7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo
Slide 7 of 10
Being a language scholar who taught many classes on Anglo-Saxon and Old or Middle English, Tolkien studied medieval literature extensively. Sometimes, he did his own translations of famous medieval texts, including these translations of three medieval poems:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most famous stories in the Arthurian canon, shows what happens when a Green Knight shows up in Camelot on Christmas Day to challenge the Round Table. Arthur’s nephew Gawain answers the Green Knight’s challenge to see if he can cut the man’s head off, not realizing the implications of the Green Knight’s challenge.
Pearl tells the story of a man who grieves a pearl he lost, then enters a dream where he finds the pearl again, now a young woman. The man's reaction to finding his pearl and quest to be rejoined with her involves some haunting meditations on mortality.
Sir Orfeo is a fairy tale based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Like the myth, it follows a man who travels to another world (in this case, the kingdom of Faerie land) to find his lost love and may pay a steeper price than he can bear to bring her back.
After Tolkien's death, Christopher Tolkien edited the translations to be published in one book, which appeared in 1975.
Further Reading: Medieval History Through Literature
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