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Review: J.R.R. Tolkien's alliterative poems in, The Lays of Beleriand
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a variety of poems, most of which he abandoned before they were complete, and almost none of which were published in his lifetime. As part of the process of publishing his father's papers, Christopher Tolkien has published a series of books collectively titled the History of Middle Earth, among which is a collection of poetry entitled, The Lays of Beleriand.
The Lays of Beleriand contains a number of poems in multiple version, including The Lay of Leithian (in octosyllabic couplets) and the Children of Hurin (in alliterative verse.) The book is worth buying if only for the final version of the Lay of Leithian which, had Tolkien finished it, would have been a poem well worth reading. But the majority of the poems in the book are unfinished drafts, often drafts that Tolkien abandoned and never attempted to rework or to publish. Most of them should have been left in the drawer where Tolkien put them, and never seen the light of day. They are not finished poems, and they are often poems that Tolkien clearly felt not to be worthy of publication: few of them come to the level of the poetry that Tolkien included in The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien had several weaknesses as a poet. One of them was his love for archaic language, which he often indulged far beyond the tolerance of a modern audience. When he wrote alliterative verse, he sometimes succumbed to all the temptations the alliterative form offers to a literary scholar: the opportunity to use archaic words to meet the alliterative requirements, the temptation to distort the syntax to meet the rhythmic demands of Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, and various other sins less besetting, such as the temptation to include filler material for the sake of the meter. The following sample from Tolkien's alliterative Children of Hurin illustrates Tolkien at the level his alliterative verse often sank to:
there their speech well sped, and he spoke them fair,
for Húrin of Hithlum he held in honur,
whom Beren Ermabwed as a brother had loved
and remembering Morwen, of mortals fairest,
he turned not Turin in contempt away.
There clasped him kindly the King of Doriath,
for Melian moved him with murmured counsel
and he said: "Lo, O son of the swifthanded,
the light in laughter, the loyal in need,
Húrin of Hithlum, thy home is with me,
and here shalt sojourn and be held my son."
There are some pieces which rise to a far higher level. Alliterative poetry is often at its best in set piece descriptions: presentations of scenes and landscapes evocative of a mood. We find some short pieces in which Tolkien succeeds magnificently in this kind of description (in a prose form, it is one of the strengths of The Lord of the Rings.) For example:
in the weeping woods, wild and ruthless;
sleet came slashing and slanting hail
from glowering heaven grey and sunless,
whistling whiplash whirled by tempest.
The floods were freed, and fallow waters
sweeping seaward, swollen, angry,
filled with flotsam, foaming, turbid,
passed in tumult. The tempest died.
Tolkien was capable of excellent alliterative poetry, as many of the short verses in Lord of the Rings illustrate. But he does not seem to have been able to sustain a long narrative in alliterative verse; the only poem he continued to work on throughout his life was the Lay of Leithian in rhyming couplets. Even with these flaws, however, The Lays of Beleriand is worth reading for evocative flashes suggestive of his better, published work, and of course, for the fan or the scholar interested in the world of Middle Earth, there is much material available nowhere else.
Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane