Monday, March 4, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Three Impressionists (Part II)"

The eighth in the series of guest-posts from Dennis Wilson Wise, of which the most recent is here, continues looking at individual poets working in alliterative verse. As before, editorial intrusion is minimal.

Check back for the next post in the series soon!

Too, please let us know if you've got ideas for guest-posts or series of your own; we'd love to hear from you!


𝔏ast week, I promised to discuss three impressionists who created important revivalist texts despite knowing comparatively little about medieval poetry in itself. In this week, I reveal who my final – and best – example is. And the answer is…

JOSHUA GAGE

My final example is also maybe the most perfect: Joshua Gage and “Demetrius Yardley, Fire Nurse.” Gage’s greater personal interest lies in short-form speculative verse, scifaiku and horrorku in particular, and he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics…a school I know sounds fictional, but it is entirely real and fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission; Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded their MFA program back in 1974.  

Something like this?
Image provided by Wise

Anyway, Gage’s text – an alliterative steampunk poem – is our primary example of how someone without even a smidgeon of contact with real medieval literature can create an exciting revivalist text nonetheless. At least for Rothfuss and Zimmer, we can safely assume they had some encounters with authentic medieval poetry in translation, even if the finer metrical details escaped their notice. This definitely isn’t the route taken by Gage, though. His guide to the meter was neither Beowulf nor Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even in translation, but a teaching anthology for poets, The Practice of Poetry (1992). Only one “chapter” in the book – a mere two pages – discusses Old English meter. The description it provides is accurate, if unsophisticated, but notably, the chapter’s author provides only three total lines of alliterative verse as an example…and unless Richard Wilbur is fibbing on his birth certificate, “The Lilacs” – a text of about average metrical fidelity, probably a “4” or “5” on [link back]my scale – is about as far from authentic medieval poetry as they come.

With this source text and book chapter in mind, I’d probably rank Gage’s metrics in “Demetrius Yardley, Fire Nurse” as an overall nine on my scale. He has caesuras and sporadic attempts at alliteration in each line, but the greater intricacies of Old English poetics are simply missing. Gage just had no way of knowing what they are. Sure, he’s in the right ballpark, but it’s not exactly a homerun – or even a bunt single – of historical faithfulness to the meter.

If we get hung up on that, however, we’d be missing the bigger picture. In my introduction to Speculative Poetry and the Modern Alliterative Revival, I described Gage’s text as a “kind of metrical retro-futurism.” What I meant is that, if you think about it, steampunk aesthetics are a strangely appropriate vehicle to pair with an archaic medieval meter. As a SF subgenre, steampunk blends futuristic settings with a Victorian level of technology that nowadays seem decidedly antique. Nobody today thinks that steam locomotives are the cutting-edge of human achievement; they lack the “gosh-wow” factor that once made H. G. Wells’s fiction seem so impressively cutting-edge. And this old-fashioned steampunk aesthetic thoroughly inundates “Demetrius Yardley.” Its eponymous hero belongs to a toiling underclass, shoveling coal into the furnaces that maintain the magnificent floating city of Potetopolis. As Demetrius explains,

          …We dwell
in lands caliginous,
          looking after
gas hoses, altimeters,
          and the holocaust that holds
this city aloft
          and its boulevards illuminated.

What steampunk hopes to accomplish on the genre level, Old English meter accomplishes on the metrical level. Alliterative poetics are the steam locomotives of a post-nuclear age: archaic and antique in themselves but presentable as new, exciting, and “futuristic” in a poetic world now dominated by free verse and formal rhyming poetry. If readers wish to experience the heady rush of the future and the past together, what better way than a text written in a newly rediscovered archaic meter but welded simultaneously onto a retro-futuristic steampunk setting?

Gage’s poem thus resonates for me, as a critic, in ways I’m sure he doesn’t even realize. As mentioned, his choice of meter is about as random as any such choice can be. Yet, thematically, his conjunction of genre and meter works in a surprisingly effective fashion, and it opens the way of pregnant possibility for future revivalists.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Three Impressionists (Part I)"

The seventh in the series of guest-posts from Dennis Wilson Wise, of which the most recent is here, returns to looking at individual poets working in alliterative verse. As before, editorial intrusion is minimal.

Check back for the next post in the series soon!

Too, please let us know if you've got ideas for guest-posts or series of your own; we'd love to hear from you!


𝔖o, last week, I described my purist-impressionist scale as a 1–10 spectrum of historical metrical fidelity. Yet I know some people will naturally (and automatically) discount certain impressionists solely on the suspicion that they don’t know much, if anything, about genuine medieval alliterative poetics. And, granted, some revivalists do not, but even if true, I suggested this doesn’t necessarily impact a text’s literary merit one way or another.

Proof is always in the pudding, though, so let’s prepare to be slathered in pudding. We’ll be turning to three exciting revivalists whose deviations from the historical meters are, bluntly, less than fully intentional, yet their texts are both fascinating and critically interesting. Without further ado, our first poet is…

PATRICK ROTHFUSS

Call me biased (and I probably am), but the honor of most metrically bonkers revivalist goes to Patrick Rothfuss. He included two poems in The Wise Man’s Fear (2011), and from a purist’s perspective it would be hard for anyone to flout the traditional restrictions of Old English prosody any more egregiously. Given issues of copyright, I’ll quote just one line, but that’ll be plenty:

Hot comes the huntress     Fela, flushed with finding

A source.
Image provided by Wise.

By itself, maybe this line doesn’t seem all that bonkers. The first half-line, at least, can be read as Sievers type A, but that’s likely a pure accident. Tellingly, the character who recites this poem – a young student-scholar by name of Simmon – specifically disavows any claim to knowledge about the meter. This random remark, though, which Rothfuss didn’t have to include for character or plot reasons, reads to me like an authorial insert. Rothfuss knows he isn’t a medievalist. He probably suspects his metrics stink, but if any pedants or college professors out there don’t like what he’s doing, well, there’s several places where they can stick those complaints…and none will be particularly well-lighted.

In fact, Rothfuss breaks quite a few metrical restrictions in an impressively brief span of time. His second half-line has three lifts, all of which alliterate, including the last, and this half-line accordingly turns up its nose up to every Sievers type to known to man. Likewise, Rothfuss’s line apparently considers verse-linking alliteration optional. So the only thing known for certain about Rothfuss’s grasp of Old English meter is that it includes

  1. caesuras;
  2. compounded words like “fast-found” (found in a later line); and
  3. alliteration…lots and lots of alliteration.

Nor is there anything wrong with that. As the writer of a fantasy novel, Rothfuss has a specific rhetorical purpose in mind: to suggest an archaic medieval meter for the non-academic readers reading his book, who maybe need hitting over the head with the meter’s most blatantly obvious features. Rothfuss’s metrical excess does exactly what he needs it to do – and who cares, anyway, he seems to suggest, about the real Old English rules?

