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Tom Shippey, ‘Translations and scholarly editions of medieval texts

Tom Shippey, medievalist and philologist, discusses Tolkien’s approach to reading and interpreting medieval texts, with particular reference to the Middle English texts; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, and the Old English texts; Ancrene Wisse, Exodus and Finn and Hengest.

This article omits any discussion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on Beowulf which is discussed in detail elsewhere on the website.

Editing an ancient poetic text requires a particular combination of talents. Linguistic knowledge is vital – but not enough. Frequently, and almost always in the texts with which J.R.R. Tolkien dealt, the work exists in only one manuscript, and contains words never recorded anywhere else, words which may furthermore have baffled the ancient scribe, himself writing possibly centuries after the work was composed. Explaining them therefore demands a kind of literary imagination, a response to the context in the poem, which may involve interpretation of problems of ancient culture, even of vanished mythology. Language, literature, culture, myth: all have to be taken together. If Tolkien so often demonstrated the combination of these elements in his fiction, it was something he had practiced while working on his editions: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poem Pearl, the Ancrene Wisse and Exodus.

For Sir Gawain and Pearl, he also gave a translation. One of Tolkien’s literary aims, which he pursued in his early published poems, in the poetry of The Lord of the Rings, and in such extensive projects as the poems published in The Lays of Beleriand (the third volume of The History of Middle-earth), was to restore what he regarded as the true and native tradition of English poetry, so long forgotten. In this endeavour three of his major models were the poems which he translated and were eventually prepared for publication by Christopher Tolkien in 1975: the medieval romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo, and the visionary poem Pearl, all of them of the later fourteenth century.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

[See also the other article by Tom Shippey on the anthology The Monsters and the Critics, which discusses Tolkien’s lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight given in Glasgow in April 1953.]

The edition which made his name, and secured his Oxford Chair, was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien co-edited in 1925 with his Leeds colleague, E.V. Gordon. Sir Gawain survives in only one manuscript, and was little known until Tolkien and Gordon brought out their ground-breaking edition.

No-one can now tell what part the two collaborators played, but the distinctive feature of the edition is something Tolkien probably carried over from his earlier work with Kenneth Sisam. In the Gawain edition, every word in the poem is not only glossed (i.e. given a meaning), it is also provided with an etymology, explaining which language it derived from, Old English, Old Norse, Anglo-Norman.

One of the difficulties of the poem is indeed its strongly mixed dialect, far removed from what would become standard English, with many distinctively northern elements, but also a good deal of specialized upper-class vocabulary derived from French. The northern elements often survived into the present day (like riddles and proverbs and fairy tales) only in demotic English, and the poem’s combination of perfect social confidence with completely non-standard dialect is especially appealing.

Tolkien and Gordon also appreciated, and in their notes brought out, the poet’s combination of devout Christianity with strong awareness of ancient myth and folklore, as also dedication to an aristocratic social ideal of courtesy, especially to ladies. The edition, as revised in 1967 by Tolkien’s successor Norman Davis, has remained the standard one for ninety years, and had a profound effect on English academic programmes.

Two features of the poem which no doubt appealed especially to Tolkien are, first, its north-west Midland dialect, far removed from modern standard English but not so far removed from the popular speech of the area well into Tolkien’s time; and second, its strong insistence on its own antiquity and continuity. The poet says at an early stage (given here in the original Middle English):

if ye wyl lysten this laye bot on little quile,
I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde,
with tonge,
as hit is stad and stoken
in stori stif and stronge,
with lel letteres loken,
in londe so hatz bene longe.

Much of this is easy to translate. The poet asks his audience to listen to his story, and he will tell it, the way he heard it, in the way in which poetry has long been practiced in (Eng)land. His art is both oral, and traditional; and furthermore the very verse-form (the poet asserts) guarantees its age and authenticity. The story is ‘stiff and strong’, not easy to change. It is ‘stad’ and ‘stoken’ and ‘loken’, all words now unfamiliar, but relating to words still in use, ‘steady’ and ‘stock’ and ‘lock’; locked furthermore with ‘faithful letters’ which hold everything together and again prevent change.

