JRR Tolkien was an acknowledged expert on the Old English heroic poem “Beowulf”, the longest alliterative work surviving in that language. His best-known commentary on the poem is the essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, which was given as the Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on 25th November 1936 and published in Volume XXII of the Proceedings of the Academy. The essay is available in reprint form, and as part of the collection JRR Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics (HarperCollins UK, 1997).
Dr. Michael Drout, assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, was researching Anglo-Saxon scholarship at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England when he noticed the manuscripts of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation in the library storage box that also contained the type carbons of the “Monsters” lecture. News reports indicate that he was delighted and, unlike the many previous scholars who have leafed through the box, immediately approached the Tolkien Estate for permission to prepare and publish an edition of the work.
However contrary to some press reports, the work is very extensive and will not be completed or published in 2003. No publication date is scheduled as it is not known how long it will take to prepare.
As one authority puts it: “Inevitably, given the difficulty of the material — and the handwriting!”
Dr. Drout, 34, has already published Tolkien’s earlier unpublished collection of notes on Beowulf criticsm, Beowulf and the Critics (not to be confused with any of the volumes above), in the USA in 2002. Tolkien used these notes as part of the material from which to write his famous essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”.
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, now in the British Museum, probably written out around the year 1000 in the “classical” West-Saxon of the Wessex kingdom of Alfred and Ethelred. Scholars believe, on linguistic grounds, that the poem took its present shape in the eighth century in England somewhere north of the Thames, in Mercia or Northumbria. The events of the poem are set not in England, but in Denmark and Sweden (as they are now) in the 5th or 6th century.
The poem contains a cup-conscious dragon (less conversational than Smaug) and passing references to ylfe (elves, used to refer both to traditional Germanic and Classical otherworld people in Old English), orc-neas (evil spirits or monsters of an uncertain kind; “orc” singly in Beowulf is a different word meaning a large drinking vessel) and ent, an Old English word for “giant”. Elves and giants are mentioned in various Old English sources, but Tolkien is the only author to cast his own “giants” as walking tree-people.
Tolkien borrowed very little from Old English for his elvish languages (among his borrowings was the name “Earendil”, from an Old English star-name Earendel, one of the starting points for his Arda mythologies), since his earliest writings contain an Anglo-Saxon hero alongside his elvish peoples. But he had a great love for Old English, translated some short sections of his Silmarillion stories into Old English prose, and gave the language to his “heroic” people, the Rohirrim, in The Lord of the Rings. The version spoken by the Rohirrim is said to be the Mercian dialect, very similar but not identical to the Wessex dialect of Beowulf.–reported by Tolkien Society