SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT; PEARL; and SIR ORFEO by J.R.R.--Trans. Tolkien

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT; PEARL; and SIR ORFEO

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Tolkien, who collaborated with E.V. Gordon on the standard edition of Gawain before bowing out of their projected Pearl, was one of the great Middle English scholars of his day. Will these posthumously published versions, with commentary which Tolkien's son Christopher derived from his father's notes, reach the lay audience which the poems undoubtedly deserve? Even in translation, the difficulties that remain are fiendish. The alliteration, though toned down a bit, still necessitates peculiarities of grammar, diction, and word order that will mightily puzzle the neophyte. Gawain, where Tolkien must wrestle with the long alliterative sequences of the unrhymed lines and the odd meter of the short rhymed ones, will perhaps present a more daunting foreignness than Pearl, where the translator at least has the support of a conventionally recognizable rhyme scheme. It is no small praise to say that these translations, on the whole, reveal more of the two poems than they conceal--the ironic exuberance of Gawain and the austere radiance of Pearl cannot survive intact, but they do surface with surprising consistency. Sir Orfeo is another matter, written in a relatively accessible southeastern dialect and put together with the most deceptive Mozartian simplicity. Tolkien's negotiation of the short rhyming couplets is metrically hollow; the bookish archaizing diction and the insertion of tags to flu out the rhyme--easily forgivable in coping with Pearl and Gawain--falsify the wonderful directness and fluency of the original. Finally, there is a translation of four stanzas from a 14th century lyric poem, ""Against My Will I Take My Leave,"" printed here as ""Gawain's Leave-Taking."" There is no actual connection between the two poems, but Tolkien is thinking of Gawain departing from the strange lord's temptation-fried castle for his rendezvous with the Green Knight and his ax; Middle-earth lovers may read it as the great lore-master's own farewell.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1975
ISBN: 0345277600
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin