Friday, April 18, 2014

Tolkien's Use of Poetry and Prose

I feel comfortable assuming that all of us bloggers and bibliophiles agree that Tolkien really nailed it on the style front in the Lord of the Rings. His style (flexible, clear, simple) feels so effortless, it is almost possible to believe Tolkien when he says that the stories of Middle Earth simply popped into his head and fell onto paper fully formed. However, as we’ve come to know, Tolkien never put anything on paper without considering the appropriateness of each syllable. His clear and intimate style, the only one that the LOTR could have been written in (not, as mentioned in class, because of Tolkien’s inability to write in other ways, but rather because no other style would have felt ‘authentic’), was the result of years of experimentation; irrefutable proof of the commonplace ‘practice makes perfect’. Our discussion on Wednesday covered a lot of ground (as style is the most important element in crafting a story) but what struck me most, and what I’d like to reflect on here, was the (inter)relationship of poetry and prose, and how Tolkien used various styles of both to convey the broader cultural characteristics and individual personalities of the hobbits, men, dwarves, elves, and wizards of Middle Earth.

As LeGuin says, the style of a piece IS the piece; without it, there’s nothing but a plot. Therefore, the poetry he developed so determinedly must be integral to the success of the storytelling. But I wondered, as I read it (being, admittedly, not a huge poetry lover), if it is actually anything more than window dressing. How necessary was the inclusion of poetry? Would LOTR have been the same book, or had the same depth and power, with out it?

Tolkien’s style changed a great deal over the course of his writing career: Brian Rosebury, in his chapter ‘Fiction and Poetry’, traces the evolution of Tolkien’s writing style from 1914-1973, a period of time that he divides into thirds: 1914-1937, 1937-1955, and 1955-1973. The first period, corresponding to his entrance and early years in Academia, was mostly taken up by academic work, but much of his personal stories and poetry have survived and been published. However, as Rosebury ably demonstrates in his chapter, these writings just aren’t very good. His style is not yet his own: his poems are all imitations of the nineteenth century romantics, like Keats or early Tennyson (Rosebury, 91). His prose uses ‘a sustained archaism’ that harked back to William Morris (Rosebury, 95). Although he was still searching for his own style, it is clear that he experimented and wrote in prose and poetry in equal measure, and considered them equally important in developing the mythology and history of his secondary universe; they were both necessary in equal measures for completing a unified piece of writing. He polished his prose and poetry in tandem, and when Tolkien finally achieved the ‘intimate paternal story-telling’ style in his composition of the LOTR, his poetry was no longer conventional pastiche and his prose no longer weighed down by impossibly heavy archaism (Rosebury, 117).

Tolkien’s full command of his mature prose style is evident, as we read in Shippey’s excerpt, in the Council of Elrond, where he smoothly shifts between styles to characterize and contextualize each of the speakers. Gloin (and by extension dwarves) is curt, which readers in our primary reality know by his use of short, broken sentences and apposition (Shippey, 71). Bilbo and Frodo speak little, but when they do, it is in simple rhymes (all that is gold does not glitter…) and quick exclamations that contain Old Gamgees rustic simplicity with none of his (as Shippey calls it, 72) stupidity; they are clearly hobbits of ‘book learning’. Aragorn slips easily between speaking like Elendil’s heir and Strider, and Boromir adopts a lofty ‘relatively Elrondian’ pattern of speech (Shippey, 72). These speakers are further characterized later in the text by the way in which they recite poetry; or perhaps, Tolkien continues his work of characterization by electing to use poetic styles that complement the prose.* Gimli (who, as the son of Gloin and a dwarf, speaks in the same taciturn, appositive way as his father) chants the tale of Moria while the fellowship rests in its halls. His poetry is simple, curt, much like the speech of his father in Elrond’s hall: it is a tragic historical ballad composed of pared down rhyming couplets. After his speech is done Gimli falls silent: ‘Having sung his song he would say no more’ (LOTR, 317). Like Gloin’s careful and guarded manner of telling the account of the visitor from Mordor, Gimli is a closed book: he says his peace and no more. Aragorn, entertaining the hobbits at Weathertop, sings the lay of Beren and Luthien; after which, he proceeds to repeat the story in straight prose (LOTR 193-4). When he enters Rohan, Aragorn sings a heroic Rohirrim poem to Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf, and once again, upon completion, explains plainly that ‘thus spoke a forgotten poet (…) recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young (…)’ (LOTR, 508).

Each of these poems completes the characterization: each character has a poetic style appropriate to his (there are no hers) history and culture: Gimli’s poem is brief and stern, deeply proud of Dwarvish history. Aragorn’s poetic style fluctuates: he can recite Elvish (high) lays and knows the poetry of fellow men. His recitations, and further explanations, have him moving between The King and Strider just like he does in his conversation with Boromir at the Council. The poetry is not simply an instrument of pleasure or entertainment. The above examples were all chanted (and in Aragorn’s case explained in prose) as efforts to edify ‘foreign’ people. The hobbits cannot understand what Moria means to Gimli and all dwarves, and he can only explain it in a dwarvish style. The poetry, thus, appears to complement the prose; it was a necessary (as well as effective) stylistic choice on Tolkien’s part.

