[Access article in PDF]
A Middle English Version By J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited, with introduction and notes by Carl F. Hostetter
In 1944, the Academic Copying Office in Oxford published an unknown (but presumably small) number of copies of an anonymous, twenty-page booklet titled Sir Orfeo. The first sixteen pages of this booklet comprise a version of the Middle English poem that, while based for the most part on the text of the fourteenth-century Auchinleck Manuscript, has been altered and emended throughout in accordance with the grammar of the earlier South-Eastern dialect of Middle English. The result is a Middle English version of the poem that is not only, as the booklet's author observes, "much more metrical" than that of Auchinleck, but that—if the author's theory that the poem was composed in Essex in the thirteenth century is accurate—is closer to what must have been the original form of the poem than are any of the three surviving manuscripts, which have been "infected . . . with the forms of later language and different dialect."
Although the booklet itself does not bear its author's name, it has been identified as a work by J.R.R. Tolkien. In their J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, Wayne G. Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson note of this booklet that one of the five known copies, held by the English Faculty library at Oxford, "contains a note, reported to be in Tolkien's hand, which states that this edition of 'Sir Orfeo' was prepared for the naval cadets' course in English, which Tolkien organized in January 1943 and directed until the end of March 1944" (209). Hammond and Anderson further report the existence of three other copies of the booklet in which the lines of the poem have been numbered in pencil, by tens, in what appears to be Tolkien's hand. Two of these copies have in addition a few textual emendations in pencil, again apparently in Tolkien's hand. It is upon one of these two emended copies that the present edition is based. [End Page 85]
J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle English version and Modern English translation
The attribution to Tolkien of this Middle English version of Sir Orfeo and its brief accompanying note is further supported by certain similarities with Tolkien's Modern English verse translation of Sir Orfeo and its brief accompanying note, published posthumously in the book Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (23, 123-37).1 Both notes locate the composition of the poem in "the South-East of England,"2 and both notes use precisely the same phrase in describing the transmission of the poem as having been subject to "the corruptions of error and forgetfulness."
Comparison of the poems themselves reveals, in addition to striking correspondences of formatting and punctuation,3 a number of instances in which Tolkien's translation departs from the texts of the surviving manuscripts in precisely the same manner that the Middle English version does:
(In the following comparisons, V = the Middle English version of the booklet, T = Tolkien's translation, A = Auchinleck MS, H = MS Harley 3810. Both V and T use A as the source for all lines except 1-24 and 33-46, which are supplied by H.)
l. 4:— H has frely þing where V has ferly thing. In his note on this line Sisam glosses frely as "goodly," and remarks that the Lai le Freine (a poem of the Auchinleck MS that has essentially the same opening lines as the H version of Sir Orfeo) has here ferly, which he glosses as "wondrous" (209). In his companion Vocabulary, Tolkien glosses frely in Sisam's text as "pleasant" (deriving it from Old English frēolic of the same meaning) and ferly in Sisam's note as "wonderful" (< OE fær-lice "suddenly"), corresponding to a noun of the same form that he glosses as "marvel." T has "marvellous thing," suggesting that the ME form underlying the translation is ferly, and hence agreeing with V against the MS.
l. 82:— A has out of hir witt "out of her wit" where V (correcting a defective rhyme) has out of mende "out of mind." T has "out of mind."
ll. 241, 245, 249:— A has He þat hadde ywerd "He that had worn," He þat hadde had castels "He that had had castles," and He þat had yhad knites "He that had had knights," respectively, each a relative construction employing the pronoun þat. V has He hadde ywered "He had worn," He hadde had castels "He had had castles," and He hadde yhad knites "He had had knights," respectively, in each case dropping the relative pronoun (presumably to improve the meter). T has "He once had . . . worn," "He once had castles," and "He once had many a . . . knight," respectively, like V omitting the relative "that." [End Page 86]
l. 265:— A has His here of his berd, blac "His hair of his beard, black" where V has His her and berd, all blake "His hair and beard, all black." T has "His hair and beard all black."
l. 368:— A has was all of burnist gold "was all of burnished gold," while V has was maked al of burnissed golde "was made all of burnished gold." T has "was builded all of burnished gold."
l. 381:— A has what he wold haue ydo "what he would have done," while V (correcting a defective rhyme) has what his wille were "what his will were." T has "what might be his will."
l. 392:— A has non armes nade "no arms had," while V has no fet no armes nadde "no feet nor arms had." T has "[had] no arms, nor feet."
