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A Middle English Reader and a Middle English Vocabulary [Paperback]

J R R Tolkien

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More About the Author

J.R.R. Tolkien was born on 3rd January 1892. After serving in the First World War, he became best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, selling 150 million copies in more than 40 languages worldwide. Awarded the CBE and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Oxford University, he died in 1973 at the age of 81.

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An excellent compendium of Middle English literature. This is probably on your university reading list.

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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
118 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: New Label, Familiar Package 2 Aug 2005
By Ian M. Slater - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a welcome paperback reprinting, unfortunately under a confusing new title, of a classic anthology, Kenneth Sisam's "Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose" of 1921. This is, in fact, stated several places in the Dover edition of the book, but the information apparently was not supplied to Amazon in a way that appears on the page.

"Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose" was designed for use as a textbook, whether in a class or for private study, with much emphasis on the language, but the overall literary quality of the selections is quite high. It is probably not too intimidating for someone who has used a good text edition of Chaucer -- by which I mean one that has not been too aggressively normalized in spelling. It might be a considerable shock to the complete novice, with its obsolete letters and unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary, and examples of dialects which are not ancestors of modern literary English.

Kenneth Sisam (1887-1971) was, and I assume still is, a name well-known to students of Old (Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English, for important critical writings over his career, as well as a late anthology, "The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse" (with Celia Sisam, 1971). The present book certainly contributed to students' awareness of him, if perhaps not to appreciation of his critical acumen, which here takes second place to helping the student acquire experience in reading (and understanding) Middle English.

"A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary" is a very generic title -- I own half a dozen books to which it could apply. And Sisam's collection was a groundbreaker in its day, anything but interchangeable with others. As originally published in 1921 (Oxford, at the Clarendon Press), the 300-page "Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose" had an excellent introduction, interesting texts with informative headnotes, detailed technical endnotes, and an appendix on "The English Language in the Fourteenth Century." However, it lacked a glossary.

This appeared separately the following year, as "A Middle English Vocabulary," about 170 double-column pages (no numbering), compiled by one of Sisam's colleagues, none other than the young J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien's contribution is a model of rigor, precision, and compression, and will probably be enjoyed by those intrigued by his created languages, and used with respect, if not affection, by others. This division in two volumes may have been a little annoying and expensive (two purchases instead of one), but it did have the advantage that the glossary could be kept open -- no constant flipping to the back of the book.

Although Dover seems to imply that they are doing something new by combining them, all of the later Oxford printings which I have seen (in libraries, or in my own collection and those of others) are, like the re-titled Dover reprinting, single-volume editions with the Vocabulary bound in the same covers.

It is my impression that the Dover edition is a little easier to read, with both slightly larger print (the marvels of technology) and brighter, cleaner-looking pages -- although the Oxford printing I have accessible at the moment is from 1950, and may just be getting a little dingy.

The collection, useful both as a literary sampler and as a textbook in Middle English, was reprinted in 1923, and with corrections in 1937 and 1955. (I am not sure if there were changes in later printings, such as those of 1959 and 1962 -- I think not.) Over the years the dates usually assigned to some of the texts have shifted a bit, so that a strictly literal title might have at some point have been "Late Thirteenth Century, Fourteenth Century, and Early Fifteenth Century English Prose and Verse," while at another the thirteenth century would have disappeared again.

A few decades later, a more comprehensive work, the "Handbook of Middle English" by Fernand Mossé (as translated from the French by James A. Walker, 1951), attempted to survey the whole Middle English period, from the twelfth century onwards. It was the textbook I used as a graduate student, and is currently in paperback. Its 130-odd pages on grammar, phonology, and dialects are much more useful than Sisam's appendix (the dedicated student will find it invaluable). But Mossé is sometimes stupefying in detail. His selection of readings is much more heavily weighted to displaying linguistic features, and sometimes denies that a passage has any other interest. (He seems to have missed the political scandals in the "Mercers' Petition"!)

