Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

From Tolkien Gateway
The name Beowulf refers to more than one character, item or concept. For a list of other meanings, see Beowulf (disambiguation).
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,
together with Sellic Spell
Publication Information
AuthorJ.R.R. Tolkien
EditorChristopher Tolkien
PublisherHarperCollins (UK)
Houghton Mifflin (US)
Released22 May 2014
FormatHardcover; paperback; deluxe edition

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell is a book presenting J.R.R. Tolkien's prose translation of the Old English medieval epic poem Beowulf. It was edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 2014.

The translation is followed by Tolkien's own commentary on the poem, which was selected by Christopher from Tolkien's lectures to Oxford students in preparation for the final examination. Furthermore, the book includes the previously unpublished short story "Sellic Spell" and two versions of the poem "The Lay of Beowulf".


  • Preface
  • Introduction to the Translation
  • Beowulf
  • Notes on the text of the Translation
  • Introductory note to the Commentary
  • Commentary
  • Sellic Spell
  • The Lay of Beowulf

From the publisher

The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.

But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is “the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history” that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The 'treasure' is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination."

Sellic spell, a "marvellous tale", is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the "historical legends" of the Northern kingdoms.


Tolkien worked on two translations of "Beowulf", one in alliterative verse, another in prose. While the former was left unfinished, the latter was completed in April 1926.[1]

According to Colin Duriez, Tolkien "certainly showed his friend the first of two prose translations of Beowulf he made in the late 1920s or early 1930s, as the typescript contains amendments in what is more than probably Lewis's handwriting.This indicates that Lewis read and commented on the translation. Tolkien incorporated the emendations into his final version".[2]

Tolkien already remarked on his translation of Beowulf in 1940 in his "Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of 'Beowulf'", published in Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment. Two passages (one verse and one prose) from the translations appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.

In the mid-2000s, Michael D.C. Drout worked on an edition of Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, but the Tolkien Estate withdrew permission for the project.[3]

Tolkien's opinion on publication

In a discussion at facebook Nelson Goering noted that the original press release for the Beowulf translation quotes Christopher Tolkien as saying that his father seems never to have considered its publication[4]. But Scull & Hammond's entry on Beowulf seems to suggest that he did actually make slight moves in that direction:

On 25 October 1932 he suggested to R.W. Chapman that his prose translation of Beowulf might be published by Oxford University Press... but that it should be preceded by introductory matter on the diction of Old English verse, its metre, and so forth, and include notes concerning particularly difficult problems in the text. Later George Allen & Unwin, publishers of The Hobbit and other works by Tolkien, expressed an interest in the translation, but it was never brought to the point of submission.'[5]

And Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond replied:

If the press release, and the dust-jacket text where the statement 'never to have considered its publication' is also found, was written by Christopher, then one would have to say he nodded; for he keeps our Companion and Guide at hand, and referred to it at least in regard to his father sending a specimen of Beowulf translated to Kenneth Sisam in 1926 (he asked us to clarify the dating). Tolkien's letter to Chapman (from the Oxford University Press Archives) is mentioned in both volumes of the Companion and Guide.[6]

Possible mistake

Rocke or Recke

In a discussion group at Facebook, Renée Vink noted a possible error in Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary and asked:

Did Tolkien actually make a spelling error in the commentary on p. 292 of Beowulf, did Christopher Tolkien misread his father's handwriting here, or is "Rocke" really an existing variant of the old German word "Recke", warrior?

Carl F. Hostetter forwarded the question to Christopher Tolkien himself, who replied:

Rocke is a mere mistake for Recke which got into the typescript of the book at some stage and was never subsequently noticed. The typesetting of this book was a long nightmare (computer to computer), and it may well be that there are other errors of this sort — indeed there certainly are a number of errors, but almost none of those so far identified are significant: the only other one (so far as I know) that is really troublesome, beside Rocke, is on p.273, line 8, where till should be still![7]

Publication history and gallery

2014 hardcover
2014 hardcover  
2014 hardcover deluxe edition
2014 hardcover deluxe edition  
2016 paperback
2016 paperback  


See also


A J.R.R. Tolkien book guide
Books by or mainly by Tolkien
On Arda Authored by
J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit · The Lord of the Rings
(i.The Fellowship of the Ring · ii.The Two Towers · iii.The Return of the King) ·
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil · The Road Goes Ever On · Bilbo's Last Song
Edited by Christopher Tolkien The Silmarillion · Unfinished Tales · The History of Middle-earth series
(i.The Book of Lost Tales: Part One · ii.The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two · iii.The Lays of Beleriand · iv.The Shaping of Middle-earth · v.The Lost Road and Other Writings · vi.The Return of the Shadow · vii.The Treason of Isengard · viii.The War of the Ring · ix.Sauron Defeated · x.Morgoth's Ring · xi.The War of the Jewels · xii.The Peoples of Middle-earth · Index) ·
The Children of Húrin · Beren and Lúthien · The Fall of Gondolin
Edited by others The Annotated Hobbit · The History of The Hobbit · The Nature of Middle-earth · The Fall of Númenor
Not on Arda Short stories
and others
Leaf by Niggle · Farmer Giles of Ham · Smith of Wootton Major · Letters from Father Christmas ·
Mr. Bliss · Roverandom · Tree and Leaf (compilation) · Tales from the Perilous Realm (compilation)
Fictional works The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún · The Fall of Arthur · The Story of Kullervo · The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun
Translations and academic works Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo · The Old English Exodus · Finn and Hengest ·
The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays · Beowulf and the Critics · Tolkien On Fairy-stories ·
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary · A Secret Vice · The Battle of Maldon
Letters & poems The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien · The Collected Poems of J.R.R. Tolkien
academic works
A Middle English Vocabulary · Sir Gawain and the Green Knight · Ancrene Wisse
Books by other authors
Books on Arda The Complete Guide to Middle-earth · The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion ·
The Maps of Middle-earth
Tolkien biographies J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography · The Inklings · Tolkien and the Great War
Scholarly books The Road to Middle-earth · The Keys of Middle-earth · The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide ·
The Ring of Words · A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien · Tolkien's Lost Chaucer · Tolkien's Library · Tolkien on Chaucer, 1913-1959
Scholarly journals Tolkien Studies · (The Chronology)
Other works by Tolkien
Linguistic journals Vinyar Tengwar various issues · Parma Eldalamberon issue 11-22
Collections of artwork
and manuscripts
Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien · J.R.R. Tolkien: Life and Legend · J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator ·
The Art of The Hobbit · The Art of The Lord of the Rings · Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth ·
Tolkien: Treasures · J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript
This list is only a selection, for a fuller bibliography of Tolkien see here or here. See also a timeline and an index.