Other examples could be cited, but these are the most striking. It should be noted that there are instances where the translation agrees with the MS against the Middle English version (e.g., in l. 419, A has "'O lord,' he seyd, 'if it þi wille were'" where V has "and seide: 'O lord, if thi wille were'"; while T has "'O lord,' said he, 'if it be thy will'"), and it must be allowed that a verse translation necessarily makes concessions to language and meter that may obscure or falsely emphasize details of the relationship between the source(s) and the translation. Nonetheless, these examples strongly suggest that Tolkien's translation of Sir Orfeo was based at least in part on the booklet's emended Middle English version.
The date of Tolkien's Modern English translation of Sir Orfeo does not appear to have been established with much precision. Christopher Tolkien wrote, in his Preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo only that it was, like the c. 1944 Pearl and the c.1950 Sir Gawain, "also made many years ago" (7). Concerning Basil Blackwell's ultimately unrealized plans of c. 1942-44 to publish Tolkien's translation of Pearl, see Hammond and Anderson's Bibliography (321-23). The Bodleian Library catalogue of its Tolkien manuscript holdings has the following entry: "A33/1 Typescript and manuscript transcripts and translations of Sir Orfeo [fols. 1-47], with . . . various drafts of the translation of Pearl, with . . . letters from (Sir) Basil Blackwell about the translation, 1942-4"; but while it may be more than mere archival accident that Tolkien's "transcripts and translations of Sir Orfeo" are located with letters of 1942-44 concerning his work on another Middle English poem, this evidence is circumstantial at best. Humphrey Carpenter's statement that "Tolkien had originally translated [Sir Orfeo] for a wartime cadets' course at Oxford" (141) would, if accurate, seem to demonstrate that Tolkien produced both his Middle English version and his translation of Sir Orfeo for the naval cadets' course, i.e., c. 1943-44. But it may be that Carpenter has simply confused Tolkien's translation with the present Middle English version. [End Page 87]
However, that Tolkien's translation appears to be based at least in part on his Middle English version of 1944 strongly suggests that it was made in or after 1944. There is in addition one piece of evidence internal to the translation that suggests very strongly that it was made before 1945: lines 363-64 of the translation ("The vault was carven and adorned / with beasts and birds and figures horned") show that when he translated them Tolkien still read animal "animal" in l. 364 for a form that was corrected to aumal "enamel" in a 1945 revision to his Middle English Vocabulary (see the Appendix below for details). If the translation was in fact based on his 1944 Middle English version of the poem, it is then very likely that the translation was likewise made in, or not long before, 1944.
Tolkien's version and Sisam's edition
In 1922, Tolkien published A Middle English Vocabulary, his first book, which comprised a complete glossary of the Middle English poems included by his colleague and former tutor Kenneth Sisam in his Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, which was first published the previous year. (Tolkien's Vocabulary was intended to be published together with Sisam's collection as a single volume, but delays in the Vocabulary's preparation resulted in their separate initial publications.) Among the poems in Sisam's collection is an edition of Sir Orfeo. Tolkien's version follows Sisam's edition very closely, not only in formatting and punctuation, but also in sharing certain readings that, according to Bliss, are original to Sisam's edition, as well as in adopting most of Sisam's editorial revisions and suggestions.
(In the following comparisons, V = Tolkien's Middle English version of the booklet, S = Sisam's edition, A = Auchinleck MS, H = MS Harley 3810. Both S and V use A as the source for all lines except 1-24 and 33-46, which are supplied by H.)
Sisam notes that the "original text preserved final -e better than the extant MSS" (208), and provides the following examples of "restored" readings:
l. 119:— And seyd<ė> þus þe king<ė> to
Tolkien's version of these lines agrees with Sisam's restoration of final -e precisely. It seems possible to suppose that Tolkien's impetus to produce an emended version of Sir Orfeo originated in this note. [End Page 88]
l. 4:— H, S have frely "goodly," but Sisam notes that "Lai le Freine has ferly 'wondrous'" (208). V has ferly.
Taken together, these comparisons indicate that Tolkien's Middle English version of Sir Orfeo was based on Kenneth Sisam's edition, while his Modern English translation was based on his own Middle English version; and further that the translation was, like the version, made in 1944. [End Page 89]
[Tolkien's editorial note]
There are three MSS. of this poem: A (Auchinleck, before 1350); H (Harley, fifteenth century); B (Bodleian, Ashmole, fifteenth century). The introduction, lines 1-24, and also lines 33-46, are from H. The rest of this version is based on A, though the spelling has in a few points been altered, and final -e has been restored or omitted in accordance with the grammar of earlier Southern English. In a few cases the lines have been emended by small changes, especially of word-order. The result is a much more metrical version than that offered even by MS. A, though several lines (as e.g. 96) remain obviously defective and corrupt. The defective rhymes of the MSS. in lines 81-2 (torett ... witt); 149-50 (on hed ... gold red); 157-8 (palays ... ways); 381-2 (he wolde haue ydo ... a minstrel, lo!) have been remodelled in accordance with evidence supplied by other poems of the same MS. (A) or of similar date and origin. Some rhymes, however, remain defective, as for instance 413 sete (for the sg. sat) with 414 swete.
Sir Orfeo appears to be a translation or adaptation made from a now lost Old French original in the thirteenth century in the South-East of England (that is probably in Essex); but it passed through several hands of copyists, or the mouths of reciters, between the author and the oldest surviving MS., and these, in addition to the corruptions of error and forgetfulness, have infected it with the forms of later language and different dialect: the influence of Northern and (probably) South-Western dialect can be detected in MS. A. The original appears to have used the old native form hye or he for sche and they (thai), though these are the forms used in the MS. in all but a few cases (note the rhyme in 185-6). MS. A uses þ throughout for the th that is here substituted. is used for gh in the middle or ends of words; at the beginning of words it is the equivalent of modern y, as also in compounds: as vnderete = underyete, 576.
Comparison of readings
With the exception of Tolkien's substitution of th for þ throughout, his indications of short ŏ, and differences of single vs. double quote, all [End Page 104] differences of orthography, form, word-order, and punctuation between Tolkien's version and Sisam's edition (imprint of 1928) are indicated, as of course are all additions by Tolkien. These notes, therefore, when used in conjunction with Tolkien's Middle English Vocabulary, provide a key to Tolkien's own gloss for nearly all forms. In the few cases where Sisam's edition differs in a significant manner from Bliss's edition (1954), this is also indicated. In these indications citations from Tolkien's version are given in bold before a square bracket; those from the editions follow in italics. Readings from Bliss's edition are preceded by an abbreviation indicating the source MS: A = Auchinleck; B = Ashmole 61 (Bodleian 6922); H = Harley 3810; L = Lay le Freyne (Auchinleck f.261a ff.).
Lines 1-24:— These lines, and ll. 33-46, corrupt in A, are provided by H. Sisam also gives these lines from H.
Revisions to the printed text of 1944
Tolkien's pencilled revisions (incorporated into text)
l. 75: afternone > afternon
© The J.R.R. Tolkien Copyright Trust, 2004
Appendix: Revisions to Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose due to Tolkien
The first edition (1922) of Tolkien's Middle English Vocabulary contains the following corrigenda to Sisam's text:
p. xlv, l. 7: for carat read caret
p. xlvii: for Jessop read Jessopp
p. 21, l. 259: for be read he
p. 28, l. 493: for enn read en
p. 43, footnote to l. 69: omit "for:"
p. 62, l. 100: for tyste read t<r>yste (Morris); and adjust note at p. 225.
p. 103, l. 254: for largeand read large and
p. 175, l. 1: for Daib. read Diab. [sic; l. 1 of the page, but l. 99 of the poem —CFH]
p. 214, note to a: for "The best . . . are" read "This poem is largely a translation of sentences excerpted from Rolle's Incendium Amoris, cc. xl-xli (Miss Allen in Mod. Lang. Review for 1919, p. 320). Useful commentaries are"
p. 226, note to l. 153: in l. 8 for t read t
p. 243, n. to ll. 5-6: for "external covering" read "covering over it"
p. 291, table, last column, 1 sg.: for "-e or (e)s" read "(e) or (e)s"
Sisam's text was corrected in exact accordance with these corrigenda when it was reprinted in 1923.
In 1945 (according to Bliss, see below; the earliest example I have seen is in the 1946 impression), the entry Animal (Sir Orfeo l. 364) in the Vocabulary was altered from:
Animal, n. animal, ii 364. [OFr. animal.]
in the first edition (1922) to:
Animal, n. ii 364, a misreading for aumal q.v.
at the same time adding this entry:
Aumal, n. enamel, ii 364. [OFr. aumail.]
Line 364 of Sisam's text of Sir Orfeo was corrected accordingly by 1967 (but not as of 1950). Presumably at the same time animal was emended to aumal, the following was added to Sisam's notes on Sir Orfeo (Sisam 1967 210): [End Page 120]
364. aumal, "enamel." Holthausen's correction for animal (Anglia, vol. xlii, p. 427) is confirmed by the MS.
The reference is to the following in Holthausen's 1918 article, "Zum mittelenglischen Romanzen" ("On the Middle English Romances"):
Animal ist sinnlos, O bietet amell, H metalle. Ersteres wird richtig sein, vgl. das NED. unter amel "email." Natürlich wäre hier emal zu schreiben.
