Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

These translations of three medieval poems by J.R.R. Tolkien give a sense of what it must have been like to be his student. I know he would start his course on Beowulf by walking in and shouting out a loud "Hwaet!" (the first word of the poem, loosely, "Listen up!"). Although there's no Tolkien translation of Beowulf, we do have these three works. All I can say is, I recently read the highly acclaimed Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and I think Tolkien is a better translator than Heaney. I can't put my finger on exactly why; after all, I'm not a medieval scholar and am reading for pleasure. But the vitality of Tolkien's translation, his sense of exactly how to alliterate, enough but not too much, his occasional "hard word" that nonetheless fits perfectly, everything about these translations is just right. And the content is great too. Gawain is a complex morality tale with some exciting action, and Pearl is both sad and deeply theological. (Sir Orfeo is the least of the bunch in length and in quality.) This isn't a side project for Tolkien: this was his academic and pedagogical bread and butter. It was well worth it to sit in this class with Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could find his Beowulf!

1 comment:

Katy Bowser said...

Hey Ben,
Thanks for the plug- noisetrade is proving really handy for us! I hope you enjoy.
Also, I'd love to connect you with our buddy Eric Bryan at some point. He just finished his post-doc in medieval lit- he's translated some Icelandic folk tales that I bet you'd dig. You might be birds of a feather.