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Tall ships and tall kings -- J R R Tolkien

(Poem #318) Tall ships and tall kings
Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree.
-- J R R Tolkien
Note: Identified by Gandalf as one of the Rhymes of Lore

While no other fantasy writer I know of uses verse to the extent Tolkien
does, this particular form is fairly common. The manifestations are various
- an ancient prophecy, a potent piece of magical lore, a snippet of history
passed into legend, words of wisdom ranging from Zenlike utterances to folk
proverbs - but the form is usually the same: the language slightly archaic
or unusual, the imagery either straightforward or exaggeratedly
metaphorical, and the whole having something of the feel of a nursery rhyme.
Rhymes and scansion are both optional, as long as it fulfils the primary
criterion for poetry, viz. interesting line breaks. The main effect conveyed
is of something passed down from the days of old, translated, of course
(hence the lack of refinedness by the standards of English verse) and
possibly a fragment of a far larger work now lost in the mists of time.

Tolkien, of course, does not take the opportunity to relax the rigour of his
verse; while 'Tall ships' lacks the feel of 'high' verse, it is nonetheless
technically perfect (as, indeed, are most nursery rhymes - what many authors
do not realise is that for something to survive the translation through the
ages unchanged, it has to be both attractive and memorable. There's a
*reason* poetry is so much easier to memorise than prose is). Furthermore it
is, at least to me, one of the nicest pieces of verse in tLotR - sure, it is
a bit sing-song, but that's because it *works* here - the rhythm underscores
the perfection of the verse, while giving it the flavour of something that
was for at least part of its history passed on orally.



Both Thomas and I are diehard Tolkien fans, and we've run a number of his
poems in the past. (See
[broken link]
It's well worth reading through them one after another to get some feel for
the sheer diversity of Tolkien's poetry, and the skill with which he handled
a number of different verse forms and poetic traditions.

28 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bruce Alan Wilson said...

The rhythm is important in the context of the story. Gandalf and Pippen are
riding on a horse while Gandalf recites the rhyme. Listen to the beat--it
sounds like a cantering horse.

cowboy boot said...

I agree with you Bruce rhythm is important don't focus at main character.

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