Beowulf (c. 975–1010 AD) is the name given to a narrative poem of English/Anglo-Saxon origin about a North Germanic hero, Beowulf. Written by an unknown author, it has been translated from Old English into Modern English by many linguists, including J.R.R. Tolkien. At 3,183 lines, it is notable for its length. The work has risen to such prominence that it is sometimes called "England's national epic," and stimulated more than any other single tale Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth.
J.R.R. Tolkien, revered as a great philologist of Anglo-Saxon, noted that the name Beowulf almost certainly meant 'bee-wolf' in Old English. The name Beowulf is therefore a kenning (a compound word as a poetic device) for "bear".
Tolkien believed the 1982 translation by J. J. Earle was not accurate, and did not convey the meaning or symbolism of the story-line or the beauty of the poem's prose.
Beowulf exercised an important influence on Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (featured in a collection of a related title) while a professor at Oxford University. Tolkien also completed his own translation of the poem in 1926, published long posthumously in 2014 by HarperCollins. Grendel and Grendel's mother were an inspiration for the Orcs of Middle-earth. Other loose parallels between Beowulf and Tolkien's writings are the likeness between the Anglo-Saxons and the Men of Rohan, the upsetting of a dragon through the stealing of a chalice by a thief, and the subsequent destruction of the land surrounding the dragon's hoard.
A turning point in Beowulf scholarship came in 1936 with Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics when, for the first time, the poem and Anglo-Saxon literature as a whole was seriously examined for its literary merits—not just scholarship about the origins of the English language as was popular in the 19th century. Perhaps no other single academic article has been so instrumental in converting a medieval piece of literature from obscurity to prominence.
- The Monsters and the Critics and other essays, 1., pg. 31