- Echoes of Pearl in Arda's Landscape
"It is made of tales often told before and elsewhere, and of elements that derive from remote times" (MC 72). This is how J.R.R. Tolkien described the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but it is a description which would fit much of Tolkien's fiction equally well. The world of Arda and the many stories set therein carry within them echoes of earlier tales, and even though it would be terribly reductive to discuss Tolkien's work only in terms of its sources, knowledge of where the echoes come from contributes to our understanding and, perhaps more importantly, enjoyment of his world and stories. This is illustrated as much by the numerous university courses that discuss Tolkien and his literary roots as by the scholarship that examines Tolkien's texts in terms of medieval language as well as literature. Indeed, many readers take great pleasure simply in identifying an echo from "remote times," be it a connection between Merlin and Gandalf, the philological roots of the woses in Sir Gawain's wodwos, or similarities between the battles of Fingolfin and Morgoth in The Silmarillion, and Arthur and the giant in The Faerie Queene. Many echoes are still left unexplored, however, and in this article, I will investigate what traces the Middle English poem Pearl may have left in Tolkien's creation and suggest how he made the landscape of Pearl his own, writing it surely and truly into some of the more memorable parts of Arda.
My point of departure is Tolkien's poem "The Nameless Land" in which he uses the Pearl meter and which recalls the strange and beautiful land where the Dreamer in Pearl finds himself. Apart from invoking a similar dreamlike landscape, the poem's setting shares several distinct features with the Dreamer's surroundings, but it also shows distinct connections to the world of Arda, connections which become clearer as subsequent revisions of "The Nameless Land" are taken into account. I then examine landscapes both in Aman and Middle-earth where echoes of the Pearl landscape can be found, discussing both physical appearance and the associations among visions, dreams, and death which can be found in the medieval poem as well as in the garden of Lórien in the Blessed Realm and the Elvish realm of Lothlórien.
Ever since he first applied himself to the study of Middle English in his teens, the two poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exercised enormous influence on Tolkien. Indeed, among his lasting academic [End Page 59] achievements must be included his 1925 edition of Sir Gawain co-edited with E. V. Gordon, and he worked, more or less actively, with editions and translations of Pearl and Sir Gawain from 1922 to his death (Letters 11; Tolkien, Preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 7). Tom Shippey suggests that it would be "characteristic of Tolkien to have read Pearl and started thinking about it literally," wondering, along with the Dreamer, what place this actually was (Shippey, personal communication). Not much is told about the setting of the poem, but if Tolkien followed the same reading strategy for Pearl as he recommends for Sir Gawain ("close and detailed attention, and after that . . . careful consideration" MC 72), he would discover a very vivid landscape.
The main description of the Pearl landscape is found in stanzas 6 11. Set at the foot of mountains and beneath crystal cliffs, a wondrous tract of woodland stretches down to a river, across which the Dreamer converses with the Pearl Maiden. In this forest, the trees have indigo-blue trunks and leaves of burnished silver (Gordon ll. 76-77). Among their boughs there are fragrant fruits and birds of splendid colours and beautiful voices (ll. 87-94). The gravel underfoot is precious pearls (ll. 81-82), stream banks glow like golden thread, and he walks through a landscape of "raweƷ and randeƷ and rych reuereƷ" (l. 105), that is, according to Gordon's notes, hedge- or tree rows (raweƷ), strips of land beside a stream or other body of water (randeƷ), and either meadows...