Having referred to our discussion of the use of poetry in The Silmarillion (and through that to Carl Phelpstead's excellent article in Tolkien Studies V, ‘“With chunks of poetry in between”: The Lord of the Rings and Saga Poetics’) ,I wanted to say something more about the use of poetry in night 69. Most of what follows will be either well known or quite obvious to those who have been carefully reading along, but I still think that it may be worth saying anyway
The poems, or poetic interjections, of this chapter are (at least):
- The Death of St. Brendan(named). Rhyming couplets. I don't think there's a meter here?
- ‘Hwæt! Éadweard cyning Ælfredes sunu’ (unnamed). Alliterative
- ‘Monath módes lust mid mereflóde’ (unnamed). Alliterative
- ’Hwæt! wé on geádagum of Gársecge’ (unnamed). Alliterative
- King Sheave(named). Alliterative
Of these, no 4 is of course ‘just’ the Old English (I think?) version of the first lines of no 5.
One distinction is very important here — the first of these poems is presented as modern, a new creation by Phillip Frankley of the Notion Club, but of course here to further the story, while the others are presented as old, the underlying premise is, I would say, that the scene described actually did happen to Ælfwine and Tréowine, ancestors of Lowdham and Jeremy.
When I started looking closer into The Death of St. Brendan, I realized how closely this poem relies on Tolkien's various versions of the story of the drowning of Númenor, The Fall of Númenor (at least three variants extant), The Drowning of Anadûne (at least four variants extant), and The Akallabêth (extant in three variants) — so much so, actually, that the poem must be only partially intelligible without knowledge of some of the conceptions introduced in this story: in the published version, Imran, how is the reader to understand what the poet means by stating
In the poem St. Brendan refers to three things that he remembers from his voyages: a cloud, a tree and a star (lines 21-4).
‘The Star? Why, I saw it high and far
at the parting of the ways,a light on the edge of the Outer Night
beyond the Door of Days,where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,as an unseen bridge that on arches runs
to coasts that no man knows.’Imram
, lines 101-8
The cloud is, in the version in the text proper (Death), not given much emphasis and instead the mountain that appear out of the cloud seems to be the focus of lines 33-52. This is addressed in the Imram version, but I suspect that Tolkien's focus was actually on the mountain, which is surely the peak of the Meneltarma (as we have come to know it from the published Akallabêth), which is rumoured to have risen again as a lonely island in the western seas after the Downfall.
The following section of the poem is, for me, the most difficult to decipher. St. Brendan and crew arrives at ‘a land at last with a silver strand’ (Death line 57) where ‘the waves were singing in pillared caves’ (Death line 59, Imram line 51 and in Death ‘pearls lay on the ground’ while in Imram, the waves were ‘grinding gems to sand’. Both of these images certainly recalls the Elven-strands of the Blessed Realm: recall how Eärendil was covered with the dust of gems as he walked through the deserted ways of Tirion. Following that the ship sails through a gate (recalling the gate to the harbour of Alqualondë that was made of living rock) into a hollow in the isle where grows a huge tree with white leaves. Here is where I get unsure how to interpret the poem: is this tree related to the other white trees of Tolkien's Arda (from Telperion over Nimloth to the White Tree of Gondor), or is it something else? The voices that sing at the end of this passage are surely Elves, but what island is this? The poem suggests that this island is still in the normal world (i.e. before reaching the old road bridge as mentioned above), but Tol Eressëa would surely be on the other side (or not at all). And what is the thing about the leaves falling when the men sing?
The rest of the poem with its references to Eärendil's star (unnamed) and the Straight Road (here called the ‘old road’, Deathline 114, Imram line 106) are more straightforward.
Overall the introduction of The Death of St. Brendan in the text serves several purposes. First it connects the whole field of the Irish imrama with his legendarium, suggesting a continuity of legends of the peoples coming to the western edge of Europe, created by, in Ramer's words (Night 65) ‘the emotional force generated all down the west rim of Europe by the men that came at last to the end, and looked on the Shoreless Sea, unharvested, untraversed, unplumbed!’ But in addition to tying this knot, the poem also serves to weaken the protestations of the hitherto sceptical Philip Frankley, and by taking the wind out of his sails, the whole opposition within the Notion Club is significantly weakened, leaving them open to consider actual mind-time-travel by dream as Lowdham and Jeremy — or perhaps I should call them Ælfwine and Tréowine — begin their story. The poem, or perhaps rather its style, also serves as an additional piece to the understanding of Frankley's personality: he is one who composes in this style.
The remaining poetry is all presented as being Old English or translated from Old English, and is all in the alliterative style that Tolkien had mastered better than any (see also our discussion ‘A one-man twentieth century alliterative revival’). The first of these is situational — the skald greeting his Ring-giver, extemporising a situational verse — Phelpstead has more to say on this, explaining that ‘In Icelandic saga, particularly the Íslendingasögur, situational verses are typically represented as being extemporized by characters, implausible as this seems given the nature of skaldic verse.’ (p.29) and here we see Tolkien following this tradition. In the text of the chapter, both Ælfwine and Tréowine are presented as having some skaldic prowess, Ælfwine enough that the king asks him to speak.
At the end of his first lines (greeting the king), Ælfwine's carefully memorized staves are forgotten, and he instead launches into the familiar poem (see night 66, where it is given in even older language) of the spirit seeking across the sea, leaving him somewhat confused. This is interesting in that it implies that the Anglo-Saxon Ælfwine is also feeling something of the pull that is drawing the modern Alwin to him, connecting them with each other and with (at least) the Númenórean Elendil.
Ælfwine leaves the verse-making to his friend Tréowine, who then recites the story of King Sheave, of which we get the first six lines in Old English followed by the whole poem translated into modern English, but following the alliterative meter of the Old English poem. There is much to be said about this poem and its ties both to Tolkien's earlier Lost Roadand to various European legends, including our very own Scyld from whom the Scyldinga (Skjoldunger in Danish) of Leire were supposedly descended, but as that would merely be repeating what Christopher Tolkien has already expertly said in The Lost Road and Other Writings, I will refrain from that here One thing, however, still deserves to be said: that this poem serves to strengthen the ties mentioned above of Tolkien's Atalantë legend with the body of legends from the peoples of the western rim of Europe. At this point it is quite clear that Tolkien's Akallabêth / Atalantë is not in any way a part of a ‘mythology for England’ but has become something that might be a myth for all of the western edge of Europe.
At the end of the poem, Ælfwine steps in again to finish the poem for his friend, which serves to show him as probably the superior skald of the two friends.
Last edited by Troelsfo; 10/Dec/2012 at 10:09 PM.
Reason: Updating to new Plaza formatting
Troels Forchhammer, physicist, Denmark
The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship toward all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect ...