State of the Lands: Poetry in Epic Tales (Seriously, What Up with That?)

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

I have a question. Or perhaps it’s a rant. And maybe no one cares, though I’m far too egotistical to go for that. But it’s a Two-World Tuesday (OK in all honesty, a world and a half, you’ll see what I mean). But here’s the thing:

Over and over in classics of epic fantasy which I adore, I hit a patch where there’s this poem. And I love-love the story, but the poem just stops me cold.

And I’m wondering- why on earth is that in there?

Keep the Tale Moving

As a modern-day epic fantasy author, I’m challenged to construct a story that somehow brings the reader into an entirely new world, slips in all the information they need to understand that world and empathize with the characters, and keep them on track with a

Illus. Rachel McReynolds

ripping good plot that forces them to turn the page. If there’s no magic, monsters, other races, incredible geography, unthinkably-evil villains and mind-numbingly old prophecies coming true… then why not write a paranormal-thriller-shapeshifting-romance set in the Alleged Real World? Like everyone else!

{<— Shapeshifter with romance, I got. Alleged Real World? Not so much!}

Point being– why are you stopping your draft for anything, for any reason, much less for something so overt, decorative, distracting and pace-slaying as a POEM. Yet that’s what our forefathers, the giants of the genre, did all the time. ALL the FRICKIN’ TIME!!

  • C.S. Lewis broke into poetry frequently, most annoyingly to my taste in Till We Have Faces, and just at the climax before we figure out what’s going on.
  • Not to be outdone, Tolkien put tons of songs into LoTR, both at times when things were already going slowly (Tom Bombadil singing about how much he loves his wife), and also at times of great pathos (the Elves of Lothlorien singing their grief at the death of Gandalf). But the former case, when we don’t need to care, is in plain English doggerel complete with heigh-ho’s and hey-nonny’s. In the latter, when we really could get some emotional impact from the words… then, Tolkien puts the poem into ACTUAL-FACTUAL ELVISH! Because of course he made up languages from like six years old, and they hadn’t built the signs to warn fantasy authors about world-building yet. I mean, honestly, Elvish? And it goes on for two pages!
  • Just this past month I finally got around to reading George MacDonald’s Lilith, which was a head-bender in its own right let me assure you. I staggered on through a tar-pit of allegory for about the first third, and finally caught the thread of his plot, hanging on for dear life and enjoying it fairly well. But I’m not kidding, hanging on.
    • Suddenly there’s a real situation: an evil-looking feline creature has run through the MC’s library and is hiding in a dark corner.
    • And this is kind of supernatural and he’s not sure what to do but his mentor the Librarian says “I got this”. And proceeds to recite a poem. No, not kidding. A rhyming poem, full of Christian allegory (which is fine, but now?) and all the assurance that the Guy Above is going to win (which is fine, but ditto).
    • And every three or four stanzas the cat in the dark corner yowls in pain, and I’m wondering is it because the goodness in the verse is hurting it, or are the metered rhymes just driving it nuts like they are me? And it goes on for at least four pages! Verse-Verse-Verse-cat yowls, lather-rinse-repeat.
    • The cat gives up hiding and comes out, and the plot labors back into gear again. And I’m still hanging on. But dude, why?

I got tired of just asking myself why about this, and decided to have a think. And here’s what I think.

They Kind of Had To

I’m not posing as a scholar of the historiography of literature here. I’ve read some stuff, looked back in my reading list, and thought about it a while. And I came up with some thoughts, maybe they’re even excuses. Nothing I say about these giants in the least bit diminishes their stature.

Poems Are What They Started With!

If you think about it, the roots of epic fantasy are epic tales, told by our ancestors and describing a world they sincerely believed had existed. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf (you KNOW how JRRT went gaga over that one). All poems! Even the lays of Roland and Arthur were in verse: it was quite literally the stuff of which the genre was born. I hadn’t ever really considered that. The notion of telling a TALE with an epic fantasy flavor was far less than a century old by the time these guys got started.

