Middle Earth’s Lost Poet by John Evans
When many of us think of J.R.R Tolkien, we recall his novels, such as The Hobbit, or the Lord of the Rings. This is only natural. His prose has forever shaped the face of modern literature. The myriad of characters, landscapes, customs, and cultures found in his imaginative works remain a trademark influence on aspiring fantasy authors. Yet if one is to fully appreciate Tolkien’s prose, one must recognize his poetry.
Much of Tolkien’s academic work is formally rooted in Anglo Saxon Verse. His monumental essay, “The Monsters and the Critics,” dramatically revolutionized Beowulf scholarship and continues to enthrall a wide range of Medievalists to this day. Tolkien’s closest friend, C.S Lewis, once hoped to be a great poet and even published his own verse prior to his work on the Chronicles of Narnia. It is easy to forget that men like Tolkien and Lewis were contemporaries of men like Pound and Elliot. While the great bard and his Medievalist friends were philosophically antithetical to the Modernist verse found in “The Wasteland” or “Proufrock”, we know that Lewis and Elliot were in communication. Their ideas, no matter how estranged, were undoubtedly impacted by an increasingly disenchanted Britania. The so-called “Great War” had practically torn Europe to shreds. The veil of Christendom had suffered what many believed to be a terminal shock. But even modernists like Elliot sought for a safe haven from the storm. One could argue that the theology found in Four Quartets is comparably orthodox to the philosophy found in Tolkien’s verse. Elliot states in Four Quartets, “In my end is my beginning.” According to his poem, time allows the repentant sinner to decide their fate. Free will cannot exist outside the confines of time. In Tolkien’s prose work, The Silmarillion, the spirits of the Ainur must enter into time. Only then can they act as Stewards on behalf of their lord’s plan.
The root of this concept was hardly invented by either Elliot or Tolkien, although both reference the same source separately. The early Christian author, Boethius, was responsible for establishing the relationship between God, Time, Free Will, and fate. Tolkien wrote the body of his work after his experiences in the trenches. His descriptions of Mordor and even the Dead Marshes seem to be directly linked to the horrors of mechanized war. These thematic links can also be found in Elliot’s Wasteland, which describes an apocalyptic London. Elliot’s “Unreal city” may very well be equated to the fires and smoke of Mordor. This is not to say Elliot was aware of the fictional Mordor. But he was aware of the terrors his fellow Englishmen faced on a day to day basis. Tolkien grew up in a world defined by war and verse. He was, in many ways, just as much of a Soldier Poet as his fallen brothers at arms.
Yet one must not ignore many of the bard’s own works of Medieval verse. The Silmarillion is heavily based on earlier poems concerning Beren and Luthien, as well as Earendil. When Tolkien was putting the Hobbit in order during the thirties, he was also composing long verse pieces such as The Fall of Arthur. He even completed his own verse version of Sigard’s Legend. These poems are just as detailed as Tolkien’s prose and are sometimes linguistically richer. The cadence of Tolkien’s alliterative verse is magical and often sweeps me off my prose moorings. Yet, once again, we can find links between Tolkien’s long verse and the great modernists of his time. Few readers of the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit know that W.H Auden read Tolkien’s manuscripts. Auden attended one of Tolkien’s lectures and exchanged letters with the aging professor. Auden’s book, The Shield of Achilles, also addresses the horrors of war and the fading of the English literary tradition, and it was Auden who critically praised The Return of the King and lauded its prose for its depth.
In one review, he went so far as to compare his friend to Milton, who is best known for Paradise Lost. One should also note that C.S Lewis composed a review of Paradise Lost, arguing against the Romantics’ heroic assessment of the devil himself. When I was a member of the Silmarillion Seminar, we found numerous links between the dark imagery in Paradise Lost and the ruined wastelands found in Tolkien’s legendarium. Perhaps Auden’s comparison is more than a means to a thematic end. Perhaps, the modernist accurately described the great Medievalist at his poetic craft.
Ultimately, I believe it can be safely stated that Tolkien was more than a prose author who dabbled in poetry. He was a poet in his own right whose verse reflects interests and thematic issues found in his contemporaries pieces. While academia may remember the Modernists as the breakthrough artists who changed English literature forever, it is the general public who hold the Medievalist’s verse closer to their hearts. For where fantasy thrives, so too does the child’s awe, and as Wordsworth eloquently states, “The child is father to the man.”
John Evan’s wonderful book, ‘Adam’s Lament,’ is available from Oloris Publishing.