Review of Tolkien's Poetry

Tolkien's Poetry(to the main page on Tolkien's Poetry)

The following reviews appeared in the August 2013 edition of Beyond Bree on pages 5-6, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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TOLKIEN'S POETRY

Tolkien's Poetry, Ed. Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner; Walking Tree Publishers, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-905703-28-3. 6¼ x 9 3/16" (15.8x23.3 cm), paper, 225 pp; $23.40 from amazon.com. Cover: pale olive with Anke Eißman's "Frodo's Dream of Eärendil".

Review by Linnea Nelson

Tolkien's Poetry, just released from Walking Tree Publishers, is a collection of ten essays on the poetry of Tolkien, edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner. This is the first volume of work dedicated solely to the verse writing of Tolkien. As such, and as is fully conceded in the editors' foreword, the book is by no means comprehensive, and varies widely in subject matter within the realm of Tolkien's poetry. It is perhaps useful to think of the anthology as ten windows from varying perspectives, looking out onto an "intentionally broad", but shared, landscape. Eilmann and Turner emphasize the need treatment Tolkien's poems have received – a sentiment reiterated by more than one essayist.

The book is impressively readable, particularly given the technical nature of several essays, such as the first three, which analyze samples of Tolkien's alliterative poetry, illuminating his remarkable skill in employing the rules of Old English verse in many pieces. Elements relating to metre such as syllable counts and stresses, and word origins sometimes traced back through three or four languages, in particular can get a little overwhelming, but the essayists generally do a fine job of explaining things in layman's terms. (Eilmann's "Cinematic Poetry: JRR Tolkien's Poetry in The Lord of the Rings Films", which quantifies and then assesses the impact and purpose behind Peter Jackson's use of poetry in the film trilogy actually does this so often that the essay runs the risk of being a bit pedantic. This is, however, a very minor complaint.)

Several essays deal with rather more elusive topics, including the role of poetry as it transcends space and time in The Lord of the Rings, how it facilitates and/or prompts spiritual development of characters, literary influences on Tolkien's poetry, and more. It should be noted that the poetry related to the Middle-earth saga is not the only sort discussed (for example, Carl Phelpstead's essay is on the poem "For W.H.A.", Tolkien's homage to Auden), and also that, as related to Tolkien, his own is not the only poetry given serious reading (Sue Bridgewater spends nearly equal time delving into WB Yeats' "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland" as it compares with Tolkien's "The Sea-Bell").

Given the lack of study in this branch of Tolkien' s writing, the writers of this compilation are particularly to be commended, as they tie in their observations with each other, and ground their analyses in texts directly from Tolkien, such as his letters and the primary poetic texts, and the work of other Tolkien scholars not published in this book. And the variety in prominence of the essayists does not translate to a discrepancy in the quality of their contributions.

Tolkien's Poetry on the whole serves as a testament Tolkien's vast knowledge and mastery of lanauage and attention to its nuances in the creation of his legendarium, and indeed beyond (as his life-long scholarly devotton to Old English as a recurring theme shows). If readers are looking for a comprehensive evaluation or history of the poetry of JRR Tolkien, they may simply have to wait. Tolkien's Poetry is an excellent introductory work, which touches on many facets and ways of viewing its subject matter, without claiming to come near addressing all that there is to take in.

Review by Anne Marie Gazzolo

This is the 28th book in the Cormarë series by Walking Tree Publishers and is edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Allan Turner. The cover art is a delight to anyone who loves Frodo and his unique dreams. It is a vision of sea-travel, but it could also stand for "The Sea-bell", which is my favorite of the poems Tolkien has brought us.

The introduction is by Michael DC Drout, who speaks of the lack of appreciation by readers and scholars of the poems that are sprinkled about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Lost Tales and other sources. This volume, the first of its kind, Drout asserts will find give one ample reason to truly understand and admire the beauty of the poems.

The first essay, "Tolkien's Development as a Writer of Alliterative Poetry in Modern English", is by Tom Shippey. He considers some of the poetry used in "The Lay of the Children of Hurin", "King Sheave", and "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth", as well as Treebeard's list of creatures, Aragorn's quoting the prophecy of Malbeth the Seer, and the uses of poetry by the men of Rohan.

The essay by John R Holmes, "Clues to Tempo in 'Errantry'" speaks of the various ways to discern the different speeds at which this particular poem should be sung or recited. For comparison, his strongest examples are "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance and "Ken Ye?" from the Jacobite era.

'"'For W.H.A.'" by Carl Phelpstead concerns a poem Tolkien wrote late in life to celebrate his former student and close friend, WH Auden. The poem was written in both Old and Modern English and is quoted all too briefly in analysis of its alliterative meter. I wish more of it was published here, for as Phelpstead notes, it is hard to come by otherwise.

"'The glimmer of limitless extension in time and space': The Function of Poems in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings" by Petra Zimmermann is one of the more interesting essays in this collection. It focuses on three songs. The first is Aragorn's chanting of the tale of Beren and Lúthien and how aware he is of his deep connection to the history of this relationship, which he and Arwen are playing out anew. Indeed, he sings of this recognition the first time he beholds Arwen and believes. for an. instant that he conjured Lúthien simply by singing of her. He calls upon her in wonder just as Beren had on his nightingale, and Arwen captures his heart just as surely as Beren's was caught by Lúthten. The second song is the hobbit "Walking Song" that Bilbo and Frodo sing with the important difference that the younger Baggins purses his dangerous Road with weary feet, not the eager ones his elder cousin did. The third song is Sam's defiantly hopeful song in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, which reverses his despair of never finding his beloved master and enables reunion with him. Zimmermann discusses the various revisions of this last song and how the final published version "exhibits a form of fierce will not to give up hope despite all circumstances". In an even greater comparison to the Elven gift of singing of somethinq and having the thing appear, as Aragorn momentarily thought he possessed upon first seeing Arwen after singin of Lúthien, Sam's song invokes light and light appears, as an Orc comes to investigate the noise and so reveals Frodo's location.