(B y the way, for a slightly different take on Rothfuss’s two poems, check out Lancelot Schaubert’s brief review on Forgotten Ground Regained.)

PAUL EDWIN ZIMMER

Somehow looking the part...
Image provided by Wise.

As this series continues, I’ll talk more about Zimmer, a deeply underappreciated author of heroic fantasy whose impact on the Modern Revival runs wide. Like C. S. Lewis, he began as a poet, but unlike that Oxford Inkling, Zimmer was neither Christian nor a scholar. In fact, he never even attended college. He learned about medieval poetic forms largely on his own as part of his antiquarian leanings and Neo-Pagan spirituality, but one result is that what Zimmer knows about the Middle Ages bears several noticeable gaps. For instance, let’s sneak a peek at one of the Modern Revival’s more intriguing texts, his twelve-line poem, “The Son of Harold’s Hoarfrost.”

For some context, back in the late 1970s, a university professor of Scandinavian and German Studies, Jere Fleck, began publishing several long alliterative poems in the Society of Creative Anachronism’s official magazine, Tournaments Illuminated. Most of these long poems, called drápur (sing. drápa), use an exceedingly complex skaldic meter, and I personally consider them the most exciting amateur productions of the Modern Alliterative Revival.

Yet, thanks to their difficulty, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Fleck’s drápur to first-timers. Zimmer evidently had similar objections. In 1976, he penned a playful poetic response whose title, “The Son of Harold’s Hoarfrost,” alludes to the name of Fleck’s medieval persona, Geirr Bassi Haraldsson. We can glean the general gist of Zimmer’s grumbles from the following:

The runes he [Fleck] writes, with     rime all a-glitter,
Are Icelandic to excess,     and over-ornate:
Poor Kvasir is cold in     such Celtic adornment (l. 3-5)

Metrically, this text leans well onto the impressionist side: a seven or eight on my 1–10 scale. We can forego the specifics, but several factors lead to me to suspect Zimmer’s deviations from the historical Old English meter are less than fully self-aware. One major hint is that none of Zimmer’s other alliterative poems demonstrate a purist sensibility. That’s always a major clue. Another major clue is that “The Son of Harold’s Hoarfrost” is filled with niggling historical inaccuracies sure to raise the eyebrows of any trained medievalist.

And raise Fleck’s eyebrows they surely did. In a friendly open letter published a few months afterward, Fleck defends himself against Zimmer’s “wrathful ribbing” (as he calls it) by observing that, if the two men differ in their poetic tastes, it’s probably because their respective SCA persons hail from different historical periods. As “Geirr Bassi Haraldsson,” Fleck hails from 10th-century Iceland, and he guesses that Zimmer’s persona, “Master Edwin Bersark,” belongs to the pre-Christian Saxon era. As evidence, he cites Zimmer’s usage of “Harold” (the English spelling of Fleck’s patronymic) and “Woden” in line 6. A Norseman would have said Óðinn, and a Christian Saxon would not have mentioned this Germanic god at all.

Moreover, any 10th-century Saxon would have clearly recognized Fleck’s long poems as skaldic. At that time, northern England was dominated by Scandinavian York and the Danelaw, and the skalds enjoyed a wide renown. As Fleck remarks, there is nothing “excessive” about their poetry. Drápur are an historically appropriate way to praise kings. Any simpler meter would cause offense, so skaldic poetry is exactly as “ornate” as it needs to be. Nonetheless, if Zimmer’s medieval persona belongs to the early Saxon period, the 6th or 7th century, Fleck magnanimously concedes that there’s no reason for him to know such things…even if Fleck still can’t explain why any early Saxon bard would mention “Kvasir” (a Norse name) or describe Norse poetry as “Celtic.”

Of course, the real reason for such discrepancies is that Zimmer – an amateur enthusiast, not a Professor of Scandinavian and Germanic Studies – just got his medieval details mixed up. But Fleck is too polite to say so, and, anyway, nobody in the SCA wants to break the customary ludic framework that surrounds their discourse. Despite the historical confusions behind “The Son of Harold’s Hoarfrost,” however, which also explain Zimmer’s loose impressionist metrics, what makes this text so useful for the Modern Revival? Mainly this: although Zimmer’s poem isn’t the first modern alliterative poem written in direct response to another revivalist text – that mystery I’ll save for later – “The Son of Harold’s Hoarfrost” offers a rare glimpse at revivalist reception history: how a reader contemporary with Fleck viewed his scholarly drápur. In other words, Zimmer provides a direct and pointed response from one self-aware, ambitious revivalist to another.

This concludes my discussion of Zimmer. To find out who my third impressionist is, the “most perfect” example of my argument, tune in next week…

Monday, February 19, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Purists vs. Impressionists"

The sixth in the series of guest-posts from Dennis Wilson Wise, of which the most recent is here, lays out some of the critical underpinnings of the overall project. As before, editorial intrusion is minimal.

Check back for the next post in the series soon!

Too, please let us know if you've got ideas for guest-posts or series of your own; we'd love to hear from you!


𝔒ne oddity about the Modern Revival is that, historically, critics don’t normally categorize literary movements according to poetic form alone. For instance, we don’t talk about the “Rhyming Octosyllabic Revolution” of Anglo-Norman England, or the “Blank Verse-ism” of the Elizabethan stage. This oddity has been one reason (out of several) some medievalists have challenged the notion of an “alliterative revival” in the mid-14th century at all. After all, no medieval source ever mentions such a movement. The whole idea is a hypothesis put forth by modern scholars. Although my Brit Lit I survey course in college confidently taught the mid-14th century revival as accepted fact, quite a few recent scholars have argued that just because various late medieval poems share a certain set of metrical similarities, they needn’t constitute an actual community of poets with similar attitudes or aims. The whole notion of metrical revivalism in the later Middle Ages is, therefore, a shot in the dark that misses – badly. Or so the argument goes.

It's a hot time...
Image provided by Wise

Luckily, with everyone’s favorite modern revival, we stand on surer ground. Even if William Langland, say, didn’t necessarily rub elbows with the Gawain-poet, many contemporary revivalists believe he did…and most have no trouble imagining their own revivalism in parallel terms with the alleged 14th-century movement.

That raises an interesting question, though. Despite the alliterative meter fading out of common usage by the 16th century, alliteration itself has remained a tried-and-true device for English-language poets. What, then, separates a genuine revivalist poet from one who merely adds a little ornamental alliteration to their lines – i.e., an extra flourish of “rum ram ruf” for special effect?

Just my last two blog entries alone show how tricky this question can be. In “Dear Tolkien Estate,” Schaubert’s metrics would have made any Old English poet proud. No medieval poet, however, would recognize Majmudar’s “The Grail Quest” as a valid alliterative text. Yet it clearly is a 21st-century revivalist poem. The problem isn’t only that the alliterative meter requires more than just alliteration (although some medievalists such Eric Weiskott, in fact, have argued against alliteration serving any real metrical function in the co-called “alliterative” meter). The problem is that individual revivalists can vary widely – and inconveniently, at least for critics who want to study this stuff – on exactly which features of the medieval alliterative meter they wish to revive.

One way to tackle this conundrum is by imagining an informal metrical scale that ranges 1 through 10, from arch-purists to extreme impressionists. Generally speaking, the latter group has little interest in faithfully reproducing the historical meter. For the purists, though, such fidelity does matter because they necessarily consider metrical fidelity a part of their overall literary goal. The key distinction lies in how many features from a particular tradition a poet chooses to replicate, and to what extent. The main traditions are Old English, Old Norse, or Middle English. Purist poets reproduce more features than not…and more strictly. Impressionist poets reproduce fewer features and less strictly. If a poem contains no recognizable metrical features from a particular tradition, though…well then, maybe it can file a membership claim for the Rhyming Octosyllabic Revolution or Blank Verse-ism, but the Modern Alliterative Revival will have to pass.

My qualifier about a metrical feature, though, is an important one. Poems that merely borrow content from medieval history or (more commonly) adopt phrasing or diction often associated with alliterative verse, such as kennings, don’t qualify as revivalist, at least for me, unless some concrete metrical feature is present. Features may include Sievers types, structural alliteration, a bipartite line structure, an accentual contour, or more. To my eye, most of Seamus Heaney’s medieval-flavored poetry falls into the non-revivalist category. Although he often uses Old English phrases such as “bone-house” (OE: bānhūs), it’s hard to see him applying medieval alliterative poetics in any consistent, discernible fashion.

Under my scale, then, I’d rank “Dear Tolkien Estate” as a purist-leaning poem, a 2 or a 3 (for reference, The Fall of Arthur by Tolkien would be 1.5), and “The Grail Quest” as 6 or 7. There’s nothing especially scientific about these numbers; they’re only meant to jumpstart the conversation. And poets can easily move along the scale at will, up or down. Going back to Poul Anderson, I’d rank “J.R.R.T” a two and “Route Song of the Winged Folk” a nine. Although this latter text clearly shares kinship with the ljoðaháttr form, it’s a long, long way from its Norse roots.

No matter where a poem falls on my revivalist-impressionist scale, though, let me stress that its ranking has nothing to do with literary merit. As mentioned before, “J.R.R.T” seems rather bland to me but “Route Song” quite impressive. About the only undeniably true thing we can say about purist-leaning texts is that their authors, one way or another, consider authenticity important. As Boromir might say, one does not simply walk into Mordor. The alliterative meter takes effort, hard effort, and simply understanding the metrics behind the historical meter takes research and pain-staking application. If a poet goes to all that effort, they darn well have a reason…and that reason often (but not always) involves subject.

For instance, Anderson normally prefers Old Norse meters, but “J.R.R.T” appears in Old English meter because he is honoring an author, Tolkien, who himself prefers the Old English tradition. Ironically, given what I said earlier about the importance of concrete metrical features, subject matter is often a better indicator than metrics of the alliterative tradition being revived. This obviously holds true for impressionists, who rarely care much about historical metrical exactness, but context clues can even help with purists. For instance, metrically, there isn’t much to distinguish Old English meter from Old Norse fornyrðislag, so without an extra-metrical hint such as subject matter, it’s incredibly difficult to make that important interpretative distinction.

So that’s my revivalist-impressionist scale. At this point, I can imagine one potentially loud objection, not against the scale itself, maybe, but against my claim that metrical fidelity has little to do with literary merit. Here goes: what if an impressionist is deviating from the historical metrics, not in deference to some special literary or linguistic reason, but because they don’t have the foggiest notion what the historical metrics are? Any poet, after all, can start off a poem with “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” but such nonsense does not an alliterative poem make.

...as opposed to the pizza.
Image provided by Wise

To which I respond…yeah. Sure. This could be true of an impressionist. Not every revivalist is a medievalist, and some revivalists know virtually nothing about the historical meters. No less an authority than W. H. Auden in The Age of Anxiety had to contend with accusations that he didn’t properly understand Old English prosody, and even though he in fact did, the Modern Revival contains scores of poets who don’t. For such folks, The Wanderer might as well be skaldic verse, and Piers Plowman is virtually identical with Peter Piper with his peck of pickled peppers.

Yet that doesn’t usually matter. For a fun experiment, I want to tackle three different alliterative poems that fall quite heavily on the impressionist side of the scale…and all by poets who, let us say, have a questionable grasp on their chosen alliterative tradition. To find out who I mean, though, tune in next week for the exciting reveal.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Planning for #Kzoo2024

𝔗o follow up on an earlier post, registration for the 2024 International Congress on Medieval Studies is open. Registration is here, and it's a sliding scale.

The Society has a few things on offer for the Congress this time around, all virtual, and all in US Eastern Daylight Time (UTC-4):

  • Business Meeting- Thursday, 9 May 2024, 8:30pm
  • Alternative Medievalisms against the Tolkienian Tradition- Friday, 10 May 2024, 1:30pm
  • Tolkien and Twenty-First Century Challenges: A Roundtable- Saturday, 11 May 2024, 3:30pm

Items on the agenda for the business meeting, which will serve as the AGM called for by §5.1 of the Society Constitution, remain

  • Determination of the Society offerings for the 2025 Congress;
  • Election of the Society President, 2024-2027, per §4.2.2 of the Society Constitution and the 2021 AGM; and
  • Other business as the Society decides to treat and as time permits.

Incumbent Society President Geoffrey B. Elliott notes that he is not willing to stand for reelection, having already served in the capacity for six years.

Please send Congress offering ideas and nominations for President to talesaftertolkien@gmail.com, and we'll see you at the 'zoo!

Monday, February 5, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Amit Majmudar, 'The Grail Quest'"

The fifth in the series of guest-posts from Dennis Wilson Wise, of which the most recent is here, discusses an interesting iteration of anachronistic medievalism. As before, editorial intrusion is minimal.

Check back for the next post in the series soon!

Too, please let us know if you've got ideas for guest-posts or series of your own; we'd love to hear from you!


𝔄fter my last blog post on the nearly perfect Old English metrics of “Dear Tolkien Estate,” I can’t resist tackling another new (to me) poet with more experimental tendencies: Amit Majmudar.

The laureate
Image provided by Wise

As Ohio’s first poet laureate and the author of a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita (named Godsong, 2011), Majmudar – a diagnostic radiologist in his spare time – is someone whom I’m kicking myself for having missed during my first hunt for revivalists. And he’s good. Although “The Grail Quest” isn’t technically a speculative poem, it shows exactly what someone can accomplish merely by hinting at the old alliterative prosody – that is, by practicing a meter unconcerned with strict Sievers types or full-scale structural alliteration.

