As a preamble to this epistolary stroll, the first of the letters Jan sent me was a reply from Christopher Tolkien, dated 13 September 1979 — thirty-one years ago this past Monday! Jan had complimented him on the translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, then only recently published. To this Christopher replied, “It gave me great pleasure to know that you approved of my edition of my father’s translations, which are indeed, as I think, of the highest order.” He had also asked for advice on finding second-hand copies of editions of the poems and asked about St. Erkenwald, which has sometimes been attributed to the Pearl poet.
A year later, Jan wrote to the British Broadcasting Corporation, asking whether a recording of Tolkien’s Sir Gawain radio broadcast was available. Parts of his translation were broadcast on the BBC in December 1953, along with a short introduction written and read by Tolkien. The BBC Secretariat responded to Jan on 24 September 1980 with regrets that “we do not have this recording in our Sound Archives. Even so, we would not have been able to release a copy, for copyright and contractual reasons.”
The following year, Jan wrote to Norman Davis at Merton College, Oxford (by then, retired), asking for advice on building up a comprehensive reading list on Middle English literature. Even though the request was “too tall an order”, Professor Davis replied with some suggestions. At about the same time, Jan made a similar inquiry of John Jones, who held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1978–83 (immediately following John Wain, one of the Inklings). Professor Jones replied on 20 March 1981, “I fear Merton College has no recording, and I don’t think it is true that Tolkien was a man of great international fame as early as 1953 — though among Germanic philologists he was recognised as a scholar of genius.” He indicated he would pass Jan’s inquiry along to Norman Davis (“Norman knows more about this matter than anybody else in the world”), unaware that Jan had just written to Professor Davis on a different line of inquiry. Jan followed this up, bringing in Tolkien translation of Pearl this time, to which Professor Jones replied (12 April 1981), “Again, Norman Davis is the right man; he will know more than anybody else in the world about Ronald Tolkien’s translation of Pearl.”
Professor Davis wrote back to Jan on 24 April 1981. Here we draw closer to the subject of my earlier post, so I will quote a little bit more:
I do not believe that a Pearl translation was in any general way ‘being used in the colleges’, as you put it. Tolkien took a long time to satisfy himself about his translation, and no doubt lent copies to friends asking for comments — he gave me one to take abroad for holiday reading, for example. (I didn’t like it much, incidentally.) But these would be only drafts in the process of making the final version, and I do not think it is realistic to speak of ‘this early translation’ at all. There was no single ‘early translation’, and the published text will embody what he wished to preserve.Professor Davis suggested Jan contact George Allen & Unwin “to make absolutely sure (though I think it would be a waste of time)”, and this is what Jan did next. Rayner Unwin replied to the inquiry on 22 May 1981, “it is true that there was a version of Pearl circulating but not published in the middle 1940’s. In fact, this was little changed from the version eventually published after Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s death. To the best of my knowledge there are no copies of this early version of Pearl or of Gawain in writing or on tape available. If there were, they would be with the Tolkien executors […].”
And so we come to the final letter in the series, in which Jan made a last inquiry with “the Tolkien executors”. Christopher Tolkien replied on 25 September 1987 — twenty-three years ago next week! —
As with so many of my father’s works, his translation of Pearl was a long-continued process of refinement over many years. The printed text you refer to was not an edition, but was an experimental type-setting carried out by B.H. Blackwell (Oxford). It never went beyond the stage of a first proof in galleys, and was a mass of printing errors. It thus has, in itself, no interest. […] I hope have [sic] made myself clear. The point is, that the printed proof made in the 1940s (which I no longer possess, in any case) is, so to speak, a merely casual incident in the process of refinement of the translation, and did not in itself in any way affect that process.So, to sum up. Copies of Tolkien’s Pearl translation were indeed “circulating” in the 1940’s (Rayner Unwin, Norman Davis), most likely among Tolkien’s friends, of whom some didn’t like it (Norman Davis, again). We can’t really be sure how closely the early version resembled the final one, as we have two opposing opinions: Rayner Unwin says it was “little changed”, but Norman Davis and Christopher Tolkien imply otherwise. But we are now in a slightly better position to judge the claim in the contributor blurb from Essays and Studies (1953), that Tolkien was “[w]ell known […] for his verse translation of The Pearl”. It was not a total exaggeration, though there should probably be an implied addition: he was well-known for it among his friends and colleagues in the colleges. This is more or less the conclusion we had drawn already — but at least now we have a real basis for it, and knowledge of at least one more contemporaneous reader of the translation.