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Reviewed by:
  • The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader
  • Jane Chance
The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader, edited by Turgon (David E. Smith) . Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2004. 400 pp. $14.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 1593600119. Foreword by Verlyn Flieger .

Finally, someone has had the excellent sense to put together a collection of the medieval literary works most important to J. R. R. Tolkien, both as scholar and as fantasy writer, written in the translations of his day that he most likely knew. The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader was astutely collected by Turgon (David E. Smith) of, responsible for book reviews and interviews in the Green Books section and a co-author of The People's Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien (2003). This useful anthology presents mainly prose selections from Old English, Middle English, [End Page 271] Old Norse, Celtic (Welsh), and Finnish works in a variety of medieval genres—epic, lyric, chronicle, romance, dream vision, fabliau, beast fable, Breton lay, and saga. These works are a must-read for the educated reader of Tolkien, the university student, and the scholar who wants quick access to what Tolkien taught and spent his career researching. To have them—all out of print—available in one convenient paperback is a great boon.

Although I do not have the space here to analyze why and how the selections in each section are appropriate to the study and understanding of Tolkien, I can single out the Old and Middle English as especially significant, and suggestive of Turgon's approach in the other sections. The Old English section begins with the all-important Beowulf, about which Tolkien wrote a seminal and groundbreaking essay that changed the study of Anglo-Saxon and coincided with Tolkien's writing of The Hobbit. As epic it surely helped charge Tolkien's own version in The Lord of the Rings. The translation is by John Clark Hall (1911), as is the unfinished Finnsburg Fragment that follows; Tolkien wrote a foreword to Clark Hall's translation that praises it for being literally accurate rather than figurative, and, therefore, more faithful to the original Anglo-Saxon and the intent of the poet. "The Wanderer" (whose "ubi sunt" passage is paraphrased by Aragorn when the fellowship reaches Anglo-Saxon-shaped Rohan) and "The Seafarer" (a figure that repeatedly appears in the Silmarillion mythology in characters such as Aelfwine and Earendil) have been translated by Nora Kershaw (1922)—the Old Norse scholar Nora K. Chadwick, who also translated the Saga of King Heidrek the Wise later in the volume. "The Battle of Maldon" appears, too, for which Tolkien wrote the verse-drama sequel, "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son" (1953).

Middle English begins, equally appropriately for Tolkien, with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Jessie L. Weston (1898). Weston's book on the origins of the Grail Quest, From Ritual to Romance (1920), was indebted to the ideas of Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough. The romance of Sir Gawain Tolkien himself coedited, with E.V. Gordon, in a critical edition (1925) that remains standard today. Tolkien also translated both it and the dream vision poem Pearl (1975) (here, translated by Charles G. Osgood, Jr.) and delivered a lecture about the former in Scotland (1953). Of the Chaucerian Canterbury Tales selected, the Reeve's Tale isimportant because of Tolkien's influential philological essay on the northern and southern dialects of Middle English used by the two country-bumpkin clerks and the wily miller (1934), which most likely helped shape Tolkien's treatment of rustics in his own fairy-tales.So also the Breton lay Franklin's Tale, with its emphasis on courtly love in marriage, influenced Tolkien's "Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" (1945). [End Page 272]

In the remainder of the volume, two Old Norse sagas appear, from Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, translated by famed Beowulf scholar Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), and a "saga of ancient times" with a riddle-match reminiscent of Bilbo's with Gollum, again, by Chadwick (1921); five tales from the Welsh Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest (1849);and the extremely important Finnish tale of the...