As its title indicates, “The Grail Quest” is another Arthurian poem, and Majmudar refers initially to both Chrétien de Troyes, the French romancer who created the Grail legend, and Sir Perceval, its original quester. (Later Arthurian tradition would eventually replace Perceval as central quester with the pure-in-heart Sir Galahad.) You can read the full text of “The Grail Quest” here; America Magazine published it just last December. For your convenience, the first five lines are an excellent gateway into Majmudar’s metrical abracadabra:

Perceval almost     pierced the veil,
never uttered     a Christ-laced curse.
Purity of heart     is to will one thing,
wrote Kierkegaard      before the churchyards
turned charnel houses     in excruciated Europe. (lines 1-5)

The tell-tale caesuras are readily apparent to anyone, but they’re about the only aspect of Old English poetics Majmudar reproduces. Although his first line creates something like an “establishing shot” for good structural alliteration (that is, “Perceval” and “pierced” link his a-verse to his b-verse), the next two lines break that patterning decisively.

In lines 2 and 3, the b-verses only alliterate internally – an unhistorical practice that Majmudar frequently repeats. He likewise shows little interest in following standard Sieversian rhythms. Although some half-lines display a valid pattern, for instance “Perceval almost” (type A), “pierced the veil” fails the Sievers test by having only three syllables, and “Purity of heart” deploys the SxxS pattern that Old English poets considered improper.

I could go on. For example, besides intra-verse alliterations, Majmudar deploys other quasi-historical deviations such as delayed alliteration, interlinear alliteration, and crossed alliteration. Yet, at this point, part of me almost wishes to apologize for all this detailed talk of prosody … yet the metrics behind Majmudar’s poem truly are different from those found in “Dear Tolkien Estate,” and I can’t help but mention them: they create such a radically different style of revivalist text. By way of comparison, imagine the difference between jaguars and tigers. Both animals, clearly, belong to the big cat family, but each is fundamentally its own beast. In a similar way, Majmudar’s metrics make his poem unique, and this uniqueness has a profound effect on what meanings we can (or should) take away from his poem.

In one sense, “The Grail Quest” is a text that meditates on poetic form itself. To that end, Majmudar joins a host of other revivalists who reflect upon the core weirdness of resurrecting an archaic medieval meter for modern times. In particular I’m thinking of Richard Wilbur (“Junk”) and Edwin Morgan (“Spacepoem 3: Off Course”). All three of their poems diverge strongly from strict Old English meter, but for the way I read “The Grail Quest,” Majmudar’s thematic justification for his unhistorical poetics is particularly fascinating.

Look at Majmudar’s first stanza. There, his speaker questions the status of the Holy Grail as literal physical object – perhaps it is merely a lure, he says, an imaginary MacGuffin in pursuit of which Galahad will “attempt and test / truth by joust” (l.17-18). However, in the second stanza, the Grail Quest transforms into a personal quest for the speaker. For a poet especially, this private quest leads not to an “impossible castle” (l.19) but to the perfect poem: a text shaped by its ideal form, faultlessly conveying what its intrepid speaker – who wonders hesitantly “whether ⸱ my words were worthy” (l.25) wishes to express.

In poetry, needless to say, metrics are welded to form, and one ideal way to convey Arthurian content so heavily associated with the Middle Ages is through a specifically medieval meter: the alliterative. The Alliterative Morte Arthure comes readily to mind; so does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Hence Majmudar’s poem. But there’s a problem. For poets writing in the 21st century, a totally faithful historical restoration of the medieval alliterative meter is coming about six centuries too late.

Quite early in Majmudar’s poem, history enters the text through a subtle reference to the First World War, i.e., “the churchyards / turned charnel houses” of an excruciated Europe. This war has often been viewed as a cultural diremption between late modernity and the earlier Edwardian and Victorian eras, and thus, under my reading of “The Grail Quest,” the Great War also implies a nearly unbridgeable chasm between modernity and the Middle Ages. Simply too much has come to pass in the last 600 years; nobody today can revive a literary form established by a long-dead era without irony. This realization is partly what drove Ezra Pound’s famous revolution against traditional poetics, and although Pound also drew inspiration from Old English poetry, he lengthened and loosened the Old English poetic line in radically new, modernist ways.

In this context, I thus cannot help but see Majmudar’s reference to lapis lazuli in line 7 as a deft allusion to Yeats, whose poem by that name provides one more modernist meditation on life and art.

Because new worlds require new poetics, however (or so the argument goes; C. S. Lewis wouldn’t agree), what I find enthralling about “The Grail Quest” is how Majmudar seems to suggest a historical and cultural justification for his “impressionistic” revival of the alliterative meter. According to most medievalists, linguistic changes are to blame for why alliterative poetry disappeared after the 16th century, and I’ve elsewhere claimed that one of the stronger arguments for impressionism in the Modern Revival is how Modern English differs from its earlier cognate languages. There’s still a good basis for this claim, I believe, but let’s also consider one strong parallel within the history of Arthurian literature. 

He's so dreamy...
Image provided by Wise

This parallel even seems to be suggested by “The Grail Quest.” Notably, when speaking of Arthurian legend, it’s often helpful to remember that Arthuriana is the original “fan fiction.” New authors constantly re-write characters, invent them, or modify their core qualities. Chrétien de Troyes is a case in point. As mentioned before, he created Sir Perceval as the original Grail knight. But Majmudar does not trust any “poet ⸱ pimping a tale” (l. 11), as he says, and neither, apparently, did several late medieval authors. Once the Grail transformed into the Holy Grail, the tradition quickly needed someone who better exemplified Christian virtue. Thus the Vulgate Cycle (13th-century) was born, and it soon replaced Sir Perceval as principal quester with the supremely virtuous (and markedly virginal) Sir Galahad. His companions became Bors and Perceval; poor Sir Perceval had quested himself into a demotion.

In other words, the times they were a-changin’. No longer did the original Grail knight from de Troyes’s romances – never exactly the sharpest tool in the shed – suffice. Perceval had lost his “it” factor, so the tradition required a revision. All this seems implied by “The Grail Quest.” In Majmudar’s first stanza, his speaker begins explicitly with de Troyes’s version of Perceval before quickly pivoting to Sir Galahad, his literary replacement. And just as Arthurian tradition has rewritten Sir Perceval, Majmudar is rewriting the Holy Grail, transforming this Christian symbol from a cup filled with Christ’s blood to a poem fitted perfectly by its form.

