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He chanted a song of wizardry -- J R R Tolkien

(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.
-- J R R Tolkien
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

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 [1].  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' [2] - 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



[1] 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
[2] 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.


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
Leithian - (Sindarin?: 'Release from bondage')


There are (literally) thousands of Tolkien sites out there. My favourite
is probably the Encyclopaedia of 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 - .
Recent subscribers, do pay it a visit and check out all our previous

45 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mirlaen said...

I have always loved this poem, and your analysis of it, Thomas, was nice.

I would make one correction to your glossary - 'Valinor' is Quenya, from the elements 'Vali' (a form of Vala, that is, the Valar) and 'nórë' (land), giving you the translation 'Land of the Valar.'

From the same elements we get 'Valimar' (Home of the Valar), as well as 'Númenor' (West-land).

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"Lay of Leithian" is a great epic, for those who like the old greeks, Tolkien shows here not just his talent, but his love and respect for greek classical Literature. Very clever analysis, by the way.

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Hi, I am not an expert or even pretend to be good a poetry analisis. I am a Poe fan and find that many of his themes are the same. In this poem I believe that he is refereing to the Earth as a whole. he discusses the greatness of it and its ever decline. it is becoming a hell. Once standing great but no on its ever decline. The whole best and worst gathering is a perfect reference to earth's inhabitance and death is seated to take over and none will escape.

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I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.

Anonymous said...

Gah, I love this poem so very much. Tis one of my all time favorite Tolkien poems, though Galadriel's Song of Eldamar and Namarie run very close seconds. It always has the ability to make me cry, especially when Sauron starts mentioning the Kingslaying. Gah, so utterly evil of him to bring that up...and the bit where he mentions ice muttering in the mouths of the sea I've always thought he is referring to Halacaraxe and the horror of the great crossing, and by association Feanor's betrayal at Losgar. Again, so evil of him to bring up the horrible memories that must haunt Finrod...

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Max John said...

"The ice mutters in the mouths of the sea" is particularly wonderful - one of the best lines in an English poem.

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