The Theory and Practice of Alliterative Verse in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien

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J. R. R. Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and the creator of Middle-earth, but those who look beneath the surface quickly learn that his background lay in the study of philology and of Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages and literatures in his position as a professor at Oxford University.

In any more in-depth study of any of these aspects of Tolkien's career it soon becomes clear that all of these activities were integrally related. Much of the existing Tolkien scholarship has focused on the influences of Norse and Germanic mythology in Tolkien's novels, and on the linguistic underpinnings and relationships they share. Less often discussed, but equally apparent upon careful examination, is the stylistic influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry on Tolkien's work. While the influence of imagery and subject manner from works such as Beowulf and "The Battle of Maldon" are frequently discussed, the stylistic influences should be equally clear. That they are not is perhaps due to their influence being most apparent in Tolkien's verse, both in that which appeared in small amounts throughout Tolkien's novels and more prominently in some of his lesser known works. Some of these, although published posthumously (through the heroic efforts of his son, Christopher Tolkien), were works to which he had nonetheless devoted a great deal of his life.

That these issues--alliterative poetry and the aura of the Anglo-Saxon era--were important to Tolkien is obvious from the critical and scholarly works that he continued to produce over the course of his career, and from their continual appearance, in varying degrees, in the creative works for which he achieved world renown.

Tolkien notes in the essay "On Translating Beowulf' that the Beowulf poet likely was consciously using archaic and literary words, words that had already become obsolete in the everyday usage of the language. In the "Lay of the Children of Hurin" and in the "Lay of Leithian" Tolkien, like the Beowulf poet, is himself using archaic words in order to provide a literary, mythical, and traditional feeling to the work. In the introduction to The Lays of Beleriand, Christopher Tolkien notes that the "Lay of the Children of Hurin" "is the most sustained embodiment of his abiding love of the resonance and richness of sound that might be achieved in the ancient English metre" (Beleriand 1), as shown in this example:

    He sought for comfort, with courage saying:
    'Quickly will I come from the courts of Thingol;
    long ere manhood I will lead to Morwin
    great tale of treasure, and true comrades'--
    for he wist not the weird woven by Bauglir,
    nor the sundering sorrow that swept between.
    ("Hurin" 10, lines 156-161)

Tolkien here is consciously harkening back to the Old English meaning of "weird" or wyrd as it would have been spelled. This is clearly an example of an archaic usage, as every student of Anglo-Saxon has examined the concept of wyrd--meaning fate or doom--and how it differs in meaning and power from its modern cognate.

Perhaps this is a reaction against the rigidity and formality of translating authentic Anglo-Saxon literature. In "On Translating Beowulf," Tolkien noted, "Words should not be used merely because they are 'old' or obsolete. The words chosen, however remote they may be from colloquial speech or ephemeral suggestions, must be words that remain in literary use, especially in the use of verse, among educated people" ("Translating" 55). Tolkien was writing these particular works, anyway, mostly for the benefit of himself and perhaps his philological and Anglo-Saxon colleagues--"educated people" in the sense referred to in his description of the audience of the ancient English poets. "Many words used by the ancient English poets had, even in the eighth century, already passed out of colloquial use for anything from a lifetime to hundreds of years. …