fantasy elements of the poem were recognised as an important part of the whole. (If you are imagining that up until that point Tolkien Beowulf scholars were a bunch of dusty academics appalled at the idea of monsters as they emptied pipe-ash over ancient manuscripts… me too.) Tolkien was such a huge force in this scholarship that every translation that followed his work could not help but be touched by it. So every recent translation needs to be seen in that post-J.R.R. context, Heaney’s included.

And Tolkien’s translation is not just a translation either; it is a commentary too. For nerds like me, this means that we get to see how he came to the decisions he made, as well as insights into how the language used hints to the culture that created the epic. That honestly sends shivers down my spine.

“So…” my detractors yell, (the placard waving getting more and more animated), “…if it is so great why hasn’t it been published before?” The answer is that until 2003 we simply did not have it. It was found in the dark recesses of the Bodleian Library, which is like the big storage space at the end of the first Indiana Jones film, but for books. The ten year wait has been the editing by Tolkien’s son.

Whatever else you can say about Tolkien, he definitely benefits from a bit of editing.

However, what is really important about this translation is not only its high level of scholarship. It is that Tolkien could really, really write. Okay okay, so I am not keen on his fiction work, I know. But thousands of people love it to the point where they are willing to shout at their computer screens and make billion dollar films, and that says something. Also this is poetry, not prose, and I have faith! What I am saying (badly) is that if you match that level of crazy academia with that level of writing skill then you have achieved a good translation before you have even started. I am only guessing, but I reckon his translation will be the most accurate that we can have with it still making sense. And what’s more, it might encourage more people to learn Old English, which would be brilliant because it is truly a beautiful language – what other language would have a word that means ‘dawn-sorrow’? (Uhtceare – it means the darkest kind of sorrow.)

Needless to say, I am very excited about this book, and will be updating you in May when I have read it. Until then, I am off to try reading Lord of the Rings again….. wish me luck.

Photo: Beowulf manuscript

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