The next essay, "Poetic Form and Spiritual Function: Praise, Invocation and Prayer in The Lord of the Rings",by Lynn Forest-Hill is the most interesting. She first speaks of the marvelous ability hobbits have in recovering from frightening events in recounting Pippin's exuberant "Bath Song" shortly after the scare of the Black Rider. But the main focus of the essay is how Sam grows spiritually through his encounters with Elven praise of Elbereth and his realization that songs have the power to drive back evil. He demonstrates a similar ability himself in his recitation of poems to cheer his companions and diminish their fears after the Witch-king attacks Frodo and also in lthilien. His exposure to and love for Elven history, already well established through Bilbo, serves as fertile soil for his growth, as the Quest further immerses him in all things Elven and also into the Gondorian ritual of the Standing Silence. This love informs his imagination and feeds his faith in a power unseen. Forest-Hill continues to trace Sam's growing faith as seen in Shelob's lair in his remembrance of Galadriel's phial and his invocation to Elbereth, his struggle to decide what to do after the monstrous spider strikes Frodo down, his use of the phial and the name of Elbereth to defeat the Watchers at Cirith Ungol, his song that leads him to find Frodo, his invocations in Mordor to Galadriel, and his sight of the star that is the Silmaril shining. This essay is my favorite.

'"What is it but a dream"' by Sue Bridgwater compares and contrasts "The Sea-bell" and "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland" by Yeats. Both have characters who travel to an Otherworld and these poems detail their experiences there.

Another enjoyable essay is Michael Joosten's "Poetry in the Transmission Conceit of The Silmarillion". This deals with the history of the First Age, which Tolkien constructed it to be presented as tales recalling actual events from the ancient past and translated and transmitted throughout the ages to our time. Using this way of thinking, Tolkien himself is the latest in a long line of scribes and scholars to bring to light tales from a vanished aqe. I enjoyed this essay because any fan of Sherlock Holmes and other such stories knows about the wonder of discovermg a lost manuscript. TM Doran, in his brilliant novel, Toward the Gleam, does just this, as it gives a thinly veiled account of Tolkien's discovery of the Red Book. Joosten includes the tantalizing references in The Silmarillion of other stories that were never translated into modern English. I would hope that perhaps one day they will be as the line of transmitters continues.

"Tolkien's Poetic Use of the Old English and Latinate Vocabulary: A Study of Three Poems from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", is by our own Nancy Martsch. This well-done study examines how Tolkien uses the structure of Old English, French, and Latin in "The Hoard", "The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon", and "Errantry". She traces how the three poems got progressively more complex in syllables, with the first made up substantially of monosyllables that were so prevalent in Old English to the last, which draws its structure from French and Latin and has trisyllables in almost half of it and even a five-syllable word.

"Cinematic Poetry" by Julian Eilmann brings to light how Peter Jackson used poetry from the Red Book in his three Lord of the Rings films. Most of what he ut1lized were fragments which were sometimes reassigned to another person or out of context so the casual viewer who was not familiar with the poems would not even notice them. But other times he restored a song to its original language and beauty, so a song the hobbits heard in Sindarin is actually heard in the film in that tongue rather than translated into English. Eilmann's essay focuses on two poems, one sung and one in monologue. The former is Gandalf's rendition of the hobbit "Walking Song", which has Frodo eagerly jumping up to meet him. Bilbo also sings a little of it as he leaves Bag End after his birthday party. The other poem is the "Lament for the Rohirrim" which Aragorn speaks in the book as he and his companions come to Edoras. In the film, Theoden says it essentially to himself as Gamling prepares him for battle at Helm's Deep. The tables in the appendix of the essay show how many more fragments of the other poems made it into the films.

The last essay is "Early Influences on Tolkien's Poetry" by Allan Turner. This considers how reading Francis Thompson, William Morris and the journal Georgian Poetry may have had an effect on Tolkien's earlier works. It also examines the role that may have been played by the classical education in Latin and Greek taught at the time and the task of translating English poems into Latin.

I would recommend this volume to anyone who is looking for an in-depth study of the poetry Tolkien left to us from the vanished ages.

Joe Christopher:

...Holmes' essay about "Errantry" is highly interesting, and I can see why the editors wanted you to emphasize the diction. I liked your essay – and thanks for the mention. And thanks for the book as a whole! [Martsch's essay is based on her "The Use of Language in Tolkien's Poetry": "Beyond Bree" Dec'03, Apr'04; Joe R Christopher's "Meter and Rhyme in Tolkien's 'Errantry'; A Reply" BB July'04; and Martsch's "'Errantry': How Did Tolkien Pronounce It"? BB Oct'04. Ed.]

Nancy Martsch:

My one regret is that the Editors did not include Tolkien's poem "For W.H.A.", as this is hard to find. It would have been a publishing coup and increased book sales, too. Yeats' "The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland" is not well known and would also have benefitted by inclusion. Other than this, I recommend the book.

Read reviews of other Walking Tree Publishers books