Beowulf (c. 700-1000 A.D.) is an epic poem of English/Anglo-Saxon origins. 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 it more than any other story sparked Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth.
J.R.R. Tolkien, revered as a great Beowulf scholar, noted that the name Beowulf almost certainly meant bee-wolf in Old English. The name Beowulf is therefore a kenning (compound word as a poetic device) for "bear".
Tolkien believed the 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 prose of the poem.
Beowulf exercised an important influence on Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics while a professor at Oxford University. Tolkien also translated the poem, which the Tolkien Society has recently decided to publish. Grendel and Grendel's mother were the inspiration for the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (see also the Old English word orcneas, which makes but a single appearance in the poem). Many parallels can also be drawn between Beowulf and Tolkien's works; almost analogous images include 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 connection between Grendel and Gollum has also been purported.
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.
Tolkien worked on a translation of the poem for many years, which he finished in 1926. It was not published, however, until 2014 as Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.