Wednesday, April 12, 2017

​The Auditory Taste of Tolkien

What makes verse beautiful? One piece consists of the layers of meaning, of the histories, sentiments, and beliefs embedded in its words: these are ideas we touched upon in class while investigating individual characters' use of language. . Yet I would like to draw attention to a more fundamental reason: the beauty and, perhaps, "flavor" embedded in the rhythms, tones, and cadences of arrangements of language-sounds. As we have seen, Tolkien was personally fascinated by, and deeply aware, of the unique poetic and aesthetic possibilities afforded by the grammar and pronunciation of each language - in his own words, an "abiding linguistic-aesthetic satisfaction" (Letter 163) What better way to entice the reader to share in this appreciation and enjoyment than through verse? Poetry is to the spoken word as calligraphy is to the written word: it is meant to be read and heard aloud, with each word, line, and stanza savored for both its meaning and the beauty of the sounds themselves.

Tolkien was "intoxicated" by phonetic patterns and structures of real languages: is it not likely that he sought to intoxicate us with his created languages? I shall attempt to convince you that this was exactly what he was doing, that the diverse styles and sounds of his verse were not only meant to be beautiful in English, but to draw us towards the sounds and structures of the invented languages at the heart of Middle-Earth. Le Guin wrote that Tolkien's English "can slide into metrical poetry (...) without the careless reader's even noticing." Even the unaware reader is being tantalized with the taste of languages unknown, through the very meter and style of Tolkien's verse. Le Guin argues that 'style is everything in fantasy' - that any carelessness or fakery is immediately obvious in a style. I argue that the poetry in the Lord of the Rings is not merely superficially beautiful, but reflective of the fundamental language-systems of different races and peoples unknown to the casual or first-time reader. To read verse in English is to begin to immerse oneself in these languages, to be enticed into further scholarship or study.

I ought to make a personal caveat here: I've always loved the poems in the Lord of the Rings. When I read them, I try to imagine melodies to set them to. If I'm alone, I read them aloud. Nonetheless, I'm not a Linguistics or English major, and I can't claim to be a particularly serious student of the languages of Middle-earth. So, my post solely hopes to explore a possible role that verse plays as an element of style, the manifestation of "the writer's vision of the world" (Le Guin, p. 91).

I juxtapose three poems/songs: the Lay of Leithian (from Lays of Beleriand), Aragorn reciting the tale of Luthien Tinúviel (LoTR book 1, ch11), and the hymn to Elbereth. Firstly, to compare these verses of Elvish origin to the verses of the Rohirrim, we can immediately see that they have more structured meter and rhyme, and that the word choice more archaic, compared to the Beowulf-style direct and dramatic poetic style of the Rohirrim. The first two works are especially interesting as they tell of the same story; Aragorn's tale of Tinúviel sets up the reader for Sam's revelation that "we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on," that he and Frodo are part of the same story as that of Beren, Lúthien, and the Silmaril. This is therefore an example of oral tradition and translation across generations and languages of Middle-Earth: Aragorn explains that 'That is a song (...) in the mode that is called ann-thennath among the Elves, but it is hard to render in our Common Speech.'

Let's begin with an  excerpt from the Lay of Leithian (Canto XIII):
"...the odor of immortal flowers
in everlasting spring neath showers
that glitter silver in the grass
in Valinor. Where'er did pass
Tinúviel, such air there went."
The rhyme structure (AABBCC...) is obvious enough: lines 1 and 2 rhyme, lines 3 and 4 rhyme, and so on. The stress structure is obvious also - it's written in iambic tetrameter ( x / x / x / x / ; the Odor OF imMORtal FLOWers ...). This structure is largely preserved through the rest of the lay. Now, let's look at the beginning of Aragorn's "translation" of the Lay of Leithian:
"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.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering." 
This is also written in iambic tetrameter, but the rhyme scheme (ABAABABA?) is not as perfect: perhaps this was intentional, evidence of the difficulty of translating into Westron. Nonetheless, we note the similarity of the rhyme and stress structures of both poems, and the retained use of archaisms in both characters' speech and the narration itself. As Aragorn suggests, the structure of the poem reflects specific musical and poetic traditions, foreign to both the hobbits and the reader. What might be an example? One familiar Sindarin verse springs to mind:
A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, si nef aearon!
Frodo hears this in the House of Elrond (Book 2, Ch1). How is this meant to sound? Luckily, Tolkien recorded it for us. What's immediately striking is that this is also in iambic tetrameter and there's some kind of rhyme structure (AABADCC). I think there's an undeniable similarity between Elvish poems translated to English, and Elvish poems in Sindarin (or Quenya) themselves. Even if the first-time reader has no idea how to pronounce "A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" perhaps the experience of having read some English poems of Elvish origin is sufficient to guide us in the correct direction, to give us some taste and appreciation for the inherent beauty of Sindarin phonology itself. One more comment on this example. It's fitting that Aragorn introduces this story to the hobbits, since the story parallels the story of Aragorn and Arwen, both of whom are descended from Luthien. The consistency of poetic style is evidence of not only oral tradition but of genealogy, history, and sentiment not explicitly spelled out for us.

One more brief example: the Ring Verse (Book 2, Ch2)
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. 
("One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.")
Why not a more "poetic" English translation? Consider my shoddy example: "By one ring are they ruled; by one ring are they found; by one ring are they brought and in the darkness, bound." In comparison, Tolkien's English translation once again holds clues to the pronunciation, sound, of the darkly beautiful and powerful Black Speech. The first two insistent beats (One Ring / Ash Nazg) carry individual rhythmic weight, focusing our attention on the singular object of the ring itself. These are followed by a more rapid triplet quadruplet (to-rule-them-all/durbatulûk ; to-find-them/gimbatul ; to-bring-the-all/thrakatulûk). It's not so surprising, then, that Tolkien was so frustrated by the shoddy Dutch translation (Letter 190), if he himself dedicated so much effort into translations that were not only accurate representations, but were meant to suggest some of the beauty of the unique created languages of Middle-Earth.

Elaine Yao

1 comment:

  1. Lovely analysis! You do an excellent job showing the way in which Tolkien preserved the meter and rhyme scheme across his translations--I had never thought to analyze the Ring verse in this way! It would be interesting to carry this analysis across the verses that Tolkien wrote for the other races (hobbits, dwarves) and the different lineages of men (Gondor, Rohan). He carried his style in meter as well as in syntax and word choice. RLFB