I love teaching British Literature I, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is a big scary fella with a heck of a grip: Beowulf. The translation I enjoy using is the absolutely fabulous Seamus Heaney one, but there is a new version forthcoming, one that has a variety of readers drooling like Grendel contemplating a mead hall full of yummy Danish warriors. J.R.R. Tolkien’s much anticipated translation, bound along with some of his scholarly and fiction work related to the epic poem, is slated for release May 22.
The influence of Beowulf on Tolkien, both personally and professionally, cannot be overstated. I always love seeing the looks on my students’ faces when they realize that the last major episode of Beowulf, from the dragon and its horde, down to the stealing of an object and the number of Beowulf’s strike team, echoes so strongly in The Hobbit. This interweaving, as beautiful as any on Anglo-Saxon artwork, speaks to the wonderfully connected nature of literature. The generations of students who always have to read the poem are sometimes surprised at the fact that it is a relative newcomer to the accepted academic canon, an acceptance wrought largely by Tolkien himself, in brilliant scholarship like his iconic “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which is included in this new edition. The collection is edited by Christopher Tolkien, so it has the official stamp of approval, and since Beowulf is the first action hero, the story is bound to cause less insomnia than the Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin. It might even cure the nightmares brought on by the hideous film adaptation of Beowulf, done a few years ago by people who had apparently fallen under some sort of evil spell consisting of Fruedian psycho-babble and pin-ups of Angelina Jolie.
Though today, March 25, might be a nice day for the book’s arrival (It is, after all, the day of the destruction of the One Ring, an object most surely inspired by Tolkien’s abiding love of and scholarship in Beowulf), it will be a nice way for many academics and students to celebrate the end of the semester. So mark May 22 on your calendars, brave fellow-adventurers, pour a big mug of mead, plop down on the bench with your kin, and get ready to travel with the best of guides into a world as good as gold. (Or, just go ahead and order it, in case you are uncertain about travelling to the bookstore in a big carved boat with a bunch of scary guys).