Friday, August 27, 2010

They “saw loose the leaves of the book” — but who?

The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son has been reprinted several times, so it is now seldom read in its original setting: Essays and Studies, the periodical of the English Association. This publication can be rather hard to come by too, so it’s no wonder. But as a work moves from its original setting into subsequent ones, it’s not uncommon to lose something along the way. Texts frequently pick up one variance or another, but I’m thinking of something else: the original paratext. In this case, what I have in mind in the author blurb about Tolkien in the “Notes on Contributors”. Here it is:
J.R.R. Tolkien, born in 1892, is Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. Well known for his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with the late E.V. Gordon), for his work on Beowulf, and for his verse trans-lation of The Pearl. Professor Tolkien’s fairy-story, The Hobbit, is a great favourite. [1]
Something caught my eye here: that Tolkien was “well known […] for his verse translation of The Pearl”. Was he really? This is surprising, considering that it wasn’t published until two years after his death!

According to Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s précis, Tolkien made his translation of the poem during 1925–6 while he was supposed to be working on an edition of it with his Gawain collaborator, E.V. Gordon. In 1936, he submitted the translation to J.M. Dent for publication, but although they rejected it, it caught the attention of Guy Pocock, who arranged for part of it to be read on the radio in August of that year. Shortly thereafter, George Allen & Unwin considered publishing it, but all thought of that was swiftly swept aside in the wake of The Hobbit the following year. [2]  A few years later in 1942, the renowned publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell prepared to publish the translation at last. Galley proofs were even printed in March 1943 (Christopher Tolkien owns a set). All Tolkien had to do was write an introduction. Alas, the ever dilatory (and at this point, very distracted) Tolkien could not get the job done, and — to make a long story a little shorter — the translation never reached the public during his lifetime. [3]

He certainly intended to publish it, discussed it repeatedly, and was forever on the verge of actually doing it, but this simply never happened. So how did he become so “well known” for it? That is a riddle worthy of Gollum (or better, Bilbo, since it’s not actually a proper riddle :).

I suppose private copies may have been circulating among Tolkien’s friends and colleagues, rather like Songs for the Philologists and Tolkien’s edition of Sir Orfeo. But if so, I have not read of any surviving. Perhaps he passed around his own (only?) copy. But that would have been risky, wouldn’t it, my precious, yesss. The radio broadcast probably helped, but how large a portion of the translation was read? It’s a long poem, well over a thousand lines! Was the unknown author of the contributor blub in Essays and Studies exaggerating? Was this one of Tolkien’s friends, someone who had indeed read and passed around the translation?

All these questions prompted by an all but forgotten note on a contributor! Perhaps someone can unearth a little more infor-mation. In the meantime, I suppose it’s true after all that “lesser work can earn more pay; / And the longer you reckon, the less hath more” [4].

[1] Essays and Studies, Vol. 6 (1953), [n.p.].

[2] Gordon died unexpectedly in 1938, and plans for the edition of The Pearl went on hold. The edition was eventually completed by Gordon’s widow Ida (with assistance from Tolkien) in 1953, the same year Beorhtnoth was published!

[3] Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 748–9, et seq.

[4] This, like the title of the post, is from Tolkien’s translation of The Pearl, finally published in 1975. The title comes from 70.9, the closing quotation from 50.11–2.


  1. Very interesting, Jason! I'll be interested to see if anyone has an answer to the mystery

  2. At least a slight exaggeration comes to your mind first, but maybe there is more to it than that.

  3. The existence of Tolkien's translation may have been general knowledge among his academic colleagues, or at least it was surely no secret that it had been offered to Oxford University Press and had been in production by Basil Blackwell, but was not published for lack of an introduction by Tolkien or of other, accompanying translations by him from Middle English poetry. But beyond that, we have recorded, from a Sotheby's London sale of 17 December 1998 (, a 'signed working typescript' of the translation of Pearl, 'with substantial revisions and annotations in the hand of his pupil and colleague K. Hardacre, signed at the end by Tolkien himself, with three typed pages of other poems (including part of "The Seafarer" translated by Gavin Bone)', 25 pages in all. The description implies that the 'working' part of the typescript was by Hardacre, not Tolkien, and it may be that this was a handout of Middle English poetry in translation prepared by Tolkien for his students. We ourselves know nothing about 'K. Hardacre' - possibly the Kenneth Hardacre of St Edmund Hall who was an exhibitioner in 1939-42, and whose passing is noted on the Internet.

  4. Thanks for the additional information, Wayne and Christina. It’s still rather a strange choice of things to mention, isn’t it? It probably reveals something of the personal interests of the blurb author. I don’t suppose you know (or can guess) who that was? Perhaps Geoffrey Bullough, the editor of that volume of Essays and Studies?

  5. Probably it was the editor. We may never know for sure, unless the answer is somewhere in Bullough's papers or in those of the English Association.

  6. Yes, you can only go so far down the rabbit hole. This was almost sixty years ago, and long before the Internet turned us all into Funes el Memorioso. :)

  7. David Bratman10/26/2010 10:55 PM

    A late addition to this conundrum:

    "[Tolkien] was a scholar of languages, primarily Anglo-Saxon and Old English; his wonderful, acclaimed translations of the literature of those times are the professional standards. The most generally available are his Beowulf and, published in a single volume, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo."

    - A Reader's Guide to Fantasy by Baird Searles et al (Avon, 1982), p. 147.

    A future scholar considering this, then, would face the conundrum of how Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, which has still not been published yet in 2010, came to be "generally available" in 1982, as well as in what form of history Anglo-Saxon and Old English came to be separate languages.

    I don't suppose the answer should be too difficult to arrive at.

  8. I don’t suppose the answer should be too difficult to arrive at.

    No, in this case, I don’t suppose it should be.