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Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Coming This Spring

J.R.R. Tolkien fans and fans of Old English literature alike will get a treat this spring: Tolkien’s Beowulf translation will be published in May, according to the Guardian.

Edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is due out of the 22 May. Included will be Tolkien’s translation of the epic poem, transcripts of Tolkien’s Beowulf-themed lectures from Oxford and a previously unpublished short story called “Sellic Spell,” based an Old Norse saga about Hrothgar’s family.  Be still, my geeky heart!

Tolkien was obviously fascinated by Beowulf.  The Guardian quotes him as calling it

“laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination”, saying that “the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real”.

Themes and images from Beowulf appear throughout Tolkien’s work. Tolkien scholar John Garth told the Guardian that the story had

“a deep and detailed impact on what Tolkien wrote – from his earliest poem of Middle-earth, written in September 1914, right through The Hobbit with the theft of a cup from a dragon hoard, and The Lord of the Rings with the arrival at the halls of Rohan”.

Of course, when it comes to Beowulf, the real question is: How does Tolkien translate “Hwaet”? The first word in the text, “Hwaet” is an exclamation that has been translated as everything from “Listen!” to “Lo!” to the decidedly un-epic “So.”

There’s also some evidence that “Hwaet” may not have been a stand-alone interjection as it is usually treated, and that instead the famous first sentence should read something like this: “How we have heard of the might of the kings!”

There’s word yet on how Tolkien translated that tricksy opening line, but it will be interesting to see.