All this helps explain Majmudar’s revisions on the traditional poetics of the alliterative meter; the old poetics no longer suffice. One can agree or disagree with this assessment as you please. After all, the Modern Revival will always have its purist poets, those folks supremely interested in historical authenticity: Rahul Gupta, Jere Fleck, Math Jones, Adam Bolivar, the Inklings. But Majmudar isn’t one of them…and “The Grail Quest” partly explains why.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Author Interview - Bethany Atazadeh

Hello and welcome to our latest author interview with YA fantasy author, Bethany Atazadeh!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing.

Back in 2016 I was laid off from a corporate job with a whole team, and I took the opportunity to pursue writing and self-publishing on a whim. Here I am seven years later, thankful I did! At this point in my career, I have written 10 novels (published 9), as well as published a children's book, five nonfiction books on marketing with a co-author (two of which I personally wrote), and a writing planner. While I've loved every single book-shaped project, my absolute favorite is young adult fantasy books, especially if they have a touch of fairytale retelling elements to them.

Your favorite thing you've written or published?

Honestly, I almost always say my most recent book—and because I love The Secret Curse (book 3 in The Queen's Rise series) so much, I have to say that's true this time as well.

Who would you say your biggest literary influences are?

So many... Every book that I read influences me (whether good or bad!) by impacting my writing and my understanding of good story. I wish I could point to a specific person, but it's really every author I know or enjoy reading!

Do you feel like your writing has been impacted/influenced by Tolkien? If so, in what way(s)?

Hmm, while I have to admit I didn't read in full and watched the movies instead (don't hate!) I can still say he has an incredible ability to create believable characters and worlds that every author should aspire to. I have no idea how he does it, but at least one element might be that he's not afraid to give them flaws (and big ones sometimes!) amidst all the good.

How has the history of the middle ages impacted/influenced your work?

I guess maybe in a backwards way? A lot of fantasy has middle ages vibes, and I specifically wanted to do something different so I tried to intentionally create a fantasy world in The Stolen Kingdom series (and now The Queen's Rise series) that was based in a very different time/culture (or multiple cultures at this point). 

What do you think the current innovations in your genre(s) are?

There are two big innovations currently that I see: romantasy (aka fantasy books that are mainly about the romance) and having "spice" in books (aka sexual scenes to some extent). Personally I love the romantasy vibes and have really enjoyed adding more romance to my fantasy books to embrace that trend. But I strongly dislike the way that the "spice" trend is affecting young adult age books in particular, because that content doesn't belong in young adult books.

What is something in your genre(s) you'd like to see more of?

I love unique fantasy worlds that branch out from the typical King Arthur and the round table / middle ages style worlds. 

What is something in your genre(s) you'd like to see less of?

I already got on my soapbox a little, but I believe young adult books should be more innocent for the age group, and that there's too much adult content in them these days, specifically spicy scenes. 

What are your favorite themes to work with or write?

Hope. Overcoming. Loving yourself the way you are. Faith.

Where online can our readers find you and your work?

Website: https://www.bethanyatazadeh.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authorbethanyatazadeh

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/bethanyatazadeh 

My books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/stores/author/B077FRKJGW/allbooks

My books on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/bethanyatazadeh

Bethany, thank you so much for the interview and sharing your fun and insightful answers with us!

Monday, January 29, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Lancelot Schaubert, 'Dear Tolkien Estate'"

The fourth in the series of guest-posts from Dennis Wilson Wise, of which the most recent is here, treats a response to Tolkien and is therefore eminently suited to presentation here. As before, editorial intrusion is minimal.

Check back for the next post in the series soon!

Too, please let us know if you've got ideas for guest-posts or series of your own; we'd love to hear from you!


𝔒f all the new alliterative poems I’ve recently seen, Lancelot Schaubert’s “Dear Tolkien Estate” is one of the more delightful. To give this one some context, if you’re a regular reader of Tales After Tolkien, you might have already heard of a little-known fantasy author by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, back in May 2013, the executor of Tolkien’s estate (his son Christopher) posthumously published one of his father’s longest original works in strict Old English meter, The Fall of Arthur.

If you’ve not read it before, it’s a remarkable achievement, but alas…as holds true for most of Tolkien’s major projects, he never completed it. Only four cantos plus portions of a fifth are finished. Nevertheless, in 1934, he shared a draft of The Fall of Arthur with his trusted friend and colleague, the medievalist R. W. Chambers (1874-1942), who praised the poem highly. Yet this encouragement was apparently insufficient to entice Tolkien towards completion, and despite hinting a few decades later that he wished to return to his “long poem,” Tolkien never did. When discussing another incomplete story by his father, “Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin,” Christopher Tolkien laments, “For me it is perhaps the most grievous of his many abandonments.” To that mix I would also add The Fall of Arthur.

The poet in question
Image provided by Wise

Cue Mr. Schaubert. For anyone unfamiliar with him, Schaubert has – despite his youth – an impressive publication record in the alliterative meter to his credit. His first book of verse, Inconveniences Rightly Considered (2017), has several poems in the meter, but it’s with The Greenwood Poet (2022) that he plunges head-first into alliterative poetics, which he often buttresses with half-rhyme and inter-verse assonance. Naturally enough, Schaubert deeply admires the Inklings, and in “Dear Tolkien Estate” he makes the ultimately quixotic offer to complete The Fall of Arthur himself.

Of course, if you know anything about the Tolkien Estate, their refusal is about as unsurprising as hobbits living in the Shire. Still, if anybody has the chops to finish an Old English alliterative poem with a Christian undertone, Schaubert seems like a strong candidate. For one thing, “Dear Tolkien Estate” demonstrates an admirable restraint, although one I could never hope to emulate: never once does the text hint about how appropriate it would be for someone named “Lancelot” to finish an Arthurian poem. (See, even in this blog post I can’t restrain myself.)

More seriously, Schaubert’s meter in “Dear Tolkien Estate” is a master-class in alliterative control. His language is entirely natural – a key component of Old English verse – but he also weaves in and out of different Sievers types at will. The alliteration holds structurally true while never becoming intrusive. His penultimate line is particularly well-done: two half-lines that scan as B-types with long dips, but which also double as four consecutive anapests. This produces an arresting regularity of rhythm distinctive because it’s so unusual within the famously irregular Old English meter.

Granted, Schaubert’s metrics don’t quite match Tolkien’s own. He has some unusual stresses (e.g., the first syllable of alliteration in line 7; we have documentary evidence that the British Tolkien stressed the second), and, thanks to some fine research by T. S. Sudell and Nelson Goering, we know that Tolkien practiced a strict compression in The Fall of Arthur. Historically, Old English poets, although occasionally willing to expand their verses, generally preferred shorter ones of 4 or 5 syllables. This is a precedent followed by Tolkien. In contrast, the verses in Schaubert’s poem tend to run slightly longer, but this (I would suggest) only contributes to their feeling of naturalness. Modern English simply isn’t as compressed a language as Old English.