A Whole New World

Here’s one I bet you might not have thought about: how many years went by with people writing extraordinary stuff– new discoveries, monsters, supernatural occurrences– but all still set in the Alleged Real World! Almost everything we think of as classic horror and sci-fi, it all stayed “here”. And why not, creating a whole world is so laborious. But the epics of the past, despite having gods and miracles and creatures beyond the pale, were nevertheless all still part of this world, and their authors believed it had all happened in their distant past.

Breaking away from that, to create something entirely new, did not come easy. Thus was born the emphasis on world-building. Though in fact, you ALWAYS have to build a world for your reader, even in lit-fic. But now it’s a game where ANYTHING could be on the chopping block of change– taxes, nuclear families, gravity– better explain it soon or the reader’s going to assume the default setting.

And I guess these guys figured that the best way to enforce the notion of a world’s character, its believability if you will, was for it to have poetry. Yeah, me either.

Put Your Name on It

Sort of related to the previous theme, some of the earliest efforts in fantasy were portrayed as frame-tales, or via “primary sources”, etc. in an effort to cloud the issue of authorship. How better to make a tale seem real than to point elsewhere for authority? This doesn’t do much to explain the existence of poems in the tale, but it does create a kind of buffer between the writer and any critique of their work. Hey reader, this verse is just there, don’t blame me! Then too, of course media wasn’t so rampant and easily available, the competition for a free hour not as desperate. Stories could take their time, perhaps, for a poem or two along the way.

Hey- They WANTED To

For all these reasons (and also just because, I suspect), the fantasy giants were drawn to the notion of writing poems into their stories. I can’t judge from quality– I mean, at all, I have no idea– but I think in many cases they were being true to their roots, in others perhaps they were truly trying to add verisimilitude to the tales and make them more believable by the lights of their day, and then too, in the case of the Christian authors, they may essentially have been trying to write hymns. Since the allegory put them in that vein to start with, they were looking at joy and worship and giving us their version of the Psalms. The ones I recall have meter, and could be set to music.

Thither Go I?

Can anyone name an extended passage of verse or lyrics within an epic fantasy tale of the last couple decades? I’m not the widest-read fellow and most of my page-flips are in the past, but I can’t pull up a single example. So, I should definitely avoid this trap in the future, right? I mean, I do have the usual ancient prophecy at the start of Judgement’s Tale, and a soldiers’ marching song in The Ring and the Flag. But when the bard Salinj’r refers to the cryptic tomb-epitaph they find in the Shimmering Mindsea, during The Plane of Dreams— you know, the epic rhyming verse poem that could serve as the basis of two or three plot seeds– I should bring those out in prose, I’m sure. Forget the rhymes and meter I found in there. And the Song of the Silvertongue, which I’ve only taken down maybe a quarter of: I should leave that alone in the mists of history, no point in bringing the other eight to twelve verses out in poem. Everybody already knows who won the Battle of the Razor.

Sure, that’s what I ought to do. I get it. Then I start to think about what makes a world seem real, and I come back again and again to the notion that the characters feel joy, have a capacity for happiness. Those kind of people, damn it, they recite tales, say stuff that rhymes, they sing songs. Just has to be part of the story, is all. I mean, I didn’t set out to write poems, I just… found them along the way.

What’s your opinion? Have you ever run across a poem in a tale that really boosted you along? Or are you one of those old-fashioned holdovers that isn’t looking to turn the pages at record speed? Comment here, you could be saving me from myself!

2 thoughts on “State of the Lands: Poetry in Epic Tales (Seriously, What Up with That?)

  1. I’m one of those people who hates poetry in stories if it’s longer than a few verses. When I read LoR, there was this endless poem at the end of the last book that told in verse form what happened in the war, and it totally killed the story for me. I just couldn’t read it, so I skipped ahead. But then, I didn’t understand half of what was going on any more and got really lost.

    So: no, I do not like poetry in stories, real word or fantasy.

    That said, I love your books so I might make an exception there as long as the poetry doesn’t run more than a page or two.

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