Today I got out my brand new, utterly bargainous, edition of assorted Middle English texts*. And opening it felt as good as opening a new book always does, even when this particular book contains Piers Plowman. Given that reading Piers would be beyond even my new-found dedication to the cause I quickly skipped straight to Gawain and The Green Knight. Which proclaimed itself to be translated by JR Tolkien. I think that it's one of the supreme ironies of my life that I have read thousands of words worth of Tolkien but none of them are from Lord of the Rings. It's probably some kind of intellectual snobbery at its best. Having chuckled to myself*** about the Tolkien I started to hunt out my essay and notes that accompanied the week of Gawain in Michaelmas 2002. And whilst I was looking for them I noticed that I had, filed nicely away, a partial photocopy of Gawain. This in itself didn't strike me as particularly odd, whilst I'm not a photocopying freak, I know many people who are and since it had my name on the top I'm assuming that someone else donated it to Corinne's Great Middle English File. Which, if I'm honest, isn't actually that great considering it consists of lots of essays on the Canterbury Tales, a few photocopies and a ten line translation of 'The Owl and The Nightingale'. 'Corinne' 'great' and 'Middle English' really don't belong in the same sentence.
But I'm digressing; anyway I'd found the photocopy of Gawain. And having found it I glanced at it. And then it hit me, rather in the manner that the playground hit me when I was seven and tripped over my skipping rope and ended up with gravel embedded in my forehead. The phtocopy of Gawain was not in instantly recognisable English. Even greater, I only needed to glance to see that dreaded 'thorn' letter appear again****. Oh my God, surely ofermodes and roods were only a footstep away. And all the smugness which had risen in me when I'd discovered that Gawain in my brand new edition was less than 90 pages long sudddenly evapourated. What use, after all, was my 90 page edition when it was in translation? I know that I'd read that it was Tolkien who'd written the translation, but somehow my brain had gotten stuck on the Tolkien bit of that sentence and never progressed to the translation part. And I know that I'm doing an English degree and therefore supposed to be able to read, but clearly my brain was effected when I broke my leg in the fountain last year*****.
On the list of things which Oxford doesn't do, very high up along with sensible work rates and let people take books out of the Bod, is translations of works we're supposed to have read. It's why a myriad of important authors aren't studied - things are read in their original language or not at all. Of course we all use those translations - I wouldn't have survived without Heaney's Beowulf - but we can't quote them in exams. For middle english this isn't generally a problem, with Chaucer if something looks odd, saying it aloud usually solves the problem. But Gawain is different even though it's slightly later than Chaucer. The tiny problem here is that it's written in a Northern dialect that was abandoned when Chaucer's estuary English became the standard. So it has letters in it which Chaucer probably wouldn't have come into contact with. And if he had, he probably wouldn't have understood them.
In short, it's just me and the green knight's "gomen". I don't think that it's going to be pretty.
*A mere two pounds from Blackwells. And it's hardbacked.How cool is that?**
**So, not very cool. What can I say? I'm a book geek.
***I really did chuckle. I'm not getting out much at the moment.
****Old English has a slightly different alphabet to modern English, including three letters which we don't have. One of these is called 'thorn', looks like what would happen if you put b and p together and is pronounced as 'th'. That'll be the last language lesson of the day.
*****I broke my leg in the same world that Griffin broke his back in the same fountain******. For anyone who doesn't know either of us, this means that I didn't actually break anything. But it hurt. A lot.
******Though not at the same time. That would have been odd. And embarrassing.