Although some might see yet another posthumous publication from JRR Tolkien as scraping the barrel, John Garth says that the author's expertise on the Old English epic suggests it should be taken seriously
This week, HarperCollins announced that a long-awaited JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf is to be published in May, along with his commentaries on the Old English epic and a story it inspired him to write, "Sellic Spell". It is just the latest of a string of posthumous publications from the Oxford professor and The Hobbit author, who died in 1973. Edited by his son Christopher, now 89, it will doubtless be seen by some as an act of barrel-scraping. But Tolkien's expertise on Beowulf and his own literary powers give us every reason to take it seriously.
Beowulf is the oldest-surviving epic poem in English, albeit a form of English few can read any more. Written down sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries – a point of ongoing debate – its 3,182 lines are preserved in a manuscript in the British Library, against all odds. Tolkien's academic work on it was second to none in its day, and his 1936 paper "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.
Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo. Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.
Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. "Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them," he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s.
Such is the interest of Tolkien's scholarship on Beowulf, both to his fans and to academics, that his much longer draft of the 1936 paper has already been published. In 2003 its editor, American Anglo-Saxonist Michael DC Drout, wanted to go on to publish Tolkien's 1926 translation of the poem. Chinese whispers made out that Drout had discovered a previously unknown Tolkien manuscript, but that was nonsense – the translation had been catalogued at the Bodleian for years. The plan fell through. Though Drout's scholarship is impeccable, the name of Christopher Tolkien as editor will doubtless attract a wider readership, and the publication in the intervening years of more wide-ranging works by Tolkien will have helped stoke interest too.
In 2007, The Children of Húrin, though set in the "Elder Days" of Middle-earth, offered an unparalleled imaginative view of a Germanic-style saga complete with dragon and dragon-slayer. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, in 2009, engaged directly with the medieval literary milieu by filling a gap in the Old Norse Völsungasaga. And last year's The Fall of Arthur, though sadly unfinished, gave Tolkien's take on another core medieval narrative tradition – a unique perspective quite unlike Thomas Malory or Tennyson or the other popular versions.
Although they are in verse, Tolkien's Sigurd and Arthur proved his selling power, even without the help of Middle-earth. Like The Fall of Arthur, and Tolkien's masterful translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 1975, Beowulf is also written in the alliterative metre he handled so well.
One of the best writers on Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger, identifies Beowulf as representing one of the two poles of Tolkien's imagination: the darker half, in which we all face eventual defeat – a complete contrast to the sudden joyous upturn of hope that he also expresses so superbly. In truth, it is his ability to move between the two attitudes that really lends him emotional power as a writer.
His imaginative strength comes fundamentally from the way he engaged with ancient texts. He was fascinated by both what they said and what they left unsaid. It is no coincidence that his first version of The Silmarillion, the legendarium of Middle-earth, was called The Book of Lost Tales– because he purported to recreate through fiction the stories that survive only fragmentarily in the earliest writings of northern Europe. You can see how this works from an example from Beowulf. At one point a poet tells how the "eorclanstanas" or precious jewels were carried "ofer ytha ful", over the ocean's cup. Tolkien used the phrase "the ocean's cup" in the opening line of his very first Middle-earth poem, written 100 years ago this September. The "eorclanstanas" inspired his Silmarils, the fateful jewels at the heart of The Silmarillion; and also gave him the name Arkenstone for the similar jewel in The Hobbit. The story is set within a gift-giving, cup-sharing scene that inspired the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Galadriel bids the Fellowship goodbye. Bilbo's theft of a cup from the hoard of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit is indebted to Beowulf too. The story "Sellic Spell", which accompanies this translation and commentary, is almost a complete mystery, and its name is known only to the most avid Tolkien aficionados. The title means simply "a marvellous tale", which gives little away. The hints from HarperCollins and Christopher Tolkien reveal only that it is JRR Tolkien's idea of the kind of folk tale that might have been shared by the Anglo-Saxon bards, but without the historical matter that appears in Beowulf itself.
Tolkien was often criticised by his academic colleagues for wasting time on fiction, even though that fiction has probably done more to popularise medieval literature than the work of 100 scholars. However, his failure to publish scholarship was not due to laziness nor entirely to other distractions. He was an extreme perfectionist who, as CS Lewis said, worked "like a coral insect", and his idea of what was acceptable for publication was several notches above what the most stringent publisher would demand. It will be fascinating to see how he exercised his literary, historical and linguistic expertise on the poem, and to compare it with more purely literary translations such as Seamus Heaney's as well as the academic ones. Tolkien bridged the gap between the two worlds astonishingly well. He was the arch-revivalist of literary medievalism, who made it seem so relevant to the modern world. I can't wait to see his version of the first English epic.
• John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War.
• This article was amended on 22 March 2014. Due to an editing error it originally stated that Beowulf 'gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores'. It should have said: Beowulf 'gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores'. This has been corrected.