06 August 2017

'Not Unlike the Verse of the English' -- From Rohan to the Havens of Sirion

Alan Lee © 2007 


Many of us no doubt first encountered alliterative verse in Tolkien, in the scene where Aragorn first chants in the language of the Mark, and then translates the words of 'a forgotten poet long ago':
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
(TT 3.vi.508)
Or later in the stirring lines as the host of Rohan sets forth to war:

From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
With thain and captain rode Thengel's son
(RK 5.iii.803)
Soon we learned, if The Lord of the Rings had truly fired our imaginations, that the people and culture of Rohan owed much to Tolkien's love of Old English and the people who spoke it. Beowulf, the epic so central to his scholarly and imaginative lives, and the study of which he had so great an effect on precisely because of his scholarly and imaginative lives -- Beowulf was composed in alliterative verse, as was The Wanderer, which provided the model for the lines Aragorn chanted (92-93):
Hwær com mearh? Hwær com magu? Hwær com maðumgiefa?
Hwær com symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?  
Where is the horse? Where is the warrior? Where the giver of treasures?
Where are the seats at the banquet? Where the joys of the mead-hall?
Elsewhere Faramir speaks to Frodo of the men of Rohan, saying that they have not become like the men of Gondor. For they 'hold by the ways of their own fathers and to their own memories, and they speak among themselves their own north tongue.' Of the ways and history of Gondor they have learned only what was necessary for them to learn.
they remind us of the youth of Men, as they were in the Elder Days. Indeed it is said by our lore-masters that they have from of old this affinity with us that they are come from those same Three Houses of Men as were the Númenóreans in their beginning; not from Hador the Goldenhaired, the Elf-friend, maybe, yet from such of his sons and people as went not over Sea into the West, refusing the call.
(TT 4.v.678)
That Faramir, whose heart is of downfallen Númenor and waning Gondor, should link the Rohirrim to those of the Edain who did not go into the West, citing 'our lore-masters' to back up the general impression of the Men of Rohan, is intriguing enough in itself  -- for they escaped the fall that the Númenor suffered -- but for now it is enough to note that his words point to the persistence of their traditional their ways. Which is not to say that their ways have been unchanged for thousands of years, or that he regards them as faultless (he does not), but that their ways and their language are old, more in touch perhaps with what Men were on their own. This may well include their mode of poetry. And the fact that Aragorn's poem about Eorl the Young, who died five centuries earlier, was also in alliterative meter points in the same direction. Indeed the song and the form have persisted long after the poet himself has been forgotten.

From about six hundred years before that comes another example of alliterative verse, and from a source we might not at first expect, given the strong association of this type of verse with Rohan:
'Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost,' said Aragorn: 
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers;
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
(RK 5.ii.781)
Now as Corey Olsen pointed out in discussing these verses in his Signum University course of Tolkien's Poetry, the Anglo-Saxons were not the only people in Medieval Europe to compose alliterative verse. We have many examples of it in Old Norse, Old High German, and Old Saxon. So we should not be surprised to find alliterative verse elsewhere in Middle-earth. But since different races within Middle-earth tend to compose in different meters -- Hobbits in iambic tetrameter, Elves in iambic heptameter, Tom Bombadil in trochaic heptameter -- may we not wonder if Tolkien means alliterative verse to represent a distinctly mannish verse form?

Relevant to this are some notes of Tolkien's, first referred to in Unfinished Tales (146) and later published in The War of the Jewels (311-315), which allow us to make a leap backward into the poetry of the First Age, to the oldest piece of mannish verse we know of, the Tale of the Children of Húrin. The speaker is Ælfwine:
But here I will tell as I may a Tale of Men that Dírhaval of the Havens made in the days of Eärendel long ago. Narn i Chîn Húrin he called it, the Tale of the Children of Húrin, which is the longest of all the lays that are now remembered in Eressëa, though it was made by a man.

For such was Dírhaval. He came of the House of Hador, it is said, and the glory and sorrow of that House was nearest to his heart. Dwelling at the Havens of Sirion, he gathered there all the tidings and lore that he could; for in the last days of Beleriand there came thither remnants out of all the countries, both Men and Elves: from Hithlum and Dorlómin, from Nargothrond and Doriath, from Gondolin and the realms of the Sons of Fëanor in the east. This lay was all that Dírhaval ever made, but it was prized by the Eldar, for Dírhaval used the Grey-elven tongue, in which he had great skill. He used that mode of Elvish verse which is called [minlamad thent/estent] which was of old proper to the narn; but though this verse mode is not unlike the verse of the English, I have rendered it in prose, judging my skill too small to be at once scop [i.e., poet] and walhstod [i.e., interpreter/translator]. 
(Jewels 312-13)

According to Patrick Wynne and Carl Hostetter (2000, 121-22), the elvish name of this verse form strongly suggests alliterative verse, and we know also of course that Tolkien wrote a long, but incomplete alliterative Lay of the Children of Húrin in the 1920s (Lays 3-130).  Should we then see some connection between this and the poem that Ælfwine translated? Christopher Tolkien admits that it's tempting to do so, but suggests that 'this may be delusory' (Jewels 314).  However that may be, we need no such link to see that Tolkien imagined alliterative verse as something composed by Men all the way back into the First Age. The connection to the House of Hador shared by Dírhaval and the Rohirrim is both striking and sad, since he neither crossed the sea to Númenor nor refused the call. For he was slain in the Third Kinslaying at the Havens of Sirion.


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