Teaching Tolkien’s Translations of Medieval Literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo, and Pearl
By Jane Beal
This Rough Magic, Vol. 5:1 (2014)
Introduction: J.R.R. Tolkien, the medievalist who became the father of modern fantasy literature, translated many poems out of Old English, Old Norse and Middle English into carefully versified modern English. Today, many English professors use his texts to teach medieval poetry in survey courses of British literature and medieval literature – and when teaching the works of Tolkien himself.
Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching an author course, “The Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien,” as an upper division seminar for English majors at a private, Christian liberal arts college, and in it, teaching three of Tolkien’s translations of medieval poems in relationship to Tolkien’s legendarium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo, and Pearl. For my students and me, this learning experience led to new understanding about the influence of medieval literature on Tolkien’s fertile imagination. Specifically, his ideas about fantasy, recovery, escape, consolation, and eucatastrophe, expressed in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” appear to be concepts he derived in part from his reading of medieval poetry and later developed in his own works of fantasy literature.
In order to explore how my students and I gained new insight into Tolkien’s creative process, this essay will first give an overview of the organization of my course, “The Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien,” then consider approaches to teaching Tolkien’s three modern English verse translations of Middle English poetry. By sharing these ideas, I hope other teachers will also gain inspiration for their own teaching of the original works of Tolkien and Tolkien’s translations of medieval literature.