(Poem #142) He chanted a song of wizardry
He chanted a song of wizardry, Of piercing, opening, of treachery, Revealing, uncovering, betraying. Then sudden Felagund there swaying Sang in answer a song of staying, Resisting, battling against power, Of secrets kept, strength like a tower, And trust unbroken, freedom, escape; Of changing and of shifting shape Of snares eluded, broken traps, The prison opening, the chain that snaps. Backwards and forwards swayed their song. Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong The chanting swelled, Felagund fought, And all the magic and might he brought Of Elvenesse into his words. Softly in the gloom they heard the birds Singing afar in Nargothrond, The sighing of the Sea beyond, Beyond the western world, on sand, On sand of pearls in Elvenland. Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing In Valinor, the red blood flowing Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew The Foamriders, and stealing drew Their white ships with their white sails From lamplit havens. The wind wails, The wolf howls. The ravens flee. The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea. The captives sad in Angband mourn. Thunder rumbles, the fires burn --- And Finrod fell before the throne.
Context: This is an extract from the 'Lay of Leithian', an epic poem of several thousand lines which was among the earliest of Tolkien's explorations of the mythology of Middle Earth. The details of the plot need not bother us; suffice to say that today's poem describes a duel between Finrod Felagund (the good guy) and Sauron (the bad guy). Finrod loses. While the motif of duelling Wizards is as old as mythology itself, Tolkien adds a new twist to the theme by making the duel a contest of songs. Sauron (the unnamed adversary) and Finrod fill their songs with words describing what they stand for, what they believe in . Thus Finrod speaks of the beauty and mystery of Valinor, music and meaning and the 'magic and might ... of Elvenesse', while Sauron's words are of betrayal and treachery, of darkness and doom and 'the red blood flowing'. The final victory goes to Sauron because of a crime in Finrod's past (the Kinslaying, referred to in lines 22 through 27) which he must now 'atone' for... The language is, as ever, exquisite; Tolkien conjures up wonderfully evocative images with sublime skill. Notice especially the way the mood changes between the second and third 'stanzas'  - in the former, everything is smooth and graceful: the repetition of words like 'sand' and 'beyond' helps ease the transition from one line to the next, contibuting to the gentle, even flow of the syllables. Conversely, in the latter, the rhythm is broken into harsh, choppy fragments ('The wind wails / The wolf howls. The ravens flee.'), remorselessly grim and bleak. Form and content, my friends, form and content. There's a nice element of self-reference (one of my favourite themes, in case you haven't noticed) running through it all; indeed, there are times when it's impossible to distinguish between the precise words spoken by the two sorcerers and the worlds these words conjure up. Words have a power of their own; the concept of using them to do battle, of course, is particularly Tolkienesque (and particularly nice, might I add :-)) thomas.. Notes:  This harks back to the old mythological conceit (since used by any number of sf&f writers) that one who knows your true name has power over you.  It's worth remembering that this is not meant to be a stand-alone poem; rather, it is (as I mentioned above) just a tiny excerpt from a much larger work. Hence any division into 'stanzas', or any attempt to demarcate a beginning or an ending - indeed, any sort of deep-structure analysis - is meaningless. Glossary: A (far too detailed) glossary of terms for the Tolkienitically-challenged followeth: Finrod - (Sindarin, from Quenya 'Findarato': 'son of Fin(we)-mighty') this Elf dude who really rocks, y'know :-) Felagund - (Dwarvish: 'Hewer of caves') - epithet applied to Finrod, because of his construction of the cavern stronghold of Nargothrond. Nargothrond - (Sindarin: 'Halls of the river Narog') Finrod's cavern stronghold :-) Elvenesse - the lands of the Elves (duh!) Valinor - (Sindarin: 'the land of the Valar') - Well, if you really must know, this is the land to the west of Belegaer (the Great Ocean) whence the Noldor (q.v.) came to Middle Earth (against the wishes of their angelic guardians, the aforementioned Valar) to pursue a course of revenge upon Morgoth (see 'Angband'.) because he, Morgoth, had stolen the fabulous jewels known as the Silmarils from them, the Noldor. Don't say I didn't warn you. Noldor - (Quenya: 'those with knowledge') - the race of Elves to which Finrod belonged. Angband - (Sindarin: 'the Hells of Iron') - the underground fortress and stronghold (I like that word) of Morgoth, the Great Enemy and Sauron's boss. Leithian - (Sindarin?: 'Release from bondage') Websites: There are (literally) thousands of Tolkien sites out there. My favourite is probably the Encyclopaedia of Arda - http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/ - though I have to admit there are many more which I haven't seen. As per a reader request, from now on our poetry mails will contain a link to our home page - http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/ . Recent subscribers, do pay it a visit and check out all our previous poems.