Sisam's selection of literary materials was excellent -- so much so that most later anthologies of Middle English, and collections of translations, have duplicated many of his choices; even Mossé often has different excerpts of the same texts. Sisam avoided the readily-available Chaucer, but some choices, such as Wicliff (Wycliff) on the translation of the Bible, and John of Trevisa on "The Languages of Britain" (in the "Translation of Higden's Polychronicon" were probably inevitable. Few pieces, other than lyric poems, are given in their entirety, although there are some. It contains a complete version of "Sir Orfeo" (which Tolkien later independently edited and translated). The York Play of "The Harrowing of Hell," and the Towneley Play of "Noah" are each given in full; technically, these two also could be considered excerpts, since they both belong to extensive cycles of plays to be performed at festivals.

There is an excerpt, for example, from Robert Mannyng of Brunne's verse translation of a French "Manuel de Pechiez" as "Handlyng Synne" -- the whole "Cursed Dancers of Colbek" episode, almost-self-contained and a frequent choice of anthologists. Another prose translation from a French moral tract, offered mainly as a specimen of Kentish dialect, is a passage from Michael of Northgate's "Ayenbite of Inwyt." (Or Dan [= Don] Michel's "Agenbite of Inwit" -- the title refers to the remorse, or bite, of conscience, and was a favorite of James Joyce). There are fairly extended passages from the alliterative poems "Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight," "The Pearl," and "Piers Plowman." (Tolkien and E.V. Gordon edited "Gawain," and Gordon "Pearl," and Tolkien later translated both.) Prose translation from French secular writings is represented by the always-entertaining "Mandeville's Travels" (with the then-prevailing attribution of the original work to Jean de Bourgogne of Liege, on the dubious authority of the patriotic chronicler of Liege, Jean d'Outremeuse).

Altogether there are seventeen main headings, many with subsections, including five "Political Pieces" (Section XIV) and nine "Miscellaneous Pieces in Verse" (Section XV).

These last are mainly lyrics, but include a complaint about noise and air pollution, "The Blacksmiths" ("Swarte smekyd smethes smateryd wyth smoke / Dryue me to deth wyth den of here dyntes..."). And there is a bit of practical magic or applied piety, in place of exterminators, "Rats Away" -- "I commande all the ratones that are here abowte, / That non dwelle in this place, withinne ne withowte, / Thorgh the vertu of Iesu Crist, that Mary bare abowte ...".

Not quite William Morris' water-color Middle Ages, but some problems are older than you might think, and never really go away.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars seo boc ŝe ŝu rĉdan scealt: Sisam's Middle English Reader 2 April 2007
By Rafael Juan Pascual Hernández - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
An excellent book for all those wanting to have in their libraries a good compendium of Middle English literature. A wide spectrum of medieval texts is shown in this volume: Handlying Synne, Sir Orfeo, Ayenbyte of Inwyt, Love is Life, the Nature of the Bee and The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost; Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, Pearl, The Destruction of Troy, Piers Plowman, Mandeville's Travels, The Bruce, The Translation of the Bible and Of Feigned Contemplative Life - these last two by Wiclif -; Ceix and Alceone and Adrian and Bardus; The Marvels of Britain and The Languages of Britain; On the Scots and The Talking of Calais, by Minot; On the Death of Edward III, John Ball's Letter and On the Year 1390-I (The ax was sharpe, the stocke was harde...); some miscellaneous pieces in verse, Harrowing of hell and, finally, The Towneley Play of Noah.

It also includes some notes together with a remarkable appendix: The English Language in the Fourteenth Century, in which dialectal variations, phonology and paradigms are explained.

Moreover, this publication provides us with a glossary of Middle English words written by Tolkien. As a student of English at the University of Granada, Spain, it was and it is still a recurrent tool for translating and studying.

See also: A Book of Middle English
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is definitely a must-have for Middle English lovers ... 27 July 2014
By Karl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is definitely a must-have for Middle English lovers, college students. The Reader is well annotated and the Vocabulary can serve as a dictionary.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Middle English 18 Jun 2014
By John - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you really want to see how English was originally spoken, I suggest you get this book. There you will see how English was spoken.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars 4 July 2014
By TONY MORPHETT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I got it for research and it turned out to be extremely useful
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