One does not have to believe in the absolute truth of this claim to feel the insistent urge to be aligned with ancient and native tradition. The same lines also demonstrate how the poem seems both like and unlike what people might say today. Its words are often very plain English indeed, and seem easy to translate, but take unfamiliar form. Tolkien translated the lines just given as follows (in the layout as printed):

If you will listen to this lay but a little while now,
I will tell it at once as I in town have heard it told,
as it is fixed and fettered
in story brave and bold,
thus linked and truly lettered,
as was loved in this land of old.

The lines also demonstrate the poem’s main formal features, which Tolkien in his translation kept as close as possible to the original. The poem is in 101 stanzas, of irregular length. Most lines are ‘alliterative long lines’: that is to say, that as in such Old English poems as Beowulf, each line is in two halves, each half having two main stresses, and at least one stressed word in each half-line beginning with the same sound. Both stresses in the first half-line may ‘carry alliteration’, i.e. begin with the same sound, but only the first stress in the second half-line is allowed to. So we have LISTen … LAY … LITTle, and then TELL … TOWN.

The lines in Sir Gawain, however, are longer than those in Beowulf, and slightly looser. The simple explanation is that as Old English lost grammatical endings, and compensated for the loss by the introduction of little ‘filler’ words like prepositions, so traditional poets accepted longer units and slightly different (but still strict) rules of scansion.

One argument for this continuous unbroken line of tradition, which again appealed to Tolkien, was the later poet’s use of many of the specialized poetic words well-known in Old English, but increasingly dropping out of the language.

A final feature of Sir Gawain, again copied faithfully by Tolkien, was that at the end of each stanza there is a short two-syllable line (the ‘bob’), followed by four short lines (the ‘wheel’), which both alliterate (‘BRAVE and BOLD’), and rhyme (‘BOLD … OLD’). These often give the stanza a determined and startling, even ominous finish.

The poem is remarkable for its stylistic range, taking in passages of furious power, like the three hunting scenes or the descriptions of wild weather, as also quiet and subtle passages, like the conversations between Gawain and his beautiful temptress.

Why could English poetry not have stayed like this, instead of imitating French models, as Chaucer did?


The Gawain edition was to have been followed by a second collaboration on the poem Pearl, found in the same manuscript, written in the same dialect and almost certainly by the same poet. However Tolkien’s move to Oxford and Gordon’s premature death stalled the project. The edition was eventually completed by Gordon’s widow Ida and published under his name in 1953. She thanks J.R.R. Tolkien in her Preface, and it is likely that some of the notes and glosses in the edition contain his ideas, and maybe his exact wording.

The poem is an elegy and a dream-vision, which seems to be written in memory of a dead infant daughter. It too is in 101 stanzas, but the stanzas here are each twelve lines long, with an intricate rhyme-scheme but less regular alliteration. Tolkien admired the pattern, and copied it exactly in his 1927 poem ‘The Nameless Land’ (later published by Christopher Tolkien in The Lost Road, the fifth volume of The History of Middle-earth).

Once again his translation follows the original closely in form, with an air sometimes of riddling compression – for in this poem things are not as they seem. When he came to create Lothlórien, Tolkien certainly remembered the poet’s description of the visionary garden where he sees his dead daughter, with its strangely glittering trees:

The leaves did as burnished silver slide
That thick upon twigs there trembling grew.
When glades let light upon them glide
They shone with a shimmer of dazzling hue.

Sir Orfeo

The last poem Tolkien chose to translate, Sir Orfeo, is one of a special type of medieval romance called the ‘Breton lai’. More than thirty of these survive in Old French, but there are also eight in Middle English, and of these Sir Orfeo is the best, despite stiff competition from, for instance, Chaucer’s ‘Franklin’s Tale’.

Breton lais are love-stories, with a strong supernatural element, which may end happily, like Sir Orfeo, or unhappily, like Tolkien’s own ‘Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’ (1945). They are mostly written in short rhyming couplets.

Perhaps the scenes in Sir Orfeo which Tolkien most admired are those where Orfeo, who has run mad in the wilderness since his wife was taken from him by magic, sees the elf-king’s hunt ride by:

The king of Faërie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim,
and barking hounds that were with him…

Like Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit, Orfeo can never catch up with the hunt. But love, and Orfeo’s harp, succeed in the end in regaining the lost Lady Heurodis. In this poem the Classical myth of Orpheus going down into the Underworld for Eurydice has been naturalized, made into a fairy tale.