As a final note, Schaubert’s reference to “reforged swords” in his third stanza – an intimation of Aragorn’s reforged blade Andúril – is one of several delicately handled references to the lore.

Overall, “Dear Tolkien Estate” is a wonderful revivalist text for anyone to peruse. Enjoy: it’s printed for the first time here with the author’s permission. 

The call prompting the response
Image provided by Wise

Dear Tolkien Estate

t would take talent for Tolkien’s dirge
Of Arthur and all the old knights
Of Camelot to receive the called-for response
Its original pages rightly deserve —
The ending of ages, the altar of metre
Receiving a sacred sacrifice of devotion
Like Old English, alliterate and paced.

It would take the team of the Tolkien estate
Agreeing together that greater things
Could arise rightly from a ready pupil,
A published poet and pawn of the realm
Of the great and varied graves of scholars
Who studied the song, who savored Gondor,
Who shun Shelob and shake with anger
At the mighty men molten Balrogs
Laid asunder in the lofty heights
Of the lowest dungeons and the lakes of ice.

It would take tomes of Tolkien’s notes
And a steady hand, studying long,
And ready to write a rendered ending
Deserved by the start, daring to finish
What many missed, what most wanted,
Yet still has never starred on the list
Of finished tales, of reforged swords,
That the master half-made before making a way
To the pearly gates and the price of life.

I would take the chance if you take me in.
I would write the end of the ruined saga.
I could give you the gold of the grave of the crown:
Pendragon’s poem I dare to complete.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: C. S. Lewis, The Nameless Isle"

Dennis Wilson Wise's guest-post series (beginning here and continued here) moves on with a discussion of CS Lewis. As before, editorial intervention is kept to a minimum.

Check back soon for the next post in the series!


aving already discussed Poul Anderson, the Modern Revival’s most noteworthy early pulp poet, it only makes sense to now turn our sights on the Inklings, the two best-known “university” poets. And because most readers interested in such matters already know about Tolkien, let’s take the opportunity to give equal time to his friend and fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis. 

The man. The myth. The legend.
Image provided by Wise.

Now, full disclosure: I’ve published a lot about Lewis’s alliterative verse, so there’s quite a few paths this blog post could take. Issues of national identity and English nationalism, for instance, or Lewis’s infamous disdain for modernist poetics. Or we might mention his preference for formalist poetry, his Christian apologetics, or the religious aspects of his fantasy.

But if people “know” one thing about Lewis’s poetry, they know that it’s…well…not very good.

Now, that’s not my view, mind you, but even fans and scholars of Lewis tend to accept this assessment as the default consensus. Unfortunately, Lewis is probably himself responsible for the poor state of his poetic reputation. As some readers of Tales After Tolkien may already know, Lewis started his literary career as a poet. His first book, Spirits in Bondage (1919), did okay – it probably earned a boost from the “sympathetic young war veteran” factor – but the true work of his heart, Dymer, a book-length long poem in rime royal, met with a crushingly lukewarm reception upon its publication in 1926…and I do mean “crushingly.” Critical and popular apathy absolutely shattered Lewis’s artistic ego. Rather than picking up the pieces and trying again, though, he decided – merely 27 years old – to vehemently denounce his own youthful ambition to become a great poet. Over the next four decades he would compose the occasional poem, but after the Dymer fiasco, Lewis virtually ceased trying to publish his verse.

Many scholars see this renunciation of poetic fame as one of Lewis’s first truly adult decisions, his mature self-awareness about the limits of his own talent, and, to be fair, Lewis as poet does have several odd tics. Individual psychology barely matters to him, and his narrative verse – Dymer most especially – often betrays a ham-handed style of plotting. Likewise, it’s hard for contemporary readers to see his penchant for traditional forms and diction – including the use of apostrophes for elided syllables – as anything other than achingly old-fashioned.

Still, I’m reminded of an excellent book by Meredith Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter (2012). Partly thanks to Ezra Pound’s polemics, says Martin, literary modernism effectively managed to fix in our heads an image of “meter” as something stable, permanent, and ahistorical. However, the fact of the matter is that prosodists from 1860 through 1930 had a voracious appetite for debating metrical theory, so rather than envisioning meter as a set of shackles or a straightjacket from which a new poetics (as the modernists would claim) must set us free, Victorian and Edwardian prosodists were continually revising and challenging their core ideas on meter – and, thus, all the time subjecting their formal poetry to metrical innovation.

For now, I’ll resist the urge to wax eloquent on what Lewis thought of his modernist contemporaries. (Hint: his views are more nuanced than common descriptions like “reactionary” would have one believe). Yet he truly did love traditional forms and meters, and Martin’s argument helps us understand why so many current scholars view Lewis’s resolutely formal verse as backward-looking and old-fashioned: we’ve been collectively conditioned to view it through modernist goggles. Nonetheless, these goggles prevent most readers and scholars from seeing the sheer metrically inventiveness that Lewis can display from poem to poem, and nowhere are these blinders more obvious than in The Nameless Isle.

Find it here.
Image provided by Wise.
If you’ve not had the pleasure, The Nameless Isle (1930) is a 742-line alliterative fantasy romance about a mariner who shipwrecks onto an enchanted island; once there, he helps reconcile a married yet estranged sorceress and wizard. In the process he also encounters a mysterious dwarf, a beautiful damsel, and a magical flute. All in all, The Nameless Isle is a light-hearted, skillfully wrought long poem with serious themes, and although it has flown under the radar of most critics, it’s a masterful lesson on Lewis’s skills with metrical innovation.

For now, we’ll gloss over the basic experimentalism implied by Lewis’s decision to resurrect an archaic medieval verse form – remember, by 1930, good models of alliterative poetry in Modern English didn’t yet really exist. You only found good models by studying Old English poetry in its original language, but even here Lewis doesn’t follow his medieval predecessors slavishly; he adds his own twists. Many are too technical to describe in detail (I’ve written about them elsewhere), but, as a quick summary, three notable areas concern (1) Lewis’s strong penchant for double alliteration; (2) his greater willingness to use long dips; and (3) his elimination of a metrical license known as anacrusis that Old English poets deemed highly useful.

What I want to discuss, though, is a metrical innovation more accessible for general discussion, i.e., the part of The Nameless Isle I call “The Song of Hic and Illa.”

For some context, this song occurs immediately upon the wizard and sorceress’s marital reconciliation, and it’s meant as a love duet between them demonstrating the balance they’ve discovered between their respective magical purviews. The song owes its core theme to a book Lewis discovered just a year earlier, Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the Household (1854). Today, this long poem enjoys something of a double-edged reputation, especially among feminist critics, since The Angel in the Household helped solidify the Victorian ideology of separate spheres – i.e., women belong in the home, men in the workplace – but for Lewis, at least, who had newly converted to theism, Patmore’s poem was eye-opening. To him it revealed that a spiritual dimension could exist legitimately within marriage, one founded on mutual partnership between a husband and wife, and for a then-confirmed bachelor like Lewis, whose opinions on women were generally dismissive, The Angel in the Household represented a small step in the right direction.

