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The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader: Versions in Modern Prose (Cold Spring Press Fantasy) Paperback – April 6, 2004
"The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10 comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, The Lying Game. Pre-order today
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Tolkien's love of medieval literature was especially strong for epics like "Beowulf" and the Norse Eddas, which were sprawling mythologic poems and legends. (Try to see how many Tolkien dwarf names you can find in the Poetic Edda) But Turgon -- who is one of the sweet folks on exceptional Tolkien site TheOneRing.net -- doesn't stop there.
He includes other old English tales, and some Middle-English stories like "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and parts of "The Canterbury Tales." He also includes an excerpted story from the Kalevala, an ancient Finnish text credited with part of the inspiration behind "Lord of the Rings." And to round it out are some Celtic stories, such as the Welsh Mabinogion, and the early story of "Kilhwch and Olwen," which was also the first Arthurian story.
Okay, all these stories are in the public domain -- obviously something written in the thirteenth century can't pull in royalties. But Turgon's compilation does serve a purpose: bringing together a bunch of old texts that fans may have heard of, but probably have never actually read. It's not a replacement for the real thing, but serves as an introduction.
Since language changes over time, and some translations are a bit rough, Turgon has smoothed out the old linguistic wrinkles. Nothing that really changes the meaning, but enough to keep readers from going "Huh? What's that word mean?" Small introductions to each story or excerpt are included, describing how these stories were important to Tolkien's work, and how they inspired his world of dragons, dwarves, elves and human heroes.
In a nutshell, Turgon has compiled and edited a solid introduction to the works that inspired Middle-Earth. Fans of the legendary trilogy will love the splendor and richness of these old books -- and might just learn something about J.R.R. Tolkien's writing in the process.
The problem lies in the fact that most of the works are given in
a) very old
a) very old: done for copyright reasons, but unless there's no choice readers should read translations into their own idiom, and these century-old versions, although Tolkien often read them himself, are no longer in our idiom. Translations of old works offer a bridge, but these bridges reach to the 19th century, not the 21st.
b) prose: some of the original works are in prose, of course, but many are verse. The editor holds that complex medieval verse forms can be a stumbling block, and that a prose translation will at least give you the story. I disagree. If you ONLY want the story, read a retelling, not a translation. A prose translation will have all the verbal complexity of the original, but without the verse forms that give structure to that complexity and allow it to make sense. So it can be more of a stumbling block than a verse translation. And prose translations can suck the life out of an original, but a good verse translation can be wonderful. For Chaucer, for instance, don't read the prose translations here: get the vivid contemporary verse version by Nevill Coghill (a friend of Tolkien's, incidentally).
c) translations: Tolkien would prefer you read the original, or use the translation as a guide to reading the original (for this a prose translation of a poem can be better than verse, which must rearrange much). Tolkien didn't think Old English or Old Norse were that difficult for an English-speaker, and even if he's wrong about that, at least a sample of the originals would have given some of their flavor, flavor which only comes through the original languages.
By all means try this book: it's a fine notion and a great convenience. If you like these versions, well and good. But if you don't, please don't be put off the literature that nourished Tolkien's imagination. In either case, follow the editor's suggestions for further reading, and get retellings of old tales by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Roger Lancelyn Green, and modern verse translations of poems, including Coghill's Chaucer and Tolkien's own Sir Gawain and Pearl.