The Ancrene Wisse, Exodus, Finn and Hengest

After his retirement Tolkien also brought out an edition of one manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century prose work (this time existing in several versions), on which he had been working for many years. Unlike the Gawain edition, however, this contains neither notes nor glossary: it is only a transcript. Much of Tolkien’s work on the text may however have been taken over by his students Simonne d’Ardenne, who published an authoritative account of the language in which Tolkien’s text was written, and Mary Salu, who brought out a translation of Tolkien’s manuscript with a short Preface by Tolkien, which commented once more on the author’s striking combination of ‘colloquial liveliness’ with literary cultivation, all again in a markedly non-standard dialect.

Tolkien’s Oxford lectures had meanwhile often dealt with editing problems, and after his death his notes were brought out as finished editions of two Old English poetic texts, Exodus (edited by Joan Turville-Petre, 1981), and Finn and Hengest (edited by Alan Bliss, 1982).  Neither of them has been much used by modern scholars, for they follow what may now seem ‘unfashionable’ principles. Tolkien’s view was that all three texts (Finn and Hengest considers two, neither of them a complete poem) were copied centuries after their first composition by Anglo-Saxon scribes who found them almost as baffling as we do. Merely transcribing them is therefore not adequate. They also have to be emended, or corrected into making sense. This means that the modern editor is in effect saying that his opinion is more reliable than that of an ancient copyist, and timid scholars shy away from this.

To give just one example, Exodus line 202 reads weredon wælnet, which seems to mean ‘wore death-nets’ – and so modern editors have taken it, going into sometimes strange contortions to explain what this might mean with regard to the Israelites passing over the Red Sea. Tolkien, however, emended weredon to the rare verb wyrgdon (in his opinion no longer known to the tenth-century scribe), which means ‘choked, strangled’, related it to the fear of battle-paralysis occasionally reported in old Germanic poetry, and suggested that the word wælnet showed the Israelites caught in ‘deadly toils’ of indecision.

Tolkien thought, for linguistic reasons, that Exodus was even older than Beowulf: in his ‘allegory of the tower’ in his 1936 Beowulf lecture, Exodus would be represented by the ‘old stone’ taken by the tower-builder to build the house in which he actually lived, the Christian civilization built on pagan foundations. His glosses and notes to this poem show deep familiarity with early pagan mythology, and readiness to see it as a residue even in this overtly Biblical poem.

Finn and Hengest meanwhile considers two Old English accounts of what seems to be the same event, the ‘Fight at Finnsburg’ recorded in the incomplete ‘Finnsburg Fragment’, and in the paraphrase of a poem sung in Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf, known as the ‘Finnsburg Episode’. The relationship between the two texts has long baffled scholars, and J.R.R. Tolkien edited and translated both with his usual boldness, but the bulk of this work consists of an extremely detailed ‘Glossary of Names’, and a ‘Textual Commentary’.

His underlying thesis is that the ‘Fight at Finnsburg’ was remembered because it dealt with nothing less than the foundation of England:

As the Danes spread out from their home in the Danish islands, they came into conflict with the Jutes of Jutland (now part of Denmark), creating a situation very familiar in World War II. Some Jutes, including Hengest, took service with the conquering Danes; others formed a ‘Free Jutland in Exile’ group at the court of King Finn of Frisia. The two sides naturally hated each other, and forced a fight at Finnsburg which drew in their Danish and Frisian backers. The ‘Half-Danes’ won, some would say dishonorably, and Hengest – collaborator, traitor, oath-breaker – went on to found the kingdom of Kent and England itself.

One can see why Tolkien’s theory has never been popular (given the malice of Hengest, viewed as the founder of England), but it must also be said that extracting even so much of a thesis from Tolkien’s extraordinarily detailed commentary is no easy business. Nevertheless, both his Old English editions deserve much more attention than either has received.

In the same way, Tolkien’s translations show what he thought English poetry should be: plain, strong, subtle, magical, at once realistic and visionary. Literary criticism has maybe not yet developed satisfactory ways of understanding this all-but-vanished tradition.