There is one commonality among every person born. Each will die. Even though this is known to be true with absolute certainty, it still seems to come as a shock.  There is a sense of wrongness about it, an unnaturalness.  Particularly for those who have not lived what would be considered a full number of years, we wonder “How could this happen?” or “Why did God allow this?” We feel we are “owed” a particular amount of time, both in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones. When wins and losses are calculated solely based on the beginning and end of this life, there does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. It is only when we understand that the ultimate end and the determination of good is beyond us that we understand not only the meaning, but the true value of this life. Pearl takes us on this journey of understanding.

Pearl is a medieval poem believed to have been written around A.D. 1400, part of the ‘Alliterative Revival’, by the same author who wrote Gawain and the Green Knight as well as the poems Purity and Patience.[1] [2]  While opinions vary, the popular position is that the poem was written as an elegy upon the death of the author’s daughter.[3] While some scholars argue that the poem was written purely as “medieval vision-literature” representing “clean maidenhood,” Tolkien reminds us that “we are dealing with a period when men, aware of the vagaries of dreams, still thought that amid their japes came visions of truth” and that

 . . . they thought that on occasion, as God willed, to some that slept blessed faces appeared and prophetic voices spoke. To them it might not seem so incredible that the dream of a poet, one wounded with a great bereavement and troubled in spirit, might resemble the vision in Pearl.[4]

The author of Pearl struggles with accepting the death of his child.[5] Today, we might go to a self-help group and discuss which of the five stages of grief we are in. In medieval times, life expectancy was short and death ever present. Sessions of sharing one’s grief would have seemed self-indulgent and strange. Instead of discussing his grief with others, the author of Pearl pours out his pain in a poem that tells the story of his battle with overwhelming grief and loss and as well a message of redemption.

Pearl begins with the writer remembering his daughter and how dear she was to him. Like Pam in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, his child was the focal point of his life.[6] Pearl was young when she died and in his memory of her, he has created an image of perfection, one that leaves out the realities of life, the infractions, and the disappointments. His love is very real, but he has begun to rewrite the story and build a shrine in his memory to which the living would never be able to measure up.

Her only alone I deemed as dear,

Alas! I lost her in garden near:

Through grass to the ground from me it shot:

I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear

For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.[7]

He is in danger of becoming lost in bitterness and entirely focused on the past. He recognizes that he is staying too long in his grief and he should begin to move towards healing; however, he resists. As painful as the loss of a loved one is, sometimes there is a perverse pleasure in holding on to the pain.

Since in that spot it sped from me,

I have looked and longed for that precious thing

That me once wont from woe to free

To uplift my lot and healing bring

But my heart doth hurt now cruelly,

My breast with burning torment sting.[8]

He continues to reason with himself, recognizing that everything must change, everything must die, and that new life comes from the ashes of the old. He begins to consider that as precious as his daughter is, there could not fail to be fruit from her life and death even though she died so young. It is with these thoughts going through his mind that he falls asleep and enters a vision.

Recognizing that things must change and life comes from death

For all grass must grow from grains that are dead.

No wheat would else to barn be won.

From good all good is ever begun,

And fail so fair a see could not,

So that sprang and sprouted spices none

From that precious pearl without a spot.[9]

In his vision, his daughter appears to him. He is delighted to see her; however, she reproaches him for his grief that he has been wallowing in.  She points out that he should know that she is in heaven and that, instead of continuing to grieve with a focus on self-pity, he should be happy for her. She is where there is peace, joy, and no pain and suffering.

‘Good sir, you have your speech mis-spent

To say your pearl is all away

That is in chest so choicely pent,

Even in this gracious garden gay,

Here always to linger and to play

Where regret nor grief e’er trouble her.

“Here is a casket safe” you would say,

If you were a gentle jeweller.[10]

Even at these words, he resists comfort. Sometimes we get so used to a certain pattern of thinking and so comfortable in a set of emotions that we hold on and resist letting them go, even if it means we are miserable. His daughter confronts him about this.

And yet you have called your fate a thief

That of naught to aught hath fashioned her,

You grudge the healing of your grief

You are no grateful jeweller.[11]

At this point, the writer desires to move from one artificial reality to another. After seeing his daughter in the vision, he tells her that he wants to stay there with her. She replies that it is not possible and that what he is seeing now is just a vision; it is not truly heaven. What we see and experience can be deceptive. We have to be cautious about what we put our faith in. Without the context of how our lives fit into the bigger picture of the world around us and God’s plan as a whole, our perception can become distorted. We cannot see clearly even what we think we know.

You know not on earth what one doth mean;

Your words from your wits escaping flee;

You believe I live here on this green,

Because you can with eyes me see;

Again, you will in this land with me

Here dwell yourself, you now aver;

And thirdly, pass this water free;

That may no joyful jeweller.[12]

His daughter encourages him to put his faith in God’s word over any feelings, circumstances, or experiences. What we see can sometimes be what we want to see rather than what is.

I hold that jeweller worth little praise

Who well esteems what he sees with eye,

And much to blame his graceless ways

Who believes our Lord would speak a lie.

He promised faithfully your lives to raise

Though fate decreed your flesh should die;

His words as nonsense ye appraise

Who approve of naught not seen with eye.[13]

In times of distress, it is easy to feel sorry for oneself, but his daughter encourages him, as Paul did the Thessalonians, to give thanks to God in all circumstances.[14] The cross that we bear may not be one of a martyr.[15] It may be our cross is to bear up in difficult circumstances such as the loss of a child, financial difficulties, or being maligned by friends and still thank God for his goodness and trust in his faithfulness.

Thank God in all circumstances

‘But of woe, I deem, and deep distress

You speak’, she said. ‘Why do you so?

Through loud lament when they lose the less

Oft many men the more forgo

‘Twere better with cross yourself to bless,

Every praising God in weal and woe;

For resentment gains you not a cress;

Who must needs endure, he may not say no!

For though you dance as any doe,

Rampant bray or raging scream,

When escape you cannot, to nor fro,

His doom you must abide, I deem.[16]

At this point, he recognizes that he has sinned against God in his bitterness and resentment. He realizes that he has put his daughter in a higher place in his heart than God. He confesses his sin and asks God for mercy.

‘May I give no grievance to my Lord,

Rash fool, though blundering tale I tell.

My heart the pain of loss outpoured,

Gushing as water springs from well.

I commit me ever to His mercy’s ward.

Rebuke me not with words so fell,

Though I erring stray, my dear adored!

But your comfort kindly to me accord,

In pity bethinking you of this:

For partner you did me pain award

On whom was founded all my bliss.[17]

This stanza of the poem parallels Psalm 51, which was composed under very similar circumstances. It was written after the death of David’s son with Bathsheba, which was a judgment from God for David’s adulterous and murderous affair. While there is no indication that the death of the daughter in Pearl was due to any sort of sin on the part of her father, David and the poet are similar in the intensity of their grief. David was so distraught during his child’s illness that his servants hesitated in telling David of his death for fear of what he might do.[18] However, unlike the poet who was stuck in the mire of his grief, David got up, worshiped God, and wrote the 51st Psalm. It may have taken the Pearl poet a little longer to get to seeking God, but once he arrived at the point of repentance, his words echoed David’s. Like David, he asked God to wash him of his sins.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness–

According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—

That You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.[19]

Up until this point in the poem, the writer has described his feelings about the loss of his daughter. Someone who has experienced the same thing would identify with his struggle as he chronicles his journey from despair and confusion to joy at seeing his daughter again. His dialogue with Pearl is a gentle prompt to a reader in similar circumstances to look up and see the truth of the situation. If someone has faith in the salvation of Christ, there is hope and true confidence that death is not the end. If we believe that, the only grief we can have is for ourselves and dwelling in what becomes a form of self-indulgent self-pity. Once the father comes to repentance and turns his focus on the goodness of God, the poem also shifts. He recognizes that his daughter’s state of being as eternal “queen in bliss” is a cause for joy, not sorrow.[20]

Why did the writer feel the need to include this reminder in a work where the focal point is on eternal life in Christ? We may know verses and doctrine; however, they do not become something that we truly “know” and have a deeper understanding of until we have come to a point in our lives where we have to stand on that truth. Once the father comes out of the spiral of misery to a place of repentance and focuses on the goodness of God, these lessons serve as a reminder of what those words really mean and that they apply to the situation he is currently facing. He is in a position for those seeds to take root in his life.