It seems that poetry might also be interchangeable to the prose, and that this interchangeability works as long as both are written in corresponding styles. When the men of Rohan leave Dunharrow for Gondor, they leave in silence ‘without horn or harp or music of men’s voices’ (LOTR, 803). Their progress, however, is described in lovely alliterative verse (Old English style) before the story commences in prose again. The alliterative verse and the heroic-style prose that follows it are interchangeable, because Tolkien can alternate between their styles without the reader sensing a break in the story.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the stylistic variation, between poetry and prose, is of ultimate importance in the success of the LOTR. The two styles are sturdy enough to carry all of the different cultures of Middle Earth inside them, but flexible enough to differentiate between these cultural differences authentically. The interactive use of poetry and prose gives depth to the secondary universe; the historicity and culture that poetic and dialogue styles indicate don’t recall explicitly our primary reality, but they do remind one of a lived cultural experience.

* I’m just drawing from the readings we did for class, although I’m sure this experiment could be extended throughout the books!



  1. I’m not sure I believe that “stylistic variation, between poetry and prose, is of ultimate importance in the success of the LOTR.” If the poetry serves only to further the characterization of Tolkien’s men and elves and dwarves, I’m sure it’s not necessary: we already knew, before Gimli’s ballad, that dwarves were curt, stout, and proud, and we know that Aragorn straddled the line between men and elves through many ways other than his songs: his ability to converse with elves, his love of Arwen, and so on. Indeed, the very fact that, as you point out, “poetry might be interchangeable to the prose,” suggests that it is not necessary for this purpose at all.

    In fact, I don’t think we’re asking the right question when we ask, “How necessary was the inclusion of poetry? Would LOTR have been the same book, or had the same depth and power, with out it?” The Lord of the Rings remains a stirring tale of heroism and faith and the epic potential of mankind even if, as Professor Fulton Brown pointed out many readers do, you skip over the poems and songs completely. Moreover, asking a scholar of Old English what alliterative verse has to contribute to a prose novel—or asking a devout Catholic what a psalm has to contribute to a work of fiction—seems badly off-base. We know that Tolkien’s project was to provide England with a legendary cultural history. But legends are neither novels nor historical narratives, whichever you want to call the Lord of the Rings. They are songs and poems and chants, and these have their own value. I think a better question to ask would be: “How necessary is the novel, The Lord of the Rings, to the poetry that appears within it?”

    By way of answer, I’d like to suggest that the book does for the poems and songs much the same thing it does for “Hey Diddle Diddle” and other cultural artifacts that appear in it. In fact, in their similarity to real-world poetic traditions, I think many of the poems that appear might qualify as cultural artifacts of that sort. Consider the eagle’s psalm on page 963. It is joyous and uplifting, but at the point when it appears we have already had an entire chapter of joy and lifting-up: Frodo and Sam were saved by the eagles and cheered for by a great host of men, and Aragorn himself bowed before them. The psalm could be omitted entirely without the eucatastrophe being any less complete. At the same time, it is because we have already experienced the eucatastrophe of Tolkien’s story that we are able to appreciate the psalm in its fullest: the joy and fervor of the song is not lost on us, who have ventured with Frodo and Sam into the depths of fear and doubt and emerged again the better for it. It is the story that deepens the effect of the psalm, not vice-versa. Tolkien’s book teaches us to appreciate the power of a great psalm: and if, the next time we hear a hymn we think of such eucatastrophe, or the next time we read alliterative verse we think of rolling fields meeting stern mountains, the book will have served its use. I think it’s precisely in this way that Tolkien succeeds in connecting the secondary and primary worlds.

  2. This is a wonderful analysis of the ways in which Tolkien's poetry contributes to his characterizations (in your words, "Tolkien continues his work of characterization by electing to use poetic styles that complement the prose."). Thank you for the brief account of Rosebury's argument, which supports your point that the prose and the poetry work in tandem--of course they do, for they were developed in tandem! I very much like your reading of the poetic recitation styles of the hobbits, dwarves, and men.

    I too was one of the people who skipped the psalms and ballads and rhymes when I young, and I have found it to be an entirely different and richer experience to read it all. I agree that even beyond characterization there is something in the poems that resonates with our primary reality--as you say beautifully,"the historicity and culture that poetic and dialogue styles indicate don’t recall explicitly our primary reality, but they do remind one of a lived cultural experience."


  3. Like you, I am not a huge fan of poetry. The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I skipped over a lot of the poetry and songs because I just wanted to read for the plot. It wasn't until I went back and read the songs and poems that I realized how important they were to the book. Tolkien uses these to tie things into our world (Hey Diddle Diddle example) and to tell things about the different cultures. The first time I read the books I also didn’t pick up on the subtle differences in the way the races talk, but once I read Shippey, it was pretty apparent. Tolkien is really successful in adopting a bunch of different voices to evoke aspects of his characters without having to explicitly state them. Even if like me, you don’t initially pick up on them, they definitely influence your thoughts about the characters. Tolkien’s style is also pretty hard to imitate. I had to write some small limericks for my final project in a Tolkien-esque style and I definitely struggled to be as clever as he is!