Holthausen's misgivings about animal are apparently motivated solely by a judgment that it yields an inappropriate sense. There is no indication in his article that he based his proferred reading, emal, on an examination of the Auchinleck MS itself.
By contrast, Bliss, in his first edition of Sir Orfeo (1954), reading directly from the MS, gives the form as aumal (32), noting:
364.All editors have printed animal for aumal, although there are only five minims in the manuscript, and although the noun animal is not recorded until the end of the sixteenth century (OED s.v.). The correct reading was pointed out by Professor J. R. R. Tolkien (A Middle English Vocabulary, impression of 1945, s.v. animal) .(54)
However, in the second edition (1966), Bliss revised this note to read:
364. All editors have printed animal for aumal, although there are only five minims in the manuscript, and although the noun animal is not recorded until the end of the sixteenth century (OED s.v.). The correct reading was first published by Professor C. L. Wrenn, TPS [Transactions of the Philological Society] (1943), 33. See RES [Review of English Studies] N.S. viii (1957), 58 footnote 4 (54).
(The citation in Wrenn reads: "Auchinlek's anmal, then, may well be an error for aumal (u and n scribal confusion), which is a quite plausible form of amal," that of RES is to Tolkien's student and protégé S.R.T.O. d'Ardenne's review of the first edition of Bliss's Sir Orfeo, to which the RES editor supplied this footnote: "The reading aumal seems to have been published first by Professor C. L. Wrenn in 'The Value of Spelling as Evidence,' Trans. Phil. Soc., 1943, p. 33; but the manuscript had been so read by Miss S. I. Tucker in 1938.") [End Page 121]
Hence, although Sisam's note correctly refers to Holthausen as first noticing the difficulty with the reading animal, it was not he but Wrenn who first published the correct MS reading aumal. It appears that Wrenn, not Tolkien, was ultimately responsible for the change in the Vocabulary—that Tolkien's Middle English version of Sir Orfeo, printed in 1944, has the reading animal suggests that he did not himself arrive at the correct reading aumal before 1944, and thus after Wrenn—but it may be presumed that it was Tolkien who was proximately responsible for it. It is interesting to note that Tolkien's English translation of l. 364 (Tolkien 1975 131), "with beasts and birds and figures horned," shows that he still read animal when he made the translation, suggesting that he made his translation before 1945.
I am grateful to Wayne Hammond for providing me with a photocopy of Tolkien's Middle English version of Sir Orfeo, and for suggesting this study of it. I am further grateful to Wayne and to Christina Scull and Arden R. Smith for their assistance in the pursuit of various references and in researching the revisions to Tolkien's Vocabulary and Sisam's reader. I also thank the Tolkien Estate for their very kind permission to republish the complete text of Tolkien's version of Sir Orfeo.
1. In his preface to Sir Gawain, Christopher Tolkien notes that at that time (1975) he was "not able to discover any writing by my father on the subject of Sir Orfeo" other than the "very brief factual note on the text" that is given in the introduction (8). He was unaware at that time of the existence of his father's Middle English version (private correspondence). (Tolkien did in fact leave some writings on the poem, not seen by this editor, now held by the Bodleian Library.)
2. A judgment notably not shared by Sisam, who describes its dialect as South-Western (cf. 13, 207).
3. This despite the restructuring of sentences sometimes required by verse translation. It should be noted, however, that it will be argued below that the formatting and punctuation of the Middle English version is due to that of Sisam's edition; hence that of Tolkien's translation may also be due to Sisam, directly or indirectly. [End Page 122]
Bliss, A. J., ed. Sir Orfeo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.
——. Sir Orfeo. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.
d'Ardenne, S.R.T.O. Review of Sir Orfeo, edited by A. J. Bliss. Review of English Studies, New Series VIII (1957): 57-59.
Hammond, Wayne G. and Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1993.
Holthausen, F. "Zum mittelenglischen Romanzen," sec. VIII. Anglia XLII (1918): 425-29.
Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1921. I also make specific reference to the imprints of 1923, 1928, 1946, 1950, and 1967, each of which was (slightly) revised from previous versions. Where no imprint is specified, references apply to any of these imprints.
Tolkien, J.R.R. A Middle English Vocabulary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1922. I also make specific reference to the imprint of 1945, which was (slightly) revised from previous versions. Where no imprint is specified, references apply to any of these imprints.
Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Introduction by J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited with a preface by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.
[Tolkien, J.R.R., ed]. Sir Orfeo. Oxford: The Academic Copying Office, 1944.
Wrenn, C. L. "The Value of Spelling as Evidence." Transactions of the Philological Society (1943): 14-39.