The Song of Roland and Hidden Alliterative Verse in Tolkien?

There is poetry in old tales for many reasons, and one of those is because they were often meant to be shared orally, and we are sing-songy folk, remembering best through meter and rhyme.  The Song of Roland is one such heroic poem of France that tells the tale of brave (and arrogant) Roland with end-line assonanced laisse (pronounced: “LAYs”, like the potato chip), which is a stanza consisting of irregular-length lines where the last vowel sound is repeated in a given stanza.

Since this is partially a history blog, and I’m taking wide liberties with its self-imposed themes to post an article on poetry, I’d be remiss if I did not at least convey the plot of the song itself.

The Song of Roland’s Plot

Charlemagne and his host are in Spain, attempting to acquire (reclaim?) lands from the Saracens.  With him are one hundred-thousand men, including his nephew, Count Roland; a brash, arrogant knight who quarrels with Baron Ganelon.  In what appears to be an attempt to secure peace, the Saracen leader sends out great gifts to Charles and swears that he will convert to Christianity.

Of course, it is a ruse, and Charles is wary.  Roland proposes that Ganelon be sent to broker this potential peace with the Saracen king, but to do so could mean certain death, and Ganelon interprets Roland’s encouragement as an open attack on Ganelon’s life.  Because he is the king’s nephew and Roland has the love of his men, his plan is accepted; Ganelon grudgingly goes to the Saracen king.

While there, he plans with the king to kill Roland.  The belief is that if Roland dies, Charlemagne will be too heartbroken by the loss to continue his Spanish campaign and retreat to France.  They plan to give Roland a place of honor as the rear-guard where the Saracens will set upon him and his unit in a valley.

To no one’s surprise, the plan works.

Roland is thrilled to accept the command of Charles’ read-guard and takes with him the twelve peers who are the champions of the king’s court.  (These are the paladins from which the identically-named class from D&D may or may not derive from.)  They are set upon, and even though Olivier – Roland’s friend – begs that he call for aid, Roland believes to do so would be a cowardly act.

When sense finally finds him and he calls for help, it is too late; the entire rear-guard of twenty-thousand men have dwindled.  Roland is the last to die and tries to destroy his sword, Durendal, saying that no pagan should wield her.  He attempts to destroy it, but it is so strong that even hacking at rocks will not snap the blade.

Charles finds Roland and grieves for his late nephew, but rather than giving into despair, is instead enraged.  His entire force rides against the Saracens and crushes their army.  They kill everyone except the Saracen queen (because Charles wants her to submit to Christianity; probably as a way to stroke his ego), and Ganelon is eventually drawn and quartered after a trial-by-combat “reveals” that he is guilty of treason against Roland, Charles, and France.

Poetry in English?

Sadly, the poem’s lyricism is lost on English readers like myself, since the translation does not have the same verb-endings as its native French.  Frustrated by this, I took to the web where I might find the original text, forgetting entirely that some knowledge of the language – which I do not possess – might actually help me grasp the beauty of Roland’s song.

After failing spectacularly in my quest, I thought maybe if I could find something more natively English, then I might find the poetry I was missing.  There are other poems of heroic tales that I sought out, hoping to find beauty of verse, and I was able to locate Beowulf, whose old English is just as obtuse to my tongue as the original French of Roland.  (There’s a lot of irony here if you know what old English is, but I leave that to you to discover).

Examining the language, I quickly formed the theory it was not just “old English”, but “too old English” for my modern sensibilities.  Luckily, I’ve a shelf full of “modern English” books, with several authors praised for poetic prose.

Tolkien and English Poetry

Because I knew Tolkien had studied old English and I’d heard favored the Nordic epics, heroic verse, and many other tales threaded with lyrical constructions, I assumed he’d be the best to find my long-lost poetry.

To be clear, there is poetry in Tolkien’s prose, and while I could always hear it, I couldn’t understand it.  Reading passages from Return of the King provided a sense of beauty and wonder of his words, but it wasn’t enough for me; I needed to understand why.  Why were so many paragraphs more song than text?

Take this short passage, which I read and re-read, broke apart, scrambled, shook-then-stirred, and dissected for weeks until it ceased to be a beautiful creature shying in the forests of Middle Earth’s pages and became instead a frustrating string of sounds that mocked while I mourned all inability to discern its powers:

There at last when the Mallorn leaves were falling but spring had not yet come, she laid herself upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave; until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and Eleanor and Neprhrdil bloom no more East of the sea.

-The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen


Beautiful, no?  Here’s a secret: sweet sorrow ends of love stories are a weakness of mine.

Repeating the exercise of trying to analyze this poem for the thousandth time wasn’t going to do me any good, so I wrote down what little I’d gleaned thus far and consulted an expert for advice.  Here’s what I had gathered:

  • It has a steady see-saw, rise-and-fall  cadence of stressed and unstressed sounds broken occasionally in brief breaths.
  • There are inter-rhymes all over the place, particularly with the sounds of ae as in “and” and ah as in “last.”
  • Some lines (or thoughts) end with powerful, sharp departures of the normal inter-rhyming scheme, such as “green grave” (both of which appear stressed to my ears and posses their own little rhyme with the initial gr).

For my expert advice, I turned to Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”, which explores various poetic meters and the language to discuss poetry.  I’m eternally grateful for this book, because its specific language allows me to communicate the patterns of poetry in structured fashion that others can follow and understand.

Stephen Fry actually points out Beowulf and mentions Tolkien when discussing Alliterate verse, of which there are three main takeaways from that form.

  1. The alliterate verse does not need to rhyme at the end of the line.  In fact, the stress at the end of the line must not match the other main stresses of the line.
  2. Four stresses to a line, in a “bang, bang, bang, crash” pattern.
  3. Lines are constructed from two half-lines with two stresses in the first half and two stresses in the second half.

Armed with this knowledge, let’s try to break our passage up into a similar structure.  The stressed syllables are underlined and the word in which they appear are highlighted.  The “bangs” are highlighted in blues while the “crashes” are highlighted in orange:

1st Line
There at last when the Mallorn leaves were falling but spring had not yet come
she laid herself upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave;

2nd Line
until the world
is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after and Elanor and Niphredil bloom no more East of the sea.

Not bad, but I’d be hard-pressed to read this passage stressing only the highlighted words, and the choices I’ve made for stresses are questionable at best.  If we accept that there must be only four stresses, then the rules have already been broken by the endings here, since there are two of them for each line.   Besides, isn’t there a lot of alliteration going on that we didn’t highlight?

Yes, that’s all true; two lines in and I’ve already broken the rules.  Mr. Fry is furiously drafting a letter about the evils of poetic renegades, but in my defense, Tolkien is the real scoundrel.

It’s probably difficult (and unfair to authors) to expect prose be constrained to any strict poetic meter.   Could you imagine Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in accentual verse?  He was certainly skilled enough to do it, but for a modern audience it would sound like an exhaustive nursery rhyme fit only for children before bed (I can hear the yawning now).  So, let’s relax these rules a bit; allow for more stresses but still focus on the spirit of the alliterative verse, which will still end with a crash.

In this next example, the lines haven’t changed, but I’ve highlighted all the alliteration that stands out to me; each alliterative sound is given its own highlighting color:

There at last when the Mallorn leaves were falling but spring had not yet come
she laid herself upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave; until the world
is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come
after and Elanor and Niphredil bloom no more East of the sea.

There are at least six different alliterations going on in this passage, which the ear will pick up on, and unlike a lot of poetry you may be familiar with, does not hammer an expected rhyme at the end of a line.  What Tolkien has done is create inter-rhymes that are obvious enough for the ear to identify as pleasant song, while still being subtle enough in words of varying total sound to provide mystery to the reader.

For example, “Mallorn” and “Amroth” have the same a-sound, but the word itself is different enough that the reader doesn’t pick it up as a thought of conscious rhyming; further, because the positions in which the words containing alliterations appear are so varied, they prevent the reader’s mind from “expecting” a rhyme in a guessable pattern.

But we’re not done yet!  We’ve completely forgotten to place meter in these lines.  Let’s see what that might look like:


If we then normalize these stress and unstressed markers, we find a kind of pattern emerging:



If you’re versed in poetry or can recall your Shakespeare, you may notice I’ve tried (emphasis on tried) fitting the passage to iambic pentameter, which was how Beowulf was laid out and the meter for many a heroic verse.  It works out surprisingly well for the first four lines if you can forgive the two trochees and the feminine ending on the first line, plus that pesky spondee on the fourth.

5-out-of-7 lines keep a steady rhythm.  The first four lines are mostly perfect see-saws of stresses, the fifth line tries to keep up but swaps its stress pattern for trochees toward the center.  The sixth is almost back to the perfect see-saw, and the last line departs entirely.

It may be, however, that there’s a different kind of construction going on in the last three lines that keep a pattern with each other.  The last three lines might desire to be a sort of of dactylic or anapestic meter, since the ending is “of the sea”, which reads as a three-syllable anapest to me, but my attempts at re-organization of these lines into a three-toed form (as opposed to the two-toed iamb) have been messy.

More importantly, I began flipping through pages of Lord of the Rings, looking for other cases of loose alliterative prose with mostly iambic-footed sentences.  Sadly, I haven’t come across any as of yet, but from what I’ve done here, we can establish some rules for this potentially new alliterative form.

A New Alliterative Verse Form

  1. The “bang, bang, bang, crash and a crash” rule.
    At least three strongly stressed, alliterated syllables that constitute the “bangs” with line endings of exactly two “crashes” being no more than two syllables apart from each other.
  2. The “Bundled Crash” rule
    One alliteration (not syllable) from line 1’s crash should appear in line 2’s crash.
  3. The “Loopback” Rule
    One alliteration (not syllable) from line 2’s crash (which is not the main “crashed” sound) must appear in another, non-bang, non-crash word from the 1st line.

Here’s a line I came up with using these rules:

Our trial on white seas   |   with knifed winds and dotted by frozen frowns
We’d spy bergs but are blind   |   by icy exits, closed-in and clotted

There’s no strict meter and I found the exercise of bundling the crashing alliterations to be difficult but enjoyable. I’d love to see if I could write an entire story using it; my own style for epics.

Ultimately, I learned why Tolkien’s prose is praised; like the Valar, his words sing.

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