Beowulf is a unique work in the history of English literature. By chance—or providence—this single Old English tale survives, giving moderns a window into a world, and a language, very different from our own. And yet a culture and language which was our direct antecedent. More than you want to know about this epic poem can be found on Wikipedia.
J. R. R. Tolkien undertook this prose translation early (1920s) in his tenure as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. The accompanying commentary was drawn from his later lecture notes. Tolkien did not publish this translation for reasons explained in his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Translating Beowulf.” In short, Tolkien thought that anything short of an alliterative poem lost too much in translation. He also recognized such as an almost impossible feat—to translate an Old English alliterative poem into a modern English alliterative poem. This translation is not, therefore, the latest nor most definitive. It is significant for Tolkien’s notes and its place in his literary heritage.
If you’re new to Beowulf, first read the poem itself—skip the introductions and notes. Yes, it will be hard going, but wade through it slowly. Savor the tone and glean what you do understand. Then read the commentary. Unfortunately, since Tolkien prepared these notes for those studying Old English, there’s a lot of philology mixed in with his ruminations about the back story and meaning of Beowulf. But enough gems hide in those strata to make the reading worthwhile.
Beowulf is important for something else. Here the thoughtful reader finds the bedrock on which Tolkien built Middle-earth. Yes, in this story we find the culture, the heroic people, even the mythology and “history” which inspired Tolkien’s famous works. The great hall, ancient swords of power, the burgled dragon, the old king, even (line 112) “eotenas ond ylfe ond orceas” (If you can’t translate at least two of those for yourself, considering turning in your copy of Lord of the Rings.) Yes, it’s all here, except the hobbits. Those were Tolkien’s invention.
How Beowulf connects to Middle Earth is obliquely discussed in “On Fairy-Stories” in The Tolkien Reader.
Even more, here also is the sad feeling—in the final speech of Hrothgar and the death of Beowulf—of a culture trying to reach up through the darkness around it to grasp at the dimly remembered glory, power and riches of empires and emperors long gone. Cultures like Anglo-Saxon England and the men and elves of Middle Earth’s Third Age.
“Here we learn what men of the twilight of time thought of themselves. And, of course, the writings and the elegy are good in themselves, and not misspent – since the ashes of Beowulf himself are now to be laid in a barrow with much the same gold … and pass into the oblivion of the ages – but for the poet, and the chance relenting of time: to spare this one poem out of so many…. Of the others we know not.”
Maybe not just “the chance of relenting time.” Read and enjoy.