Tolkien has become synonymous with fantasy literature in the last twenty years. His fame and reputation in that regard are well deserved. His fantasy work has been badly copied and misinterpreted by authors and artists and game designers nearly since its inception.
For many years before he wrote The Hobbit and the subsequent works of fantasy Tolkien was one of the foremost scholars on medieval literature and philology. Philology is the study of the structure, historical development and relationships of languages and Tolkien was the best English language philologist.
Much of his work can be seen in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is so extensive it takes up multiple volumes.
Slightly more accessible to the average reader is his work of translation. He didn’t translate foreign languages into English he translated medieval English into modern English.
Translating poetry is a monumental undertaking that requires vast skill and understanding of words. Not only must the original intent of the poetry be maintained but the rhyming scheme and alliterative style of the verses and lines also must be consistent with the original.
When people read, even silently they affect a certain rhythm. The mind takes a breath pause after a certain number of syllables and certain sounds connect together better than others. All of these things are part of writing poetry so that the person reading it will read it the way the poet intended. That is to say, the poet can control the pace and feeling of the story with the words and syllables and sounds that he/she chooses to use.
Tolkien’s translation is excellent. I don’t know enough about poetry to say much more than that.
What I can say is that the stories told in each of these poems is spectacular. Gawain heads out on an epic quest expecting to find the test of his bravery and characters and finds instead that it is his morals being challenged.
Pearl is either about a man who has lost a young daughter and grieves for her, a man who has lost his new wife, or a man who is writing metaphorically about his religious feelings. I feel certain that the only people who don’t see the first interpretation as obvious are the people who do not have children of their own.
Sir Orfeo is a fourteenth century retelling of the King Orpheus myth and told brilliantly.
If you’ve ever wondered where Tolkien got some of his inspirations then look no further. Sir Gawain refers to England as Middle Earth several times throughout the poem and there is much of this tragic hero in Aragorn.