Friday, September 17, 2010

More loose leaves on Tolkien’s Pearl

I concluded my recent post on Tolkien’s unpublished translation of the Middle English Pearl with the hope that “[p]erhaps someone can unearth a little more information.” I am delighted to say that someone has. My Frisian friend Jan Veltman is a great admirer of this poem, and as it happens, he wrote a series of letters inquiring about Tolkien’s translation and related matters to some of those best situated to know something. Jan recently sent me copies of the responses he received, and with his permission, I’m going to share some of the highlights. They didn’t know a great deal, but they did know a little, and so I now know a little more as well. Some may find this much ado about nothing, but I find it a fascinating addendum to the story.

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.


  1. It seems that Christopher Tolkien was much more likely to reply to letters from fans in the 80s than he is nowadays... nowadays he seems to have contact with only a few specific people, who have in one way or another managed to establish contact with him.

  2. Yes, that’s my impression as well. Not that I blame him a bit for this. He is a much older man who has already given a very great deal to the community of his father’s (sometimes cultish) fans. He certainly deserves to enjoy his retirement years and doesn’t (and never did) owe us any more letters. The generosity he has shown us all over the past four decades greatly exceeds what many executors would have done, and it would be very ungrateful to demand yet more, wouldn’t it? :)

  3. Hi Jason,
    This is a really interesting post. I thought I'd share with you a discovery my uncle and I made recently. We were flipping through "Sweets Anglo Saxon Primer" and when looking on the back cover of the book (9th edition), we saw a title listed. This title said: Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, edited by Kenneth Sisam with a Middle English Vocabulary by J.R.R. Tolkien. We then realised that we both had this book, and had never realised there was a vocab by Tolkien! Have you got this book? It's quite a good book actually.....the vocab makes it even better than it already was. To think, my uncle had bought two copies of this book (2nd hand), given one to me when my interest for such things arose, and neither of us had ever realised that the vocab by Tolkien was there! Needless to say, it made our day:)! It's amazing what you discover sometimes. If you haven't got this book, I'd highly recommend it!

  4. Hi Lilly. Yes, I know Sisam’s book (with the glossary by Tolkien) very well. A Middle English Vocabulary was Tolkien’s first published book. It was supposed to be finished in time to appear with Sisam’s collection in 1921, but Tolkien didn't finish it until the next year. It was printed alone in 1922, and subsequently bound together with Sisam’s book after that. Mine is a 1964 printing.


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