Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004) 85-123
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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...