Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

I am not going to review J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo for one simple reason: I cannot. I would give too much away if I were to summarize all three poems. It is better to go into the stories blind. While I enjoyed all three lays, I have neither the background in poetry nor a knowledge of the art of translation to give a thorough review of Tolkien’s work. I will simply leave you with a sample from each poem to whet your appetite. The book includes a reasonably lengthed introduction to the poems. Unfortunately, I have not read it yet. But when I do, I will write a follow-up post so that you are given a proper introduction to Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

After the season of summer with its soft breezes,
when Zephyr goes sighing through seeds and herbs,
right glad is the grass that grows in the open,
when the damp dewdrops are dripping from the leaves,
to greet a gay glance of the glistening sun.
But then Harvest hurries in, and hardens it quickly,
warns it before winter to wax to ripeness.
He drives with his drought the dust, till it rises
from the face of the land and flies up aloft;
wild wind in the welkin makes war on the sun,
the leaves loosed from the linden alight on the ground,
and all grey is the grass that green was before:
all things ripen and rot that rose up at first,
and so the year runs away in yesterdays many, and here winter wends again, as by the way of the world

it ought,
until the Michaelmas moon
has winter’s boding brought;
Sir Gawain then full soon of his grievous journey thought. (II, 23)
 

Pearl

Both bliss and grief you have been to me,
But woe far greater hath been my share.
You were caught away from all perils free,
But my pearl was gone, I knew not where;
My sorrow is softened now I it see.
When we parted, too, at one we were;
Now God forbid that we angry be!
We meet on our roads by chance so rare.
I am but mould and good manners miss.
Christ’s mercy, Mary and John: I dare
Only on these to found my bliss. (Part 32)

Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo was a king of old,
in England lordship high did hold;
valour he had and hardihood,
a courteous king whose gifts were good,
His father from King Pluto came,
his mother from Juno, king of fame,
who once of old as gods were named
for mighty deeds they did and claimed. 
Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond
of harping’s sweet delight was fond, 
and sure were all good harpers there
of him to earn them honour fair;
himself he loved to touch the harp
and pluck the strings with fingers sharp. (v. 25-38)

Review of The Crowning of Louis

What was it about?

The Crowning of Louis: A New Translation of the Old French Verse Epic is an epic poem of the William of Orange Cycle, translated from the Old French by the independent researcher Nirmal Dass.Written around 1130, Le Couronnement de Louis recounts Count William Shortnose’s many battles in defense of Pope Hadrian I and King Louis the Pious. Count William, like Roland of The Song of Roland, is a great warrior who protects the young king-elect Louis from traitors who wish to take the throne. At the same time, the Saracens seek to overthrow the papacy and win Rome. This epic poem is chock full of insults and bloody battles fought int the name of God and King.

What did I think of it?

The Crowning of Louis is an obscure epic poem that I borrowed from my university’s research library. While there is nothing outstanding about the story itself, I definitely enjoyed the poem. I started reading it at a coffee shop, but I had to leave after reading the first few pages because I couldn’t stop laughing. So many scenes read like something from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one battle scene, King William lops off his opponent’s limbs, but, out of mercy, doesn’t kill him. Instead, William and the king embrace each other and depart in peace only to meet again later on horseback! Clearly, the poet had amnesia. The pope’s first challenger, King Galafrez, refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “great lord of the large hat” (vs. 475). King Galafrez promises him, “I shall roast you over coals in a hearth/ Till your liver falls on the heap of coals” (vs. 542-543). The humor is sky high. If you like Medieval battles, you will enjoy The Crowning of Louis. Unfortunately, there are no new copies available online. However, there are some cheap, used copies available on Amazon. It’s amazing what the characters are willing to do in the name of God.

Favorite Quote

All of Rome then cried out in one loud voice,
Along with the Pope, who shook with great dread:
“Saint Peter, lord, protect now your champion.
If he dies, you will be badly reproached.
In your church, where I now presently live,
I shall not sing Mass or read the lessons.” (vs. 1060-1065)

 

Reflections on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienSome weeks ago, I posted a reflection for Literary Flashback on Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories. Today’s reflection on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics will be similar in structure, but it will not be used for tomorrow’s Literary Flashback.

Early this year, I read and reviewed Michael Alexander’s translation of Beowulf. There seems to be a consensus among bloggers that Seamus Heaney was the best translator of this poem. Before reading his translation, I wanted to learn more about the scholarship surrounding the text. As I am currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings and as Christopher Tolkien recently published his father’s translation of Beowulf, this essay piqued my interest.

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by criticizing common approaches to the study of the tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. The scholars of the early twentieth century (whom Tolkien addresses in his essay) valued the text more for its historical significance than for the story itself. “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art” (p. 103). Instead of exploring Beowulf through a purely historical or archaeological lens, Tolkien believes that scholars should approach “a poem as a poem” (Ibid). The critics focused so much on the history that they overlooked the form of the story. They thought that Beowulf is a weak epic poem because the history is placed on the outskirts while the spotlight is on a man fighting monsters. Critics were so interested in the details of the story that they had a tendency to miss the overall goal of the poem. The story of Beowulf was well-known to the poet and to his audience. The references to royal families, battles, and betrayals serve to situate the story in antiquity, in a period that had become legendary. “As the poet looks into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night” (p. 119).

