par Gelydrihan

The preceding chapters and paragraphs can only claim to be an introduction to an in-depth study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s alliterative poetry. My work so far has been to determine what could be considered alliterative poetry, and establish that in form as well as in subject it is a close imitation of medieval English poetry. We have found many links with the surviving poetry from that era, and tried to unravel the structure that lies behind this corpus and organises it. What could a temporary conclusion be ? Was Tolkien successful in his attempted recreation of alliterative poetry (maybe more specifically, his creation of a Modern English alliterative poetry) ?

Critics, as always, disagree. According to quotes by Paul E. Zimmer [1], Melanie Rawls, speaking about Tolkien’s production in general,

« asserts, early in the Article, that Tolkien’s work is ’not successful, even judged by the standards of the kind of verse he chose to write.’ »

« But, » he adds,

« she fails to apply those standards, and in fact shows no sign of understanding those standards, or even of knowing what they are. »

It is impossible, however, to judge a critic solely from the point of view of opposing critics ; I haven’t been able to read Mrs Rawls’ original article yet, nor her response to Mr Zimmer’s attacks.

Paul Zimmer goes on to say that :

« Poul Anderson is almost the only alliterative poet in modern English to whom Tolkien can be compared ; most others who have attempted it have failed badly. John Myers succeeds mostly because the humorous tone in « The Death of Bowie Gizzard-bane » covers his occasional confusions in pattern. Pound’s pseudo-translation of « The Seafarer » is seriously flawed, though there are some good lines. »

Zimmer gives no example or analysis of Anderson’s work. Anderson, a science-fiction and fantasy writer, also wrote historical or pseudo-historical novels, some of which are set in Germanic settings (Zimmer quotes The Broken Sword, Hrolf and Hrolf Kraki Saga as references). Unfortunately, the only example of Anderson’s alliterative work at my disposal is an attempt at reconstructing not Germanic but Irish alliterative poetry :

(« The syllabic prosody and interknit alliterations attempt to suggest one of the numerous early Irish poetic forms ») [2] :

’Lùg, bright God, of war the Lord,

Long-Arm, hear my harp !

Hark to tales that I will tell,

Talking unto all.

’Heaven sees how Temir’s holy

Hilltop now bears Niall,

Never conquered, as its King,

Keeping warlike watch.

’See him seated in his splendour.

So it was not once.

Well that men should know how much

Might wrung wealth from woe.

Never shall the hero Niall

Kneel to any other.

Witness, all you Gods, my words,

Aware I tell the truth.’

From another book in the same series [3] :

’Listen, you light-witted youth !

For that you thus dared speaking

Words unwise and without truth,

We shall soon hear you shrieking.

’Bellowing your bluster out

As if you’d gnawed a nettle,

You’d be shrewder not to shout

But kick an empty kettle.

’Shame there shall be on your face.

It is of your own earning.

Curs will cringe when in disgrace.

May likewise you be learning ! »

Like Tolkien’s, though with maybe less depth and familiarity, Anderson’s alliterative poetry is self-conscious and documented in its attempt at emulating past poetry :

« Like Nordic skalds of a later date, early Irish poets used intricate forms, yet were expected to be able to compose within those forms on a moment’s notice. Our rendition here is a much simplified version of one scheme. Each stanza, expressing a complete thought, consists of four seven-syllabled lines. Besides the alliteration and rhyme, it is required that end-words of the second and fourth lines have one more syllable than those of the first and third. Oral skill such as this is entirely possible and historically attested. The poet naturally had to have an innate gift together with long and arduous training. »

My knowledge of Andersonian poetry remains very small, and the extracts above are in no way sufficient to attempt and assess their quality, or compare them to Tolkien’s own accomplishment, though they offer interesting avenues of research and criticism.

My own impression tends to back Paul Zimmer’s judgement (it should be noted that according to him, oral delivery of Tolkien’s poetry is very important to its enjoyment) :

« I would say that, « judged by the standards of the kind of verse he chose to write, » Tolkien does very well indeed. His meter flows smoothly and the verse always makes sense. He shows good control of both simple and complex meters (…) »

I think, however, that these criteria are not the only ones according to which Tolkien’s work should be judged.