Next the author paints a picture of Christ as a heroic warrior who won the victory on the cross. It is central to the poem. Everything prior to it looks forward in hope because of the price Jesus paid. Everything after it looks back to that battle where Christ won his right to claim those who believe in him and to his future Millennial reign. The primary message of these stanzas is that we are blood bought. “The innocent is ever saved by right.”[21]

Earlier in the poem, the writer used Jesus’s parable of the field owner and the laborers to reinforce the point that salvation is through faith and not works. [22] He revisits this same theme again by highlighting Jesus’s love for children and his statement that one must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. [23]  [24] Why this repeat? Once again, knowledge of a doctrine does not equal belief.  In order to leave no room for seeds of doubt to creep in about whether or not a lost child would enter Heaven, the writer strongly emphasizes Jesus’s unequivocal assurance on that fact.

Jesus’s love for the children

Let him that can rightly read in lore,

Look in the Book and learn thereby

How Jesus walked the world of yore,

And people pressed their babes Him nigh,

For joy and health from Him did pour.

“Our children touch!” they humbly cry.

“Let be!” his disciples rebuked them sore,

And to many would approach deny.

Then Jesus sweetly did reply;

“Nay! Let children by me alight;

For such is heaven prepared on high!”

The innocent ever is saved by right.[25]

Many writers have written on loss, grief, death, and dying. Many have expounded on God’s will and trusting in his goodness when accepting loss. However, the author of Pearl is unique in that in giving a reason for the death of his child, he skips over the possible ramifications in this world and looks forward to the next. Stanzas 62 and 63 describe how God’s grace and redemption are ultimately beyond our understanding. However, God has given us glimpses and pieces of that plan. Paul talked about this plan in his letter to the Ephesians:

God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure.  And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.[26]

This is the plan the writer of Pearl describes in the final third of the poem. He highlights the reality that, for each of us in Christ, our lives are so much more than this short time on earth. Complaining that our time in this life was limited is like complaining that we only had to wait a few minutes in a theatre foyer before being taken straight in to see the play. The purpose of all this is to build the host that will return with Christ in his Second Coming.

Thus every soul that no soil did gain

His comely wife doth the Lamb declare;

Though each day he a host obtain,

No grudge nor grievance do we bear,

But for each one five we wish there were,

The more the merrier, so God me bless!

Our love doth thrive where many fare

In honour more and never less.[27]

He expounds on the New Jerusalem, explaining that the current earthly Jerusalem was the place of Christ’s suffering while the New Jerusalem is the place of peace.

There are two spots, To speak of these:

They both the name “Jerusalem” share;

“The City of God” or Sight of Peace”,

These meanings only doth that bear.

In the first it once the Lamb did please

Our peace by His suffering to repair;

In the other naught is found but peace

That shall last for ever without impair.

To that high city we swiftly fare

As soon as our flesh is laid to rot;

Ever grow shall the bliss and glory there

For the host within that hath no spot.[28]

It is this Jerusalem, the place of peace, where Isaiah prophesied that the wolf would lie down with the lamb.[29] It is this Jerusalem believers are looking forward to when they pray as Psalm 122:6 instructs, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure.”

After reflecting on God’s glory in the New Jerusalem, it is time for him to be separated from his daughter and return to the land of the living.  He now realizes that his focus should be on Christ alone and that he will wait on God’s timing to be reunited with his daughter.

