Thursday, June 14, 2007

An addendum on wryþe and The Pearl

In the second part of my comments on the etymology and cognates of wraith, I noted that Tolkien offered a telling definition of the Middle English verb wryþe(n). It occurred to me that there was a little bit more to say about this.

The usage in question comes from The Pearl, an anonymous fourteenth century poem of great interest to Tolkien (particularly as an example of the West Midland dialect so dear to him). It is found in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — as well as two other poems, Patience and Cleanness, all apparently written by the same poet.

So, to give you the proper context, wryþe occurs a little less than halfway through the poem, in the following stanza — the text quoted here is from Sisam [1]:

‘That cortaysé is to fre of dede,
3yf hyt be soth þat þou cone3 saye;
Þou lyfed not two 3er in oure þede;
Þou cowþe3 neuer God nauþer plese ne pray,
Ne neuer nawþer Pater ne Crede;
And quen mad on þe fyrst day!
I may not traw, so God me spede,
Þat God wolde wryþe so wrange away;
Of countes, damysel, par ma fay!
Wer fayr in heuen to halde asstate,
Oþer elle3 a lady of lasse aray;
Bot a queen! — hit is to dere a date.’

As most of you are aware, Tolkien himself translated The Pearl into modern verse. How then does he render wryþe? I won’t quote the entire stanza, but Tolkien gives the line in question and its penult as: “I cannot believe, God helping me, / That God so far from right would stray.” [2]

Now, since Tolkien’s definition of wryþe(n) in the glossary he compiled for Sisam is rather different from others [3], I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the earlier translations of The Pearl. There are a number of them. The two most important editions I’m aware of are Morris (1854) and Gollancz (1891) — there is also E.V. Gordon’s edition (1953), but this sheds no light on Tolkien’s thinking in the early 1920’s. [Update: One reader has suggested I may have dismissed Gordon's edition too hastily. I'll have to give it a closer look.] Among the translations, Tolkien might have known any of several — e.g., Israel Gollancz (1891), G.G. Coulton (1906), Marian Mead (1908), Sophie Jewett (1908). These, I find, generally translate the line similarly to Tolkien. For example, Jewett gives the line, “That God from right would swerve away” [4]; and Mead gives, “That he would deal so wrong a way” [5]. I couldn’t get my hands on Gollancz, but I suspect it’s much the same.

So Tolkien’s translation isn't as unique as his definition. And the reason is clear: the connotation comes from the entire phrase, wyrþe so wrange away. What’s interesting, though, is that Tolkien decides to imbue the verb alone with some of the sense conveyed in The Pearl through these additional words. I wonder if he is unique in this — I suspect so. It’s also interesting that in this source line, the being doing the “turn[ing] aside (from the just course)” is not some clearly evil being (like a Ringwraith), but God himself.


[1] Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (with Glossary). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Reprinted with corrections, 1964, p. 63.

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975, p. 102.

[3] Notably, from Morris, Richard. Early English Alliterative Poems in the West-Midland Dialect of the Fourteenth Century. London: Early English Text Society, 1854. 2nd ed., 1869, p. 213. Morris defines wryþe variously as “turn, wriggle, toil, bind, thrust,” but there is no suggestion of turning from the right to the wrong course.

Likewise, Tolkien’s definition differs from Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle English Dictionary. New ed. by Henry Bradley [Tolkien’s mentor at the O.E.D.]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1891, p. 697.

[4] Jewett, Sophie. The Pearl: A Middle English Poem. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co., 1908, p. 43.

[5] Mead, Marian. The Pearl: An English Vision-Poem of the Fourteenth Century Done Into Modern Verse. Portland (ME): Thomas B. Mosher, 1908, p. 27.


  1. I wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss Gordon's Pearl as evidence for Tolkien's thought. While not published until 1953, it had to have been begun some considerable time before Gordon's death in 1938. Also, Tolkien's contribution to the edition was quite extensive, particularly in the glossary.

    Carl Hostetter

  2. Thanks, Carl. Excellent point! So now — er — I need to get my hands on a copy of Gordon's edition. :)