Anyway, Lewis conveys his new opinion on marital equality through his innovations on Old English meter. Check out the following sample. Hic is Lewis’s name for his wizard (who allegorically represents the world of pure spirit), and Illa is the name for his sorceress, who allegorically represents the material world.

HIC: ‘My love’s laughter is light falling
Through broad branches in brown woodland,
On a cold fountain, in a cave darkling,
A mild sparkling in mossy gloom.’
ILLA: ‘But my lord’s wisdom is light breaking,
And sound shaking, a sundered tomb.’ (lines 646–651, caesuras added)

As far as Old English metrics goes, nothing in “The Song” is outright unmetrical … but nowhere in Old English literature does Lewis’s particular style find an equivalent. In my selected passage, which is representative, there are 12 verses across six lines, and his Sievers types break down as follows:

A-types (SxSx): 0 / 12 (0%)
B-types (xSxS): 2 / 12 (16.7%)
C-types (xSSx): 10 / 12 (83.3%)

That’s a very unusual distribution pattern. In fact, it occurs nowhere in Old English poetry. Why does Lewis chose to go with such a predominance? Well, I can come up with a few guesses, but the key, I think, is balance. The clashing stresses of types C create a see-saw rhythm that denotes equality. When one foot rises, the other foot falls – and rinse, and repeat. Previously, the reason why the wizard and sorceress’s marriage had failed was because each had believed their own magical purview superior. Each had wanted to rule the island by granting dominion to either “spirit” or “matter.” No equal partnership, however, can persist when one party retains a belief in dominance and hierarchy. Balance is therefore key, and of Sievers’s five metrical types, type C is the most “balanced.”

Yet Lewis goes even further. In most Old English poetry, rhyme doesn’t appear as a structural device. Here, though, Lewis clearly does employ rhyme in a structural way. So let’s now turn to his two outlier B-types.

In my example, I’ve bolded Lewis’s masculine rhymes and underlined his feminine ones. In the former case, masculine rhymes require a matching set of final stressed syllables. That rules out type C, which ends on a trochaic constituent, so the only option left is the iambic-seeming type B. Conversely, feminine rhymes require a trochaic ending, and this is entirely appropriate for C-types. As a result, Lewis explicitly genders Old English poetics in a surprisingly but thematically significant way. Notably, he doesn’t limit masculine rhymes to his wizard or feminine rhymes to his sorceress. Both magical figures utilize both types of rhyme, just as each speaks with the same Sieversian patterns. Thus metrics reinforce the passage’s symbolic union between wizard and sorceress, wife and husband, matter and spirit.

Although “The Song of Hic and Illa” isn’t necessarily my favorite passage from The Nameless Isle – many of its more traditional alliterative passages are, in my view, far lovelier – I nevertheless find myself increasingly impressed with Lewis’s skill as a poet: his metrical boldness, his willingness to innovate.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Author Interview - Jayne Castel

Hello and welcome to our latest author interview with historical romance and fantasy author Jayne Castel!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing.

I’ve always written! For years I started lots of stories but always gave up at the midpoint. I finally finished my first novel in 2012 … a Historical Romance set in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England (DARK UNDER THE COVER OF NIGHT), discovered self-publishing, and never looked back! For a while writing was a hobby that paid, and then it was a part-time income. And then, in 2019, my first Medieval Romance series took off (THE BRIDES OF SKYE), and I’ve been a full-time author since then. 😊

Your favorite thing you've written or published?

This is such a hard question as each work-in-progress is my favorite work! However, that said, I do have a few books that stole my heart. MAXIMUS (Book One: The Immortal Highland Centurions) and TAMING THE EAGLE (Book One of the Empire’s Edge Duology) are among them. MAXIMUS has a touch of fantasy blended into Historical Romance (it’s about immortals, after all!), and TAMING THE EAGLE is a sweeping romance between a Roman general and a Pict warrior woman set in 2nd Century Caledonia.

Who would you say your biggest literary influences are?

I love the classics! Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, and, of course, J.R.R Tolkien are all favorites. More modern influences are Diana Gabaldon, Bernard Cornwell, Juliet Marillier, and Sarah J. Maas. I enjoy reading authors who blend history and fantasy!

Do you feel like your writing has been impacted/influenced by Tolkien? If so, in what way(s)?

Of course! I love his world-building and try to inject as much of the same richness in my own. I also loved the way he created such an epic feel while also giving his work intimacy. The friendship between Frodo and Sam is iconic.

How has the history of the middle ages impacted/influenced your work?

I like to tie my books as closely to history as I can, and so all my work – from my Dark Ages novels to those set in the 15th Century Scotland – hinge on actual historical events. I’ve also incorporated a lot of real historical figures in my books … and occasionally they’ve been the main characters!

What do you think the current innovations in your genre(s) are?

Historical Romance, especially Scottish Highlander Romance tends to remain fairly ‘traditional’. There are the tried-and-true characters and tropes that readers love, and just can’t get enough of. Books about brave warriors, noble lairds, and feisty Scottish lasses set against the stunning backdrop of Medieval Scotland have a lasting appeal. That said, I find readers are increasingly wanting to see more of the male viewpoint in stories (although they prefer third person POV). Fast-moving, character-driven books that are perhaps a little shorter than the traditional 80,000 words for Historical Romance are showing up more these days too.

What is something in your genre(s) you'd like to see more of?

I’d like to see more fantasy blended with history – Historical Fantasy is a favorite genre of mine, and it goes so well with romance. Why isn’t Historical Fantasy Romance an actual genre? I’m not talking time-travel romance here (although that’s fun), but Celtic inspired romantic fantasy or alternate history. Bring it on!

What is something in your genre(s) you'd like to see less of?

The ‘Disney’ approach to history where characters go around saying mayhap or ‘twas, and cliches abound. I’d like to see a little bit more authenticity and grit in Scottish Historical Romance, which pays Scottish history and culture the respect it deserves.

What are your favorite themes to work with or write?

So many! I love stories about homecoming, redemption, fresh starts, challenging fate, and overcoming impossible odds … I could go on! In many ways tropes are what drive romance (and twisting them and layering them to create an original story is essential), but a strong theme is what really makes a story sing.

Where online can our readers find you and your work?

www.jaynecastel.com

Here are all the other places you can find me:

Connect on Facebook.

Follow on Instagram.

Follow me on TikTok

Follow me on Pinterest

Visit my YouTube channel

Visit my Amazon Author page

Visit my Goodreads page

Follow me on BookBub

Jayne, thank you so much for the interview and sharing your fun and insightful answers with us!

