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Daniel Lauzon, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other poetry’

Daniel Lauzon reviews Tolkien’s poetry, looking particularly at his practice of reusing and repurposing earlier verse and his skilful handling of metre.

Everyone remembers, upon reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, the sudden and unexpected appearance of Tom Bombadil in his bright blue jacket, yellow boots and tall feathered hat.

His nonsensical songs and infectious good cheer, not to mention a mysterious persona of unknown status and powers, make him something of an exception, sprung up as though out of nowhere on the edge of the Old Forest: so close to the Shire, and yet so remote. Middle-earth may be a place of wonder and legend; yet in it, Tom Bombadil still seems oddly out of place.

Who is he, and where does he come from? No one can say. He remains an enigma, and the fact that he originated outside the legends of Arda is certainly part of the explanation.

‘Bright blue his jacket was and his boots were yellow’

Tom Bombadil was the name of a Dutch doll that belonged to Michael, J.R.R. Tolkien’s second son. John, his elder brother, did not like it, and one day decided to stuff it down the lavatory; but the doll was saved from this miserable fate and became the subject of a poem, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, published in 1934 in the Oxford Magazine — a full twenty years before the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed the ‘Bombadil chapters’ of the Ring-story draw heavily on it, for the poem describes Tom Bombadil’s encounter not only with Goldberry (whom he marries at the end of the poem) but also with Old Man Willow and a Barrow-wight, all of which were to play a crucial part in Frodo & Company’s first adventures upon leaving the Shire.

Cover design by Pauline Baynes for the first edition published in 1962

It was an aunt of Tolkien’s, an elderly lady by the name of Jane Neave who, in 1961, asked him ‘if you wouldn’t get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it’, and so sent him rummaging through his papers in search of the poems (mostly written before 1940) that would make up The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. It was published one year later; and though it is made up of assorted poems with little or no connection between them, Tolkien sought to lend greater unity to the collection by means of a pseudo-scholarly preface detailing the (fictitious) origins of every piece — all of which are said to be excerpted from the Red Book, the supposed source of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien purports to have translated.

Clever verses in varied forms

Of the sixteen poems that comprise the collection, only one was specially written for the occasion. Conceived as a companion piece to the eponymous first poem, ‘Bombadil Goes Boating’ was composed in the same metre, with four metrical feet per line — which is characteristic of many other verses in the collection. But one of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations (from a metrical standpoint) comes in third place in the book. This is the poem called ‘Errantry’, written in a special metre of Tolkien’s own invention. It features a complex metrical scheme where the odd-numbered lines contain an internal rhyme, while the even-numbered lines rhyme with each other; but most importantly, the three final syllables of odd-numbered lines contain alliterations or assonances with the first syllables of even-numbered lines. In the following example, attentive readers may discern the relationship between this poem and Bilbo’s song of Eärendil in Rivendell:

Of crystal was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
with silver tipped at plenilune
his spear was hewn of ebony.
His javelins were of malachite
and stalactite—he brandished them,
and went and fought the dragon-flies
of Paradise, and vanquished them.

The poem ‘Cat’, though much shorter, is composed in an equally ingenious and restrictive form:

The fat cat on the mat
may seem to dream
of mice that suffice
for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim. . .

‘The cow jumped over the moon’

The bestiary of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is not, however, limited to felines. ‘Fastitocalon’ tells the story of a giant turtle where heedless sailors foolishly choose to disembark; whereas ‘Oliphaunt’, the much longer first version of which dates as far back as the 1920s, is none other than the nursery rhyme sung by Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers. Rather more forebodingly, ‘The Mewlips’ are sinister creatures that lie hidden ‘by a dark pool’s borders without wind or tide’, preying on unsuspecting travellers.

These early works are often light-hearted, even comical in tone. Thus, in ‘The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon’, the main protagonist, anxious to have a taste of the splendours of Earth, decides to come down from the cheerless Moon; but stumbling down the long flight of stairs, he lands instead in the sea, and after spending the night in search of good company and good food, and finding neither, he finally settles for ‘porridge cold and two days old’, bought at a handsome price, too. This is the counterpart of ‘The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late’ sung by Frodo at the inn in Bree. And if ‘The Stone Troll’ (purported to be the invention of Sam Gamgee) is rightly considered one of the most memorable songs in The Lord of the Rings, ‘Perry-the-Winkle’, its companion piece, seems equally deserving of praise.

‘To land’s end my years I bore’

Following two poems in a more sombre mood (‘Shadow-Bride’, a most unusual piece, and ‘The Hoard’, which draws inspiration from a line in Beowulf, and shows more than an affinity with the themes of The Hobbit), the book closes with a couple of works in a more introspective vein. Metaphor casts long shadows in ‘The Sea-Bell’, where an echo of the call of the Sea and of the songs of Faërie can be heard: ‘the poorest’ of the collection, according to Tolkien’s own judgment, but held in very high regard by British American poet W.H. Auden. ‘The Last Ship’, where the melancholy of the Grey Havens of Lindon is transposed to Gondor in the Fourth Age, concludes the set.

Fairy stories, mythology, and epic grandeur

It is remarkable to note the amount of influence that these relatively short works have had over The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Though frequently reworked over the years, most of them originated in Tolkien’s youth; indeed, ‘Princess Mee’ goes as far back as 1915, a time when Tolkien began writing more assiduously (The Book of Lost Tales is from 1916-17) and published his first poems. During the 1920s, several of them appeared in magazines, first in Leeds, then in Oxford. It was around this time that Tolkien composed his Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay, a good many examples of which can be found in The Annotated Hobbit edited by Douglas A. Anderson.

While at Leeds, he tackled his first major poetic work: ‘The Lay of the Children of Húrin’ in alliterative verse, running to some two thousand lines, and abandoned some time later in favour of ‘The Lay of Leithian’, in octosyllabic verse. These ambitious works, related to ‘The Silmarillion, were edited by Christopher Tolkien in The Lays of Beleriand, the third volume of The History of Middle-earth.

Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon

In connection with his academic activities, and outside the legends of Middle-earth, Tolkien produced translations of medieval poems, such as those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, published in 1975. Known through various anthologies, and inspired by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son is a dialogue between two servants sent to recover the body of their fallen lord.

‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’ (published in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) are drawn from episodes of the Icelandic saga of the Völsungs; whereas The Fall of Arthur, inspired by the medieval legend of the eponymous hero, was edited by Christopher Tolkien in 2013. ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’ tells the tragic story of a couple of Breton nobility tricked by a malicious witch. Highly regarded by specialists, this work was first published in the Welsh Review in 1945, and a new edition was published in 2016 as The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun together with the Corrigan poems, edited by Verlyn Flieger.

The art of myth-making

Throughout this rich and diverse poetic universe, Tolkien’s ability as a storyteller shines as brightly as it does in his best prose works. But if ever he wrote a poem in which he poured the essence of his art, it is the one he called ‘Mythopoeia’, dedicated ‘to one who said that myths were lies … even though “breathed through silver”’:

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.