Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Real Story by Michael Drout
The Tolkien Estate recently announced that J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf will be released in May. Since there seems to be a little bit of incorrect information floating around the web (thanks in part to some careless work by more than one reporter for British newspapers), I figured I should clarify things.
First, I have nothing to do with this edition. I did work on Tolkien’s Beowulf translation about ten years ago and was putting together an edition along the same lines as the one the Estate has described, but the Estate withdrew permission for that project and I have done no new work on it since then.
Second, I did not “discover” the Beowulf translation, not even in the sense that I found it in the Bodleian Library. This claim is a conflation of a story about one manuscript with information about a totally different text.
The real story is not quite as exciting.
I went to the Bodleian Library in 1996 to finish up my dissertation research, which included work on the evolution of Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” From the catalogue in Modern Papers I knew that there were notes and drafts of that lecture in MS Tolkien A26. What I did not know was that not only did the box of manuscripts contain marked-up carbon typescripts and proofs of the British Academy lecture, but also two substantial handwritten texts that were Oxford lectures about Beowulf written in the 1930s. These lectures were obviously preparatory to “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and were quite a bit longer and more elaborate than that text. These were what I “discovered,” not Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf (which I actually did not examine).
Obviously a text preserved in a library and mentioned in its catalogue is not a “discovery” in the sense that it was ever “lost,” but it was a discovery to me and also, as best I can tell, to Tolkien scholarship and Anglo-Saxon studies, since neither I nor the field knew that such lectures existed. Although Christopher Tolkien obviously knew what they were when he donated the manuscripts in 1986, as far as I know, no mention of the lecture drafts had appeared in any publication in the decade between the donation and the date I read them. So that’s was the “discovery” I was talking about.
The Tolkien Estate very graciously gave me permission to have the texts microfilmed and to quote from them in my 1997 Loyola Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, and after I successfully defended and had started teaching at Wheaton, the Estate gave me permission to produce the edition that became Beowulf and the Critics, which was published in 2003.
In 1999 (I think), I had traveled to Oxford to proof my edition of Beowulf and the Critics against the manuscripts. While there, I had a very pleasant meeting with the Solicitor for the Tolkien Estate and expressed my interested in producing an edition of J.R.R.T.’s Beowulf translation and commentaries. The Tolkien Estate arranged to have all the manuscripts microfilmed and sent to me, and I ended up doing a “feasibility study,” proposing an edition that combined the partial verse translation, the complete prose translation and the commentaries. The Tolkien Estate approved this project, and I began working on my edition in early 2002.
Important Note: I did not “discover” Tolkien’s Beowulf translation and never made any statement to that effect. The existence of the Beowulf translation was known to Tolkien scholarship long before 1996. Some of it had appeared as early as 1940 in “On Translating Beowulf,” and two passages (one verse, one prose) were quoted by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. The translations, MS Tolkien 29, were identified in the Bodleian Library’s Modern Papers catalogue, and their existence and possible quality were at least a tangential topic of conversation among Anglo-Saxonists at ISAS 1995 at Stanford. Furthermore, I have never seen or touched the physical manuscript of the Beowulf translation, having done all of my work from the microfilms sent to me by the Estate in 2002.
In 2003, my college put out a press release about my work on Tolkien in which the publication of Beowulf and the Critics was announced and my continuing work on the Beowulf edition was mentioned.
On the day after Christmas in 2003 (I think), just after the release of Beowulf and the Critics, a reporter from a British newspaper called me to follow up on the press release. Having had no serious experience dealing with the media, I spoke to him unguardedly and for a long time. I was very excited about the publication of my first book, and I also talked to him about the new project that I had begun. Several days later the story “Tolkien’s Last Great Work is Discovered” appeared on page 3 of the paper. The reporter had conflated my story about the Beowulf and the Critics lectures with the Beowulf translation, and then it was off to the races. Because of the hype surrounding The Two Towers film, the story went global, with well over a hundred newspaper articles appearing. Interestingly, exactly zero reporters contacted me about the story in that first rush of stories, as everyone simply lifted the quotes from the original article but wrote as if they had interviewed me themselves (important lesson about journalism).
By New Year’s Eve things had gotten out of hand, and I faxed the Tolkien Estate asking for guidance. They were not happy, especially because they thought I had given a copy of the unpublished translation to the reporter. I was confused by and angry at being accused of leaking the translation, and it was only after quite a bit of mutual misunderstanding that I understood that the Estate had not realized that the passage of the translation quoted by the reporter had been one of the papers in MS Tolkien 26 included in the material I published in the appendix. I had pointed the reporter towards this material and then helped him convert my diplomatic transcript into a readable text (by the way, this was the same passage of text that appeared in “On Translating Beowulf,” and in hindsight I should have just directed the reporter to that text). The confusion and misunderstanding led to a somewhat rancorous exchange of letters, and the Tolkien Estate withdrew their permission from my edition. I returned their microfilms and have not worked on my edition since then.
In the years since, the Tolkien Estate in general and Christopher Tolkien in particular have been very helpful with other projects, from giving Tolkien Studies timely permission to quote from and publish previously unpublished works, to helping me decode J.R.R.T.’s handwriting for the revised edition of Beowulf and the Critics. I am glad that I did not follow the advice I received to pursue legal action over the withdrawn permission but instead focused my energies on other projects.
Although I have obviously already read (and edited) the translations themselves, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the book in May. I am interested to see how Christopher Tolkien has put the entire edition together, and I look forward to reading his commentary (especially if it is anything like the excellent apparatus that he created for Sigurd and Gudrún).
The above story is not as exciting as “discovering” Tolkien’s “last great work” would be, but it has the benefit of being true.
And in any event, I now know that the low-level “discovery” of finding something in a box of papers could never come close to the thrill of a real intellectual discovery. Thanks to the “Lexomic” methods our research group has developed at Wheaton over the past few years (http://lexomics.wheatoncollege.edu), I have experienced the joy of recovering information that was lost for over a millennium and making discoveries about Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts (at least one of these discoveries has been confirmed by an archeological find). The pleasure of finding things out is much greater than the pleasure of just finding things.
The above article originally appeared on Michael Drout’s blog at Wormtalk and Slugpeak and is republished here by permission of the author.
About the Author:
Michael Drout is Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of the Medieval at Wheaton College, Norton, Mass., where he teaches Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, medieval literature, fantasy, science fiction and writing. He is also a Millicent C. McIntosh Fellow. His scholarship is focused on tenth-century English literature and culture, meme-based theories of culture, and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.