(Poem #736) The World was Young, the Mountains Green
The world was young, the mountains green, No stain yet on the Moon was seen, No words were laid on stream or stone, When Durin woke and walked alone. He named the nameless hills and dells; He drank from yet untasted wells; He stooped and looked in Mirrormere, And saw a crown of stars appear, As gems upon a silver thread, Above the shadow of his head. The world was fair, the mountains tall, In Elder Days before the fall Of mighty kings in Nargothrond And Gondolin, who now beyond The Western Seas have passed away: The world was fair in Durin's Day. A king he was on carven throne In many-pillared halls of stone With golden roof and silver floor, And runes of power upon the door. The light of sun and star and moon In shining lamps of crystal hewn Undimmed by cloud or shade of night There shone for ever fair and bright. There hammer on the anvil smote, There chisel clove, and graver wrote; There forged was blade, and bound was hilt; The delver mined, the mason built. There beryl, pearl, and opal pale, And metal wrought like fishes' mail, Buckler and corslet, axe and sword, And shining spears were laid in hoard. Unwearied then were Durin's folk; Beneath the mountains music woke: The harpers harped, the minstrels sang, And at the gates the trumpets rang. The world is grey, the mountains old, The forge's fire is ashen-cold; No harp is wrung, no hammer falls: The darkness dwells in Durin's halls; The shadow lies upon his tomb In Moria, in Khazad-dum. But still the sunken stars appear In dark and windless Mirrormere; There lies his crown in water deep, Till Durin wakes again from sleep.
These days, the writing of heroic fantasy has become a mass-production industry ; scarcely a week goes by without an author inventing a brave new world and subsequently being acclaimed as "the true inheritor of Tolkien's mantle", or some such. Unfortunately, fantastic settings alone do not an epic make, and 90% of new fantasy writing is crap  - the same generic swords and sorcery, thud and blunder, repeated ad nauseam. Tolkien is different. His imaginary homelands are not just names on the (by now obligatory) frontispiece map, they're countries, with rich histories and vibrant cultures; his invented tongues are not meaningless agglomerations of random syllables, they're carefully designed showcases of the linguist's art, with comprehensive lexica and detailed etymologies; his many invented beings are not cardboard cutout monsters, they're creatures who live and breathe and walk the pages of his books as convincingly as do his human heroes and heroines. The suspension of disbelief in Tolkien is total . And then there's his verse. Tolkien's verse has genuine poetic merit, and it's not in the least bit self-conscious; when his characters break into song (which, mind you, occurs fairly often in his books), it always seems the perfectly natural thing to do. Today's poem is an excellent example: in "The Fellowship of the Ring" (the first volume of "The Lord of the Rings"), the eponymous fellowship are forced to detour through the dark and deserted Dwarven mines of Moria . One of the party asks why the Dwarves chose to live in such darksome holes; in reply, Gimli, the lone representative of that race in the Fellowship, half sings, half chants a poem describing the glory of the Dwarven kingdom in the Elder Days... at the end of the recital, the reader is left with the realization that the story of Moria _couldn't_ have been told any other way: mere prose is simply too dry to communicate the wonder and the beauty that was Khazad-dum. As always with Tolkien, the form reinforces the content to marvellous effect: the language is intentionally archaic, the alliteration pronounced (but never obtrusive), the sense of nostalgia and loss almost palpable. Notice how Gimli never explicitly states just what it was that caused Moria's abandonment: his reticence seems to imply that the events being recounted occurred at a great remove from the here and now; this in turn enhances the mystery, the vague undercurrent of dread that runs through the poem (and especially through the last stanza). This lack of particularity might be annoying in what is ostensibly a historical tale, but this is definitely one of those cases where less is more: a straightforward cataloguing of facts could never hope to capture the audience's attention the way Gimli's hypnotically beautiful couplets do. And beautiful they certainly are: Tolkien's feel for the English language, for the music of words and the perfection of images, is flawless. It's a pity that his poetic output was (by and large) limited to within the confines of his invented universe (wide though they were); he could easily have been this century's successor to Kipling and Tennyson, so perfect is his verse, so effortless his prosody... thomas.  List member Vikram Doctor sent me a lovely rant on the subject a long time ago: "the distressing flood of assembly-line fantasy that people have been pouring out, horrifyingly huge volumes (worse, all in _cycles_) packed with bargain basement dragons and demons and ichor besplattering the works... incidentally, the very wonderful Ursula le Guin notes in her essays on fantasy (The Language Of The Night, well worth reading if you haven't already) that the use of 'ichor' is a pretty infallible indication of bad fantasy".  Though see Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crap". Derived from a quote by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once said, "Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of _everything_ is crud.". Oddly, when Sturgeon's Law is cited, the final word is almost invariably changed to 'crap'. -- The Jargon File v4.2.3, [broken link] http://www.tuxedo.org/jargon/  In fairness to contemporary writers of fantasy, it must be said that Tolkien mapped out his territory so comprehensively that only truly exceptional talents (of the order of le Guin, Pratchett and Lieber, for instance) could hope to explore the genre and find something new to say about it. Being second in any field is a thankless task.  Hmm, it looks like this alliteration thing is catching <grin>. [Links] Poems by Tolkien to have featured on the Minstrels: Poem #4, "The Road Goes Ever On" Poem #46, "Lament for Boromir" Poem #93, "Eärendil was a mariner" Poem #142, "He chanted a song of wizardry" Poem #220, "Lament for Eorl the Young" Poem #257, "Three Rings for the Elven Kings" Poem #318, "Tall ships and tall kings" Poem #370, "Troll sat alone on his seat of stone" Poem #440, "Bregalad's Lament" Poem #643, "The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon" [Credits] My thanks to Vikram Doctor for the quote reproduced above, and to Amit Chakrabarti, for the points he raised in a recent email about Tolkien's magic - several of which I've shamelessly filched for today's commentary <grin>.