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