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Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version By J.R.R. Tolkien

Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version By J.R.R. Tolkien

By Carl F. Hostetter

Tolkien Studies, Vol. 1:1 (2004)

Synopsis: The article presents an edition of Sir Orfeo, first published by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1944.  Sir Orfeo was a Middle English poem, first written in the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth century.

Introduction: 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.

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