J.R.R. Tolkien tried to create a body of related poems and prose texts, including original creations (the Middle-Earth, Silmarillion matter), as well as pastiches of – and commentaries on – existing works that survived from Saxon times. These links are not always apparent in the work Tolkien published while he lived, but the coherence, or rather the attempt at coherence, cannot now be doubted. The following diagram tries to sum up the structure of his literary work as a continuum with in fact no definite borders :

Obviously, other boxes could be added to account for specific items (the Rohirrims in The Lord of the Rings are one) but the basic structure seems to be that depicted above.

This structure remained a draft, however, and the texts that were published appeared unconnected to each other. Some other elusive poems, absent from this study, have yet to be integrated into the structure, though I don’t think it should prove too difficult.

As I said earlier, the goal that Tolkien had in mind explains the means he used to achieve it, that is, his use of reference to Germanic, mostly Anglo-Saxon, poetry and legends, and of the old alliterative metre. Only a detailed analysis could reveal whether Tolkien was indeed faithful to the old system, or if he had to loosen the rules, and to what extent. He said in his introduction to The Homecoming… that his verse was « little if at all freer (…) than the verse of The Battle of Maldon. » [4] All we can say after this brief survey is that his poetry ’sounds’ faithful. The slight variations on the basic pattern that we have noted upon occasions (hypermetricity, secondary accents, lack or overabundance of alliteration) can be matched to similar deviations from the norm in genuine Saxon poetry (if, indeed, they are deviations).

Nevertheless, further analysis is desirable. As I hinted at the beginning of this study, knowing whether Tolkien was or not faithful to the rules has at least two implications in the field of medieval literary studies.

First, Tolkien wrote his poetry according to a system of rules, which he thought represented a good approximation of the workings of Saxon poetry. That system was that of Sievers, with its famous classification of half-lines into A to E patterns. Comparison between a corpus created according to these rules and the corpus from which these rules were derived is essential in assessing the validity of Siever’s system. Creed, for example, believes that Siever’s system is incomplete and lacks justification. Accordingly, poetry based on this system should only be able to reproduce some, but not all phenomena that can be observed in medieval poetry ; if so, then Tolkien’s production should show differences in the frequency of some phenomena when compared to the original poems.

Secondly, if Tolkien, writing in Modern English, succeeded in writing alliterative poetry, the thesis according to which changes in the language are responsible for the disappearance of such verse is weakened. It is not destroyed, however. Only Tolkien himself could maybe have told whether or not it was easier, as easy (or difficult) or more difficult to write alliterative poetry in Modern English (assuming, as I do, that he was reasonably fluent in Old English) ; furthermore, Modern English is not Middle English, and I think that there may also have been added difficulties due to shifting in itself rather than to the state of the language at any given stage of its evolution. After all, writing alliterative poetry in Middle English was possible, as the poets of the Revival proved ; but the Revival took place when the language had already considerably evolved, and maybe reached a stage of greater stability. Maybe its later disappearance is owed solely to its falling out of fashion. We may remark here that Tolkien wrote in Old or Modern English, but did not as far as I know leave us a single poem in any Middle English dialect.

I have tried to enumerate in this study the points that a follow-up study should be concerned with. Accentual and alliterative patterns, together with rhythm, are of course prominent, and the study of prosody in Tolkien’s oral delivery of his poems should be especially important. Other points worth studying include lexicon (frequency of French- or Latin-derived words or word-forms as opposed to Germanic forms, archaisms and literal translations from Old English), kennings, grammar (archaisms, poetic license), the foundations of lineation (my edition of some poems by half-lines was easy, but I still have to justify it), correspondence between grammatical clauses and lines / half-lines, etc.

The Lay of the Children of Hùrin, set aside for the moment, would have to be studied at length, and with it an analysis of structure could be performed. Its length (though it is incomplete) is comparable to that of Beowulf, and it is also divided into numbered parts. This long poem could very well serve as a testing ground for hypotheses born of the study of the shorter poems, thus concluding the study with Tolkien’s alliterative masterpiece.

For the moment, we must be content with enjoying the beauty of sounds and images, while savouring the erudite game of references, and try to glimpse, beyond the drafts and intentions, beyond this net of poems, characters and events, what may have been Tolkien’s dream.

[1] Opinion, p. 18.

[2] Anderson, Poul and Karen. The King of Ys : Roma Mater. Grafton Books, London, 1988. 17,5cm, 493pp. Quotations from pp. 39-42 and 457.

[3] Anderson, Poul and Karen. The King of Ys : Gallicenae. Grafton Books, London, 1988. 17,5cm, 429pp. Quotations from pages 129 and 400.

[4] Home, p. 6.

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