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.

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