Since the start of the year, I have been reading through The Lord of the Rings with an online book club, with the restriction that we only read a couple of chapters a week, and then discuss them. It has proved to be an immensely rewarding experience, and a frequent comment has been how much more detail we are each noticing by reading this way. We have recently finished the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, and are making inroads into the second book, The Two Towers. So there’s still a long way to go.
Today’s blog, inspired by this read, is looking specifically at the poetry that Tolkien wrote into the book. The last time I “properly” read it, rather than just dipping into it here and there, was before studying poetry in a serious way. So all kinds of things have popped out at me this time around as a result.
In Tolkien’s mythology, the creation of the world, and its primordial history, is governed by song. The Silmarillion describes how the supreme god Iluvatar initiates the original theme, and little by little the other gods and spirits join in according to their ability and comprehension. Even the great adversary Morgoth (then called Melkor) participates in this, though he tries to divert the music to suit his own purposes. Three themes were set in motion by Iluvatar, one after another, challenged in turn by Melkor, until the whole concludes in a grand chord. Fundamentally, the same music permeates all of creation, and every creature living in it. I think that Tolkien made this concept concrete in the poems and songs which are liberally strewn through The Lord of the Rings. So this little series of posts will look at these poems and use them to illustrate what I mean.
For one thing, poetry is taken to be a universal thing. Even the great enemy Sauron (servant and successor to Morgoth) writes poetry which scans and rhymes. But also, as we have read through The Fellowship of the Ring, it has increasingly struck me that all of the poetry we have met so far – whoever had written it – has been built around the same small number of patterns. To this point in the story we have only met elvish poetry, or else that made up by other cultures but heavily based on elvish patterns – we start to encounter human poetry in the second volume, which I’ll tackle in another post sometime.
I’ll list specific examples as I go along, trying not to interrupt the flow, but the gist is that there are really only two main basic patterns so far, and both are based on counting stressed syllables in a line. There are, to be sure, some minor variations, but these really serve only to highlight the common patterns.
Now, this is surprising. Tolkien was, in his academic life, thoroughly steeped in poetry from the dark ages and medieval periods, much of which was based around different principles. Typical Anglo-Saxon poetry was built around alliteration, and since Tolkien translated Beowulf and wrote extensively on it, one might have expected the conventions of such poets to have made their way into his writing. Tolkien’s own translation has lines which seek to faithfully reproduce the original form – plenty of alliteration but no attempt to keep a regular metre:
On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.
Another form of poetry that he would have been familiar with, that found in the Hebrew Bible, is built around parallel lines and structures, and place very little emphasis on either rhyme or metrical patterns. Both of these are entirely different to the poetry he weaves into Lord of the Rings.
Instead, Tolkien chose one of two “templates” around which to build his elvish poetry, both based around pairs of lines – couplets. One template has equal lines with four stressed beats in each line – I shall call this 4+4. The other has four beats in the first line and three in the second – this will be 4+3. Some people might recognise that second pattern from English ballads. When you scan through the various poems set out in the book, there is a tendency for the equal-length pattern to be used in more formal contexts, and the unequal one in more emotional ones. On top of that metrical pattern there are also some different rhyming patterns, which I’ll comment on, but think are secondary to the metre. This post is going to focus on the 4+4 pattern.
I have no doubt that Tolkien chose these patterns deliberately. Reading through the book slowly convinces you that most of the content has been very carefully and systematically thought through (barring the odd hiccup here and there, which I am willing to overlook in any author). It is abundantly clear that he planned the vocabulary aspects of his books very carefully, to the extent of inventing several linguistically sound languages: it seems to me altogether likely that the same is true of the poetry.
Let’s look at a few examples. The first poetry or song which we meet is that of hobbits. It is usually casual, often folksy, with irregular beats and rhymes here and there, as though the speaker was making it up on the spot. But nevertheless it retains clear memories of something more disciplined and regular, especially when delivered by someone more learned, like Bilbo. Bilbo recites
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can
– perfectly regular, with 8-line verses and a rhyming pattern ABABCDCD – and contrast this with Pippin’s bath song
Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
That washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he who would not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!
– which although still 4+4 has various metrical irregularities like extra unstressed syllables, and the simpler rhyming pattern AABB.
When we meet “proper” elvish poetry, this tendency comes to the fore. The first elvish poem which the hobbits hear, sung by Gildor, is early in their journey:
Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us who wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
– again, perfectly regular, this time with 4-line verses and rhyme pattern ABAB.
And here is part of the lay of Beren and Luthien, which Aragorn recites from memory, just before Frodo is wounded under Weathertop:
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
He refers to this as “hard to render” but from an analytic point of view the difficulty lies only in the more complex rhyming pattern (ABACBABC), not the metre which is regular 4+4.
I’m going to leave the 4+3 metre for another post, as it is most evident in the second half of the book.
It seems to me most important that other beings use the same patterns. The Barrow Wight who imprisons the hobbits uses a spell built on 4+4 (with some irregularities)
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
We’ll see some more examples of this in the 4+3 post…
Now, poetry is hard to translate for several reasons, including the tendency to use dense vocabulary, with several possible meanings and plays on words. It is extraordinarily hard to preserve the conventions of verse in one language into another. Yet Tolkien does exactly this on those occasions where he gives us a poem in elvish. I am very very far from being an expert in that language, so I’ll present the poems as I believe a native English speaker would, without carrying out any deep study. Here’s an example from Rivendell…
A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna miriel
o menel aglar elenath!
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, si nef aearon!
The 4+4, 8-line verse, with rhyming scheme AABABCC, is quite familiar, and so we can see that Tolkien was quite committed to this pattern.
So what does all this mean? Well, my theory is that Tolkien wanted to thoroughly embed his mythology into his world. So if the world was created by a musical theme, which affected and shaped all living things, then that should be reflected in the poetry and music that those living things make.
This post has explored the 4+4 pattern… another one will look at 4+3, and anything else that emerges as we progress through the books.