Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo
Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien

While not strictly fantasy in the modern sense, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo are both fantasy in their own rights. They are both circa 14th century poems containing fantastical elements which could not possibly happen in real life. Pearl is a religious poem from about the same era, and is thought to have been written by the same author as Sir Gawain.

After J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, his son found these translations among his papers and combined them into a single volume. Published along with Tolkien’s translations are a series of commentaries by the translator on the content and artistry of the poems.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is probably the most well-known of the three, and has been translated into both poetry and prose several times. It follows Sir Gawain of Camelot and his quest to fulfill a vow made to a strange green knight, despite Gawain’s assurance of a death by beheading. Of the three poems, it is the longest and the most interesting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of Arthur and Camelot.

Pearl is the story of a man who has a visitation of his dead daughter. Written from a Christian perspective, it contains many paraphrases and retellings of Biblical stories and concepts.

Sir Orfeo is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Set in ancient Britain, it follows an English king on his quest to rescue his wife from the land of Faery. The shortest the the three, Sir Orfeo is more like a traditional fairy tale than an epic poem. I really enjoyed it as well, and would recommend it to anyone interested in fairy tales and folklore.

This review originally appeared 7 September 2012 on

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