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The World was Young, the Mountains Green -- J R R Tolkien

(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.
-- J R R Tolkien
These days, the writing of heroic fantasy has become a mass-production
industry [1]; 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 [2] - 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 [3].

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 [4]. 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...


[1] 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

[2] 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]

[3] 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.

[4] Hmm, it looks like this alliteration thing is catching <grin>.


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"


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

21 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matthew Chanoff said...

Re Thomas' comment that 90% of modern fantasy is crap: It's worth
celebrating the remaining 10%.

The Harry Potter books have so far managed, unbelievably, to be better
even than the hype surrounding them. J.K. Rowling doesn't try to copy
(or match) Tolkien in quantity or quality of backstory. Instead she
takes more modern approach, with a story line driven by character rather
than the exigencies of heroic fate. She indicates the her alternative
universe that sets her story with a relatively few, deft, details. Major
contrast to Tolkien, for whom the universe basically is the plot. The
real magic of Rowling's stories is that they take advantage of so many
of the traditional heroic tropes (orphaned, youthful hero with the
mysterious scar, raised by unworthy step-parents, destined to fight the
dark wizard who killed his real parents, etcetera) without bogging down.

Rowling uses poetry sparingly. But when she does' it's with a 20th

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i didn't know that Tolkien was actually into poetry. I know that he has some poems in his book but I didn't know that he wrote some.

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