Monday, January 15, 2024

Guest Post Series: Dennis Wilson Wise, "The New Poets of Rum-Ram-Ruf: Poul Anderson"

Wise’s guest-post series, beginning here, continues this week with a look at Poul Anderson. As previously, editorial intervention is limited; there has been a slight update, per the author and with acknowledgment to his interlocutors.

Check back soon for the next entry in the series!


𝔏ast week, I mentioned Poul Anderson as the Modern Revival’s “most prolific and wide-ranging pulp poet.” Similarly, in my introduction to the anthology, I call him the leading figure of the Revival’s demotic branch, meaning that he didn’t learn his medievalism primarily from school or offer his work to venues traditionally designated for mainstream (non-genre) literature. Instead, Poul Anderson had fandom in his bones. Well, I promise not to turn this blog into a simple chronological survey of revivalist poets, but given the overall importance of Anderson, he’s simply too obscure to most medievalists for me to let such a golden opportunity slide by.
The man of the hour.
Image provided by Wise.

Luckily, for a quick cheat-sheet on Anderson’s style as poet, we have a few easy generalizations on hand. For one thing, although Anderson enjoyed writing verse, he did so merely as a hobby. His main job was prose fiction. He also generally prefers Norse meters to English ones, and his metrical fidelity ranges from modestly faithful to heavily impressionistic. In addition, Anderson frequently revised his poetry despite previous publications elsewhere, but these revisions rarely add much in the way of improvement. In fact, I cannot detect any consistent principle to how Anderson revises. Here’s an example. In his 1972 version of The Broken Sword, his revised poems are actually less historically faithful to medieval metrics than the original poems from his 1954 version. And neither does Anderson much care about experimenting or innovating on the alliterative meter. Mainly, his poetry aims to support his novels by adding some historical authenticity or medieval flavoring.

With all this in mind, let’s take a gander at two Andersonian poems in particular. The first – a short alliterative tribute called “J.R.R.T.” in honor of Tolkien’s 100th birthday – never actually made it into Speculative Poetry and the Modern Alliterative Revival. Instead, it can be found alongside other tributes in the Summer 1992 issue of Mythlore. Since it’s only four lines, I’ll repost it here:

Just in his judgment but of gentle heart,
Readily ranging through realms unbounded,
Ruler of runecraft, he wrought for us
Tower-strong tales and the tenderest songs.

So – a few quick notes. Unusually for Anderson, “J.R.R.T” is in classic Old English style, a clear attempt to honor his subject’s greater affinity for that tradition. Also unusually for Anderson, each verse scans more or less perfectly as a Sievers type, and the acrostic is a nice touch. As tributes go, then, it’s quite decent. As poetry, however…well, here’s the problem. Thanks to fan groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism (of which Anderson was co-founder), the Modern Revival tends to have a lot of praise poetry, and most such verses tend to recycle the same old cliches and basic sentiments. Granted, the intended audiences for these verses don’t likely see these cliches as cliches. They’re generally recited orally on special occasions for friends and acquaintances, so these fan audiences have rarely had the chance, as I have, to read dozens and dozens of such praise poems in succession.

Still, the sentiments expressed by Anderson in “J.R.R.T” are thoroughly run of the mill. If we remove the title and overlook the acrostic, nobody would know who this poem was praising. It could apply literally to anyone. William Morris, maybe, or even Fletcher Pratt. So, beyond Anderson’s bare decision to dash off a quick poem in praise of Tolkien in particular, there’s not much here for readers to sink their teeth into.

But if you sense a “but” coming, hang on, because that brings us to our second poem. Remember how I said Anderson almost never chooses to innovate on the alliterative meter? Well, our next selection is one of the very few, and for my money it’s one of his absolute best. Generally speaking, Anderson writes traditional formal verse quite well – I personally think quite highly of “Ballade of an Artificial Satellite” – but his alliterative poetry tends, like “J.R.R.T.,” to be rather humdrum. “Route Song of the Winged Folk,” however, is a breath-taking exception. 

Doesn't seem flighty...
Image provided by Wise

For some background, this four-stanza poem appears in Anderson’s Hugo- and Nebula-nominated SF novel, The People of the Wind (1973), a “clash of cultures” type of story. One culture traces its ancestry back to Earth; the other is indigenous to the planet Avalon. These latter folks call themselves the Ythrians, and if the title for “Route Song of the Winged Folk” hasn’t given things away already, these Ythrians are a sentient avian species who have evolved self-powered flight. Well, Anderson presents “Route Song” as a traditional Ythrian carol, and since the Ythrians are an honor-driven tribal (read: medieval) society as well as a far-future alien species (read: SF), Anderson decides to change the core rules of his alliterative poetics.

For an example, take this first stanza:

Light that leaps from a sun still sunken
hails the hunter at hover,
washes his wings in molten morning,
startles the stars to cover.
Blue is the bell of hollow heaven,
rung by a risen blowing.
Wide lie woodlands and mountain meadows,
great and green with their growing.
But—look, oh, look!—
a red ray struck
through tattered mist.
A broadhorn buck
stands traitor-kissed.
The talons crook.

In simple narrative terms, the only thing happening here is that a bird of prey has spotted a rabbit outside its hole. Metrically, though, Anderson is pretty dazzling. There’s no Sievers types here, no clear caesuras, no verse-linking alliterations – nothing that suggests him as using an Old Norse, Old English, or Middle English meter. Instead, something entirely new arises. Ignoring the “wheel” for a moment (a term I’m deliberately taking from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), a clear alliterative pattern emerges in “Route Song.” In odd-numbered lines, Anderson uses an aa/bb alliterative pattern: light/leaps and sun/sunken (l.1). In even-numbered lines, Anderson uses either aaa or aax. These patterns are maintained throughout all four stanzas, qualifying “Route Song” as an alliterative poem despite its deviations from any historical medieval meter.

Actually, “Route Song” does come somewhat close to at least one historical meter: ljoðaháttr. In this Old Norse form, odd lines utilize the standard two-verse structure separated by a caesura. Even lines, however, bear a single hypermetric verse with three heavy beats. Although “Route Song” avoids caesuras, strict Sievers types, and verse-linking alliteration, Anderson’s stanzas nevertheless follow ljoðaháttr’s full-line and hypermetric-verse format zealously. At the same time, he adds rhyme as one of several unhistorical innovations, and Anderson’s “wheels,” of course, don’t hail from Old Norse tradition at all – they most strongly resemble the bob-and-wheel technique from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a long poem from the Middle English alliterative tradition.

So there you have it: a strange metrical junction between multiple alliterative styles, plus several new techniques imported from the accentual-syllabic tradition, all of which Anderson has adapted to suit a far-future, highly advanced, avian culture. The end result is one of the most metrically skillful texts from Anderson’s revivalist oeuvre.