Michael Drout, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, has discovered the manuscript of a complete translation of Beowulf, with commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien. It will be published this summer and will presumably sell quite a few copies. [Via Pat.]

Addendum. Having now discovered Drout’s blog (via Mind-Numbing), I must retract the last statement; apparently the translation won’t be published this year, as can be seen from this entry (from an increasingly exasperated series):

First, though the Sunday Times calls it a “discovery,” I’m a little uncomfortable with the term, since the material was right there in the Bodleian the whole time. The Bodleian’s librarians and Christopher Tolkien certainly knew what it was. Second, there is almost no way I can see the Beowulf translations being published in 2003. While I’ve already done a lot of work on the translations (and they are pretty “clean” manuscripts, anyway), I really have to finish the volume of commentaries before I can publish the translations, since the commentaries explain the translations and I need to be clear in my own mind about Tolkien’s intent before I make major editing decisions. I think I unintentionally confused the reporter when I said that I would probably be done with the translations at the end of the summer. That’s true as far as it goes, but being done won’t be enough, unfortunately.

All that said, the Beowulf translation is great and lovers of Tolkien will love it.

Update (July 2014). The translation has been published, and unfortunately, it sounds terrible. Dave Wilton reports:

I’ve finally obtained and read a copy, and I must, sadly, state that this is a book that no one should buy. The translation is stilted and unidiomatic at its best—and at its worst it is incomprehensible. The formatting and editorial choices make it difficult to use as an academic resource. And Tolkien’s commentary on the poem, which is perhaps the most valuable portion, is old, incomplete, and undated—this last a significant problem given that it is taken from lectures he gave across the length of his forty-year career.

The casual reader, a person who would be most attracted by the cachet of Tolkien’s name, who simply wants to read a version of the Beowulf story without learning Old English, will find little of value in this translation.

Read the details at the link.


  1. I have always had a respect for Tolkien as a historian, mythologist and linguist. The translation is excellent.

  2. Ah, quit patting yourself on the back.
    But I’m glad you commented, because it reminded me of the Tolkien/Beowulf story, and I started wondering: what ever became of it? I went to Drout’s blog and skimmed the entire last year (not that hard, because his posting is quite erratic) and didn’t see a single mention of it. I googled “tolkien translation of beowulf” and got nothing but year-old material (including, of course, this LH post). Was it the MS equivalent of vaporware? Very odd.

  3. So… is there a publication date yet?

  4. Does anyone know where I can find a copy of this translation?

  5. I’m actually more interested in his commentaries – it says that’ll be published first anyhow. Any word on that yet?

  6. Oh…I’ve found something that seems to have been written at a later date by Michael Drout:
    “I am currently in the process of editing Tolkien’s unpublished translation of Beowulf. There is a partial verse translation (600) lines, and a complete prose translation. Despite what various reporters have been saying, I think it is highly doubtful that the translation will be ready for publication before 2004.
    The current plan is to print the translations synoptically for the first 600 lines (verse on the left, prose on the right) and then continue with the prose translation to the end. Notes will be fairly limited in this volume, but I will point out Tolkien’s solution of major cruces, etc.
    There will then follow a companion volume to the translation that will be based on Tolkien’s enormously detailed line-by-line commentaries. This will be a book that will probably appeal only to Beowulf scholars, since I intend to follow Tolkien’s line by line approach to the poem, supplementing, where useful, with some of his other essays about Beowulf. I don’t think this volume will be ready until 2005. ”
    Hope it helps? 2005 aint exactly over yet :p

  7. It is now.
    Any more news?

  8. No news yet? Come on, the crowd is waiting. Will this commentary consist of entirely new unpublished material? Did JRRT mean it to be published somewhere? Where? And why wasn’t it published?

  9. Casey Goranson says

    2006 fades; how long until this book emerges from beneath the pen and press?

