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  • "With chunks of poetry in between":The Lord of the Rings and Saga Poetics
  • Carl Phelpstead (bio)

Much previous scholarship has investigated the ways in which Old Norse-Icelandic literature influenced J.R.R. Tolkien's creative writing.1 This work has concentrated almost exclusively on thematic rather than formal connections, but the present essay examines one of the most striking formal similarities between The Lord of the Rings and the Icelandic sagas: the mixing of verse and prose.2

Prosimetrum, the mixed verse and prose form, is a world-wide phenomenon attested in Indo-European literatures from ancient Sanskrit onwards, and Tolkien was familiar with prosimetric writings in other languages besides Old Norse-Icelandic: Latin and early Irish are the two most obviously relevant literatures; Lisa Spangenberg rightly notes, for example, that "Perhaps the most striking connection between The Lord of the Rings and Celtic mythology is one of form; Irish medieval stories mix verse and prose, with songs and poetry interspersed in the prose narrative." (448).3 The influence of Icelandic prosimetrum must, however, have been more significant than that of early Irish saga, reaching Tolkien not only directly through his reading of Old Norse literature (in translation and in the original), but also indirectly through earlier prosimetric fantasy by William Morris.4

In a letter to his fiancée, Edith Bratt, in October 1914 Tolkien alludes to the seminal influence of William Morris's prosimetric romances on the form of his own creative writing, telling her that he is trying to turn one of the stories from the Finnish Kalevala "into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris' romances with chunks of poetry in between." (Letters 7).5 This statement has often been quoted by critics as evidence of Tolkien's acknowledged debts to both the Kalevala and the romances of William Morris, but critical discussion of the influence of Morris on Tolkien has nevertheless concentrated on thematic links and shared subject matter rather than the particular debt to which Tolkien here refers—the use, or revival, of prosimetrum.6

Earlier in 1914 Tolkien had spent part of his Skeat Prize money