The writer of Beowulf composed a poem that paid homage to myths and legends of the past. New Christian and Old Norse religious elements are present in the text. It is “a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion” (p.117). Once again, Tolkien warns scholars of trying to dissect the poem so as to understand the mythical origins of the story. Similarities between Beowulf and other stories may be accidental (note the “story-telling soup” analogy in On Fairy Stories). There is this tendency in academia to read everything as an allegory, but according to Tolkien, Beowulf is neither an allegory nor an epic poem. It is an elegy. It is a poem written about a hero who has died. Beowulf‘s defeat by the dragon is just as significant as his earlier victories. It is ultimately a commentary on the inevitability of death; “the wages of heroism is death” (p. 122). Tolkien blames the backhanded approach critics take to Beowulf on their prejudice against monsters in literature. The dragons are viewed as silly, childish creatures that have no place in a “serious” poem. But Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are described in great detail because the monsters play a very important role in the story. Beowulf has more than a historical significance; it has a universal significance. In the battle of good vs. evil, victory often comes at a cost. “The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death-day” (p.128). 

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics covers much more ground than I can summarize here. I urge you to read the essay for yourself. Reading Tolkien’s scholarly work has helped me better appreciate his fiction. It is incredible how much The Lord of the Rings was influenced by Beowulf and the Eddaic poems of Old Icelandic literature (ex. The Saga of the Völsungs)!

I will leave you with the last lines of the essay:

“There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its traditions, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal – until the dragon comes” (p. 129-130).

Here is the essay. 

 

Review of Beowulf

beowulfWhat is it about?

Here is what Goodreads has to say about Beowulf:

Beowulf is the greatest surviving work of literature in Old English, unparalleled in its epic grandeur and scope. It tells the story of the heroic Beowulf and of his battles, first with the monster Grendel, who has laid waste to the great hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, then with Grendel’s avenging mother, and finally with a dragon that threatens to devastate his homeland. Through its blend of myth and history, Beowulf vividly evokes a twilight world in which men and supernatural forces live side by side. And it celebrates the endurance of the human spirit in a transient world.”

What did I think about it?

Beowulf is an amazing warrior. He is fearless and powerful. Originally from the Kingdom of the Geats, Beowulf arrives at the Danish King Hrothgar’s mead house, Heoroth, one morning to defeat Grendel who has terrorized Hrothgar’s men for years. Beowulf helps Hrothgar because the latter helped end a feud between Beowulf’s father and the Wylfings.

My favorite character in the poem was Hrothgar because he is so kind and wise. He imparts fatherly wisdom to the young Beowulf, and is very generous in his gift giving. He sets a fantastic example for Beowulf to follow. In fact, in many passages, Hrothgar is described in the same biblical language used to describe Jesus.

I read the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander (2003). I thought the translation was beautiful and the notes at the back of the text were very helpful in understanding the history of the relationship between the Geats and the Danes. Major themes in the poem are the inevitability of death and the virtue of generosity.

Favorite Quote

[Hrothgar to Beowulf]: “Learn from this, Beowulf:/study openhandedness! It is for your ears that I relate/this,/and I am old in winters” [1720-1722].

 

 

Review of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)

What was it about?

The Franks under Charlemagne (King Charles) have conquered all of Spain except Saragosse. Saragosse is still under Saracen rule. The Saracen King Marsile, realizing that Charlemagne’ army is so much more powerful than his own, decides to defeat the Franks through deception. Marsile informs Charlemagne that he would like to get baptized. He claims that he is interested in becoming Christian and will give all of Spain to the Franks. After consulting his knights, Charlemagne decides to accept Marsile’s offer. Charles’ nephew, Roland, is a brave and loyal warrior. But, he is also prideful. His pride has resulted in many wars between the Christians and the Muslims. Roland nominates his godfather Ganelon to convey Charlemagne’s response to Marsile. Ganelon accepts the baton and the glove from Charlemagne, but he comes up with a plan to kill Roland. He betrays the Franks by allying with Marsile. He tells Marsile that if Roland is killed, the Franks will no longer fight the Saracens because Charlemagne is powerless without his nephew. Marsile sends word to Charlemagne that he will follow Charles to Aix where he will become Christian. Charles leaves behind Roland, the twelve pairs, and thousands of other knights to protect his Spanish territories. Without warning, Charlemagne’s rearguard is attacked by the Saracens.

What did I think about it?

How can one claim to know anything about the Crusades without having read The Song of Roland? True, it is fictional. But, the story was written in the 12th century, during the First Crusade. It served as war propaganda. If only for that reason, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) should be read for its historical relevance. Roland is the ideal knight. He is willing to die for his God and his king.

The Song of Roland rewards a reader who understands and can identify Christian imagery. Charlemagne is a very wise and saintly figure. This 200 year old man with a long white beard is definitely an impressive character. Roland, Ganelon, ad Olivier are not one-dimensional. This is difficult to accomplish in a poem but the author succeeded in creating complex characters. However, the battles drag on for 50-100 pages each. Although I know that the repetitions in the poem serve to underline tension in the story, these repetitions (especially in the battle scenes) can be irritating at times. Because of the extremely boring final battle scene , I give the book 4 stars. But this rating should not dissuade you from reading this epic poem. Anyone interested in Medieval Europe should read The Song of Roland. It is comparable in fame to Homer’s Odyssey.