  10. I do not think I am disclosing a confidence but in May 2005, I found out the following by correspondence, from Professor Drout:
    “Unfortunately, the Tolkien Estate has decided to stop going forward with that project for the forseeable future. I am hopeful that things will change, but I don’t know when that might happen.”
    Also, his commentary on the translations “Beowulf and the Critics” ISBN 0866982906 was released some time ago.

  11. Thanks, Michael. That’s unfortunate, but at least now we know what’s going on.

  12. The opening, Hwæt, has long foxed scholars, with translations ranging from Heaney’s “so” to “lo”, “hark”, “behold”, “attend” and “listen”. HarperCollins would not comment on how Tolkien approached Beowulf’s famous opening, but all will be revealed come May.

    Talk about a cliffhanger! Thanks very much for the link; I’ll update the post when the thing actually comes out (previous history having made me paranoid).

  13. Drout corrects the record about what he did and did not discover; the existence of the Beowulf translation was already known, it turns out.

  14. Stefan Holm says

    Know this!

    About ’Hwæt’: In Swedish ‘vet’ is both the present and the imperative of ‘know’. AFAIK the cognate of this is practically obsolete in modern English but Online Etymology Dictionary lists both ‘wit’ and ‘wot’. It is historically believed to be the perfect aspect of PIE *weid, ‘see’. (To have seen something is to know it). The vowel (æ) is no problem, especially since the poem was written down during (or soon after) the viking heydays and takes place on Scandinavian soil.

    The initial ‘H’ is though an obstacle since it can’t be linked to the *weid-stem. But on the other hand there were no established spelling rules in those days and we know little about how the author actually pronounced the word. Maybe he was influenced by the numerous ones, which originally really had an initial ‘h’ (what, where, white, wheat, whale) and sometimes still have (who, whole, whore).

  15. Sorry, but that takes me back to the old days of “etymology is a science in which the consonants count for very little and the vowels for nothing at all.”

  16. Stefan: The Beowulf Hwæt is just a special use of the word what in its Old English form.

    Hat: Of course, that’s a strictly Indo-European point of view. In Austronesian, it’s the other way about: the vowels are pretty stable, while the consonants play musical chairs.

  17. Stefan Holm says

    Of course ‘what’ is the straightforward interpretation of ‘Hwæt’. And of course neither vowels nor consonants should be twisted for the very sake of fitting one’s prejudice. It is the odd semantics in starting a poem with a single ‘what’ that has made wiser persons than me wonder. I don’t know about Beowulf in particular but I do know that ortography and spelling in the medieval Swedish law texts varies, to put it mildly. Even within the same sentence a word can come in different spellings.

    My attempt – maybe a shot in the dark – was actually meant to make semantics and spelling fit without stretching any of them too far. Hope Tolkien has something to reveal in the lovely month of May.

  18. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Stefan Holm: OE hwæt is not cognate to Swedish veta but to vad ‘what’, as John Cowan points out.

    Old Norse hvad retained the initial fricative, although it was subsequently lost phonetically (if not graphically) in all modern Scandinavian languages. Feroese and Icelandic turned it into /k/, while the continental branch elided it.

    There are some dialects of English where the /h/ sound is still retained.

  19. I meant to mention that we discussed wit and ken in English back in 2012.

  20. Trond Engen says

    Defined like that, the continent ends just a couple of mil south and west of me.

  21. Stefan Holm says

    Alon: It wasn’t only Icelandic and Faroese, that changed ‘h’ into ‘k’. It’s true for for the historical West Norse as a whole, i.e. including modern nynorsk, ‘New Norwegian’ (which actually is ‘old’ Norwegian: bokmål, ‘Book Language’ is originally a Danish, i.e. east Norse dialect). I suppose that’s what Trond meant in his comment.