But as wild in the water to start I strained,

On my intent did quaking seize;

From that aim recalled I was detained:

It was not as my Prince did please.[30]

His renewed sense of purpose and a commitment to follow God’s will is evident:

How dear was all that you said to me,

That vision true while I did share.

If it be true and sooth to sear

That in garland gay you are set at ease,

Then happy I, though chained in care,

That you that Prince indeed do please.[31]

Very often value tales explicitly state or imply a “happily ever after.”  This promise of the “good ending,” what Tolkien refers to the ‘eucastrophe’ or the sudden, joyous and unexpected ending, is so ingrained in our DNA that we expect to see that hope fulfilled.[32] As Augustine of Hippo notes in his own work on the eternal city, City of God,

We do not know why young men in perfect health are robbers, or why infants, who could not hurt anyone, even by a word, are afflicted by all sorts of dreadful diseases. We do not know why a person who contributes usefully to human affairs is snatched away by premature death, or why someone who, to our eyes, ought never to have been born lives on beyond all expectation.[33]

Augustine reminds his readers that “divine teaching works to our good.”[34] That Ultimate Good, and the good that works for all who love God, will be made evident in the Day of the Lord.[35] [36] Until then, we may not see that good clearly, but Augustine assures us that “what is hidden is righteous.”[37]

This is the realization of the father in Pearl. He has come through a journey. He has seen the error of his ways and repented. He has committed to keeping his eyes on Christ, but he still falls into sorrow again.

But with fortune no man is content

That rightly he may claim and bear;

So robed of realms immortally fair

Too soon my joy did sorrow seize.

Lord! Mad are they who against thee dare

Or purpose what Thee may displease![38]

But this time rather than staying in the pit, he gets up and goes on again. He recognizes God’s grace in allowing him to have that vision and submits himself to Christ to make him a “pearl without spot.”[39]

When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, sometimes it is hard to know what to say. Like Job’s friends who did not speak for the first seven days they were with him, sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.[40] There are no words that will comfort. But there comes a time when grief can become a pit if a person stays in that mindset. As a friend, how do you tell someone it is time to move forward?

Sometimes you cannot. Sometimes the best thing to do for a friend is share a poem like this, one that fully understands the excruciating grief, and pray that the Holy Spirit will encourage them to move along with the father from his grief in the beginning to his hope at the end.

Citation Information

C.M. Alvarez, “Death, Grief, & Hope in Pearl,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 231-250.

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[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Pearl,” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, ed. Christopher Tolkien, (New York, NY:  Ballantine Books, 1975) 1.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Tolkien, “Pearl,” 10.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid.,1.8.

[6] C.S. Lewis. The Great Divorce.  (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1946) 97-104.

[7] Tolkien. “Pearl.” 1.8-12.

[8] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  2.1-6.

[9] Ibid., 3.7-12

[10] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  22.5-12.

[11] Ibid., 23.9-12.

[12] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  25.5-12

[13] Ibid.,  26.1-8.

[14] 1 Thessalonians 5:18.

[15] Matthew 16:24.

[16] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  29.1-12.

[17] Ibid., 31.2-12.

[18] 2 Samuel 12:18.

[19] Psalm 51:1-4.

[20] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  35:6-12..

[21] Tolkien. “Pearl.” 57.12.

[22] Matthew 20:1-16.

[23] Matthew 18:3.

[24] Matthew 10:15.

[25] Tolkien. “Pearl.” 60.1-12.

[26] Ephesians 1:9-11 NLT.

[27] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  71.5-12.

[28] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  80.1-12.

[29] Isaiah 11:6.

[30] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  97.9-12

[31] Ibid.,  99.8-12

[32] J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, UK edition. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014). 75.

[33] Saint Augustine, The City of God (11-22), ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. William Babcock, Study ed. edition., vol. 2, 2 vols. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2013). 391.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Romans 8:28 ESV
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

[36] Ibid., 392.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Tolkien. “Pearl.”  100.7-12.

[39] Ibid., 101.12.

[40] Job 2:13.