May 22, 2014 Last Updated 1:23 pm

J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowolf published today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Can a book in the public domain become a bestseller? Will readers buy the $14.99 iBooks or Kindle Edition, or simply download a free copy?

This coming Monday is Memorial Day here in the States, so Talking New Media will be shutdown for the holiday. As Monday is also when Books on Monday appears, that feature will go missing next week. But, lo and behold, today sees the release of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

UnknownIt is amazing that this is a big deal because for so many years I knew of this translation and hoped for its publication. If you are of my generation – first, my sympathies – you are part of that first new wave of Tolkien readers. Having read the The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings made you part of a club back then – and if you owned the LP Sagan om ringen by the great Swedish keyboardist Bo Hansson, you weren’t just part of the club, you were part of the cult.

In my college days I tried to be like Zonker and avoid getting my journalism degree by any method possible. One of those was taking an entire semester off by signing up for a program a professor created called the Medieval Semester – a series of courses all centered on medieval studies. It was in the medieval literature class that I was informed that the author of The Hobbit had written a translation of Beowulf. (My copy of Beowulf stills sits on a book shelf (Michael Alexander translation), right next to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Song of Roland.)

Beowulf-iPad-frameFrom a digital publishing perspective there is not much interesting in today’s publication of the Tolkien Beowulf. The print book and its digital editions are identical at 448 pages. While the print version is listed at $28 and discounted to $20.80 on Amazon.com, both the Kindle and iBooks versions are priced at $14.99. The digital editions are replicas of the print and are all about the Tolkien name.

That is not to say that this is just a commercial venture – for plenty of readers, today is an event.

Old English Hall Translation Tolkien Translation
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes
in days of old we have heard tell,
how those prices did deeds of valor.

But Beowulf is, of course, in the public domain. Not even our crazy copyright laws can keep a book from the 8th or 9th Century under wraps (at least not yet). Because of this dozens of Beowulfs to be found in the iBooks Store or on Amazon.com. Some, like Seamus Heaney’s translation, are priced as any other eBook. Others are priced low or are free. To do so, they must take a translation that is also in the public domain. There are also audiobook versions.

As a digital publisher, I immediately begin to think “what could be included in a digital version of a work that is solely text?” Obviously there are those who would want to illustrate the book, and others who might want to create little videos of dramatic presentations of the story (yuck).

But as Beowulf is written in Old English – it is the sound of the Beowulf that one wants to hear. Unlike Chaucer, which can be difficult to read in its Middle English, when read out loud it actually becomes clearer – sort of like moving to Glasgow and having someone read you The New York Times.

But Old English, that’s something all together different. This is from the University of Virginia website:

So, with Memorial Day this weekend, the publication of the Tolkien translation comes at a good time. Fire up the old turntable, play Bo Hansson (hey, they have Hansson’s Lord of the Rings on Beats Music), pull up with a good, new, if actually old, book. Hope for rain and cold weather, it will make the reading experience even better.

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