    Norwegian Bokmål is sometimes described as ‘Danish pronounced in Swedish’. That’s the reason why Trond (a west Scandinavian) and I (an east Scandinavian) can communicate without any problems, while we find it a little more troublesome to understand our east Scandinavian neighbours, the Danes, who through reduction of consonants and syllables have severely altered their pronunciation. That’s also the reason, why I recommend everybody interested in Scandinavian to learn Norwegian. That way you will understand spoken Swedish and at least written Danish.

    And I have nothing to add to the mystery of the mighty ‘Hwæt!’

  22. Danish pronounced in Swedish

    You might like my Essentialist Explanations.

  23. Stefan Holm says

    John: Good discussion in 2012. In Swedish: ‘veta’, German ‘wissen’, is (as Alon mentioned) know, ‘have the theoretical knowledge of’. cf. Ger. Wissenschaft (Sw ‘vetenskap) = science. ‘Kunna’, Ger. können (present tense: ‘kan’) is essentially the same but in a more practical meaning (‘han kan dansa’ = ‘he can dance’). ‘Känna’, German kennen is either ‘feel’ or ‘know = be aquianted to’ (‘Hur känner du dig’, litt. ‘how feel you yourself’ i.e. ‘how do you feel’ or ‘hon känner mig’ > ‘she knows me’).

  24. Trond Engen says

    The point is not really Bokmål versus Nynorsk, but West versus East Scandinavian. The main defining isoglosses cross Eastern Norway, and Central Eastern Norwegian is East Scandinavian by most criteria. The k(v)-/v- line and the eg/jeg line are roughly corresponding and cross eastern Norway just west and north of the lakes. But monophtongisation stops east of the Oslofjord.

    But I don’t really accept the clear East/West Scandinavian dichotomy. I think it’s an artifact of documentation, a result of the location of the main scribal centres within what never ceased to be a continuum. There are room for a lot of both north-south and east-west lines across the peninsula between Lund/Vadstena in southeast and Trondheim/Iceland in northwest.

  25. Stefan Holm says

    Pperhaps, John, you would appreciate a Norwegian comment upon this inter-Scandinavian issue:

    My apologize for not (by pure laziness) being scilled enough in HTML. But I hope the above link should work for you.

  26. Trond Engen says

    West versus East Scandinavian

    Egkavian versus Jegkavian. Jutland is Egkavian.

  27. Lo!

  28. David Marjanović says

    And I have nothing to add to the mystery of the mighty ‘Hwæt!’

    Given the lack of punctuation in the original, I’ve wondered if translating the whole sentence into German might work as: Was wir nicht alles über die […] gehört haben – “what haven’t we all heard about the […]”, “the heroic deeds of the […], don’t we know them well”…

    Egkavian versus Jegkavian.

    O hai! I maded you an Internet, and I did not eated it.

  29. Well, I’m reading the book this weekend, and I’m with Drout and not Wilton, for what that’s worth. So far I have read the first half of the prose translation (covering the Grendel and his mother part of the story) straight up, and I’m starting to work through the commentaries for that half. The translation is what it is: not perfect, not the ultimate translation, but what one man made of it at one moment of his life. I haven’t looked at the verse portion yet at all, nor the appendices (what would a Tolkien book be without appendices?)

    It’s true that this wouldn’t be the go-to translation if you’ve never read Beowulf before; it is difficult, being written in Tolkien’s early, archaizing style, the style of The Book of Lost Tales rather than The Silmarillion, never mind The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien has learned to balance archaism and modernity. By the same token, Tolkien’s commentaries are dated (even if undated), as most of his scholarly work necessarily is.

    In short, if you are interested primarily in Beowulf, neither the translation nor the commentary is going to be all that useful to you. If you are interested in Tolkien, as I cannot help being (his books are part of the ground of all my intellectual development), however, it’s quite another matter.

