September 22, 2017

Poems of Middle Earth

        Today is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, in honor of which let’s talk about the poetry that is such an important part of Middle Earth.  J.R.R. Tolkien loved poetry and wrote dozens and dozens of poems related to Middle Earth, and one of the things that he did particularly well was explore a whole range of registers and types of poetry.  He was, after all, a scholar and was familiar with the importance of poetry in pre-literate societies, when giving words rhyme and rhythm made it easier to remember and pass on everything from riddles to epic history.  Tolkien’s own poetry included casual snippets and entire long lays, elegant hymns, rollicking drinking songs, and somber laments.  He wrote marching songs, humorous ditties, prophesies, mnemonic lists, love songs, ballads, reimaginings of nursery rhymes, praises, elegies, trash-talking challenges, and more.  His characters knew and used poetry in all aspects of their lives, as  real people really do. (If you don’t believe me, revisit my previous posts Poetry is Everywhere.)  This idea of the wide variety of poetry in culture was extremely influential to me and inspired me to try writing many different types of poetry for my own fantasy Otherworld.  It’s a fun and challenging exercise that ensures you don’t end up making all your poems sound the same!
        As for Tolkien, here are a few samples of his poetry that I especially like.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? 
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing? 
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing? 
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; 
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. 
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, 
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
  This Lament for the Rohirrim is an elegy of a historical figure, and involves no actual magic, but I find it quite moving.  (From The Two Towers.)

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
        This one is more fun for its content than its actual poetry, but it’s a touchstone for all things Lord of the Rings, and fun to adapt and play off of, too.

        And I can’t fail to include my favorite Middle Earth poem of all (from The Hobbit):
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men they looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

[Pictures: The Knight, wood block print from Caxton edition of Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, c1485 (Image from Luminarium);
One Ring scarf, design by Lyle Stafford, made by dhglenn (Image from Ravelry);
Untitled (Alpine Landscape), color woodcut by Oscar Droege, 20th century, probably 1920s-30s (Image from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).]

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