There are many authors who were fascinated by this medieval poem depicting the Danes, their kings and legends. Like many works of fiction, even Beowulf is roughly based on kings who lived before the time this book was written. Roughly dated back to the year 1000 AD, although many professors date the manuscript to an even earlier time.
Some parts of the story of kings and dark age battles are presumably inspired by real events, but the character of Beowulf is completely fictional. This story is, in fact, a poem, a poem so old it needed to be rediscovered (back in the 19th Century) and even suffered through time and was almost destroyed by the fire at the Cotton Library (1731) where the manuscript was held at the time.
The background of the story will take us back to the 6th Century, to the time, when Anglo-Saxons first start to appear on now English territory. The poem goes to great lengths to show the heroism, but also the brutality of those times. But perhaps the reason why so many great authors are fascinated with the poem is its fantastical story.
I think this is part of the reason J. R. R. Tolkien loved the Beowulf and took great inspiration from its theme for his own work. But Tolkien was also a great admirer of languages, English among them. Beowulf is said to be perhaps the oldest surviving piece of fictional literature from the Old English.
This particular translation is not the only one I’ve read, but it is the one I’ve been the most excited to read. It is not easy reading, even though it is not a long and epic story, quite the opposite, even with its translation to modern English, while in Tolkien’s case, remaining true to its poetic nature. However, it is still a very difficult book, not because you could not understand the text, but because you need to really be interested in it, or else it will be very difficult to “get into the story” and finishing the book.
We are very fortunate to have this version of the book. Tolkien worked on translating the book for a great many years, actually finishing in 1926. The reason why he only published the book so much later, as his son states in Preface, is the fact, that, at this time, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and often in his lectures and discoveries went back to passages of the text, that he would then improve.
It is also part of the reason why this translation is not only the poem but also a thorough study of the subject and the language itself. The edition also contains some commentary from the lectures J. R. R. Tolkien delivered in his late 30’s on the very same topic
Is this a fantasy before its time? It is very much a middle ages historic piece. At the early stages, we meet with great heroes and great kings, specifically Hrothgar who needs the aid of the great warrior, known as the Beowulf. The halls and lands of this king are terrorized by a monster known as the Grendel. This is where fantasy comes into play; these topics, legends, and mythologies were nothing new of course, but their novelization is something quite different.
In many ways, reading this story will strongly remind you of Tolkien’s the brilliant works, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. Perhaps that is part of the reason why this unlikely and ancient fiction is having a second lease of life in times when we rarely seek literature this old and this complex.
The poem, as short as it is, has it all. It has battles, and songs of its heroes, it has honor and valor, but also revenge and agony, and of course, great heroism. It is a very interesting journey to take, especially with J. R. R. Tolkien and his son, Christopher, sharing their love of ,and devotion to, this story which lasted over 80 years.
While I highly recommend the book, you need to keep in your mind that this is indeed and medieval story and a thorough study of it. But if you can learn to embrace this story, you will be both fully entertained and richly educated.
To the many critics J. R. R. Tolkien says
The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.
– J. R. R. Tolkien,
The beautiful cover design comes from the brilliant Ben Gardiner who says:
It’s a balancing act designing a cover to illustrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary texts; simultaneously giving his fantastical works a stand out and distinctive look, whilst also paying respect to the genre and decades of publishing that have gone before.
• Brilliant article on the Cotton Library, among many others | Mercurius Politicus
• In depth review and quotes from J. R. R. Tolkien | Astrofella (source of the Tolkien quote mentioned above)
• Full statement from illustrator Ben Gardiner | HarperCollins
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