  30. Oh, and Tolkien translates the first word as “Lo!”. I did say “archaizing style”. Here’s the OED1 etymology of that word:

    The evidence of rhymes in Middle English poetry shows that the spelling lo or loo represents two distinct words. (1) Middle English < Old English , an exclamation indicating surprise, grief, or joy, and also used (like O!) with vocatives. (2) Middle English lo with close ō, probably a shortened form of lōke (Old English lóca ), imperative of look v.; compare Middle English and modern dialect ta for take, ma for make, also the modern dialect loo’ thee = ‘look you’. The los of the Cursor Mundi, used in addressing a multitude, seems to be imperative plural. The peculiar early Middle English forms lou, low(e) may stand for lo we = ‘look we’.

    The present pronunciation /ləʊ/ would normally represent Old English , but it may be a mere interpretation of the spelling, as the modern lo corresponds functionally to the second of the two words, which should normally have become *loo /luː/ in modern English.

  31. Oh, and Tolkien translates the first word as “Lo!”.

    Glancing at this, I initially read the last word as “Lol,” which will presumably turn up in a hip new version any day now (if it hasn’t already).

  32. “Lol, we Spear-Danes ruled!”

  33. Lo! : Old English lá, an exclamation indicating surprise, grief, or joy,

    My family (parents and sisters) moved to Normandy when I was 5 years old. My parents went first to look over the small town we were moving to for their work, and when they came back my mother commented on the fact that Normans said heu lâ! (with silent “h”) all the time. I am not sure about adult speech, but sure enough we found that all the children said heu lâ!, sometimes hu lô!, to comment on anything and everything even slightly unusual, and my sisters and I soon picked it up and kept it at least during the four years we lived in the town.

    Since then I have read occasional comments on this specific Norman usage, and I wonder if the lâ! and its variant could have been longstanding remnants of a Scandinavian interjection?

  34. Holla
    early 16th century (as an order to stop or cease): from French holà, from ho ‘ho!’ + là ‘there.’

    late 19th century: variant of earlier hollo ; related to holla.

  35. What about oh là là?

  36. SFR: Norman heu lâ is not the equivalent of (now obsolete) French holà which was used as an order or warning.

  37. KI: it is not the same as oh la la either.

  38. Heaney used “So” (full stop/period) by way of “Hwæt”. It has the advantage of being non-pretentious, but the energy of the initial aspirate and of the low front vowel is attenuated in translation. Much as I like Heaney’s Beowulf (it has the right rhythm and a modicum of alliteration, and preserves some of the syntactic complexity without challenging the computing power of the reader/listener’s brain), I think he should have returned to the opening verses and rewritten them completely. The Beowulf poet used an ornamental double alliteration in the first line, and deliberately scrambled the sentence almost beyond intelligibility just to show how clever he was with words. Heaney’s version is flat and humdrum in comparison. It doesn’t make you look forward to a tale of adventure.

  39. PS Tolkien’s translation is a disappointment.

  40. Rave review in the New Yorker.

    I remember reading that at the time and rolling my eyes, thinking Joan Acocella had gone so far over the top she couldn’t even see the earth below; I suspect she’s embarrassed by the review now, because she seems to have taken her name off it (it’s neither on the page you link nor the online table of contents). And I just can’t take seriously a translation that includes lines like “Didst thou for Hrothgar king renowned in any wise amend his grief so widely noised?”

  41. Well, remember the purpose of the translation as given by CJRT and quoted in that same review: “a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem, far closer than could ever be attained by translation into ‘alliterative verse,’ but with some suggestion of the rhythm of the original”. I assumed it was a house review; I had no idea of the author.

    Okay, it surprises me that you don’t like EModE pastiche no matter how correctly done, given your general appetite for exuberant writing, but none give thee gold for to say it likes thee, either.

  42. The NYkr doesn’t do house reviews.

  43. An exciting new Beowulf translation has been released:

  44. Most of Beowulf’s crew is shook, but he and his wingman Wiglaf try again and spoiler alert: They slay the scaly boi, but Beowulf gets unalived.

    Take that, Tolkien!

  45. As the parent of a 16 year old boy, this translation speaks to me. It’s not mid.

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