When I first encountered Pearl in its original form I was completely baffled. The explicit allegory that Tolkien talks about in his introduction to the poem was completely closed to me. It seemed dependent on some Medieval Christian theology that I simply did not have any background in. However, the Tolkien translation is extremely accessible and helped me unpack the allegory better. In this blog post I intend to try and find a few links between Pearl and the Lord of the Rings (seeing as Tolkien was a foremost scholar of the Pearl poet’s work) and with a special focus on the allegory regarding the pearl itself.
The first reading of the poem indicates that the pearl is the narrator’s daughter who has been untimely taken away from him by death. He pines for the girl and when he sleeps he has a vision of her. She is no longer an infant but a beautiful woman. She tries to explain to him the glories of heaven but he is unable to comprehend them. He eventually tries to cross the river to the kingdom of heaven but since he isn’t allowed the privilege of doing so, he fails. He wakes up from his sleep and decides to have stronger faith. This is all fairly simple. The problems arise when we begin to see the flaws in the account of the narrator. The flaws with the narrative emerge from the flaws of the narrator. The narrator states that his pearl is ‘without a spot’ while he, in comparison has many spots. The flaws of the narrative itself would be besides the purpose of the post. I want to compare the Pearl narrator to a figure we are all familiar with, Gollum.
Firstly, the obsession that Gollum has for the ring reminds me of the narrator’s obsession with his pearl. If in Pearl we encountered the words ‘my precious’ it would not be out of sync with the author’s tone at all. This is the most obvious comparison but from where does this obsession emerge.
The ring is a physical object but it has a will of its own (or the ability to affect the will of others, all I’m attempting to establish is that it is not a mere physical object). Furthermore, Gollum anthropomorphizes the ring when he refers to it as his ‘precious’. The pearl starts as a human being but the narrator uses the image of an inanimate object to represent her. Pearls emerge from living creatures and turn into everlasting objects of beauty just as this girl has turned in to a beauty in heaven who never ages. Thus, we see that both Gollum and the narrator’s obsessions over these objects can be said to come from sort of desire for human love or human interaction (I know Gollum wasn’t a man, I’m using ‘human’ in the sense of ‘humane’ as in ‘empathetic’.) Smeagol kills Deagol, is ostracized from his community and lives alone for 500 years. He has a twisted bond with Frodo that has an element of honesty about it but eventually his bond to the ring is stronger. Gollum is a classic misanthrope and the ring can be construed as his only outlet for feeling love.
A striking element of the Pearl narrative is the subdued yet undeniable sexual attraction the narrator feels to the beautiful version of his daughter. All sorts of tension are in this incestuous feeling but it would appear that they are absent from Gollum’s feeling for the ring. A common criticism of Tolkien’s work is that it ignores sexuality. I don’t want to suggest anything to dramatic but the ring, in its physical aspect, can be seen as a representative for the feminine form. Furthermore, throughout the narrative of The Lord of The Rings people seek to acquire it. This is a very loose claim and not entirely relevant. I just thought that if I am going to claim a similarity between narratives I could not simply ignore the sexuality that was so obvious in one (Pearl) and yet seemingly absent in the other.
The similarity that most intrigues me between Gollum and the Pearl narrator is that their obsessions with their objects cause them to form narratives that are not consistent with the truth. Gollum insists on calling the ring his birthday present when, he actually committed murder in order to obtain it. He calls Baggins a thief when actually Gollum misplaced the ring (or it left Gollum). Gollum twists the narrative to fit a version that vindicates himself.
The Pearl narrator does something similar and twists the narrative but the flaws in his account give the lie to his twists. For instance his inability to comprehend the infinite bounties of heaven reveal (despite his pleas to the contrary) his misplaced notion of faith. Furthermore his obsession with the spotlessness of the Pearl merely highlights the spots (the failures at being virtuous) that mar him. Both their objects seem to be, for both Gollum and the narrator, things that ostensibly make them complete when in actuality these characters lack of completeness is an inherent quality in them. The Pearl narrator claims that he would be complete if his daughter were with him but the lines suggest that even when she was alive the narrator had ‘spots’. Gollum believes that the ring will make him happy when actually all its done is make him miserable and consumed him. This inability to comprehend reality because of the distorted view their obsessions engender in them is the greatest similarity between Gollum and the Pearl narrator.
Physically, both the narrator and Gollum’s narrative end with them falling into liquids. For the narrator it is the river and for Gollum it is the lava of mount doom. To say that Tolkien is warning us against obsessions in simplistic but at the same time anyone who warns you about obsessions is being simplistic but they’re still probably right. I think its more about being wary of the delusions that obsessions can cause and of how unnatural devotion can be a cause of anguish.
Once again, I am bowled over by Tolkien’s ability to incorporate medieval theology and works into his works. The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. Pearl is not a simple or obvious allegory. They are both works, crafted by masters, that try to present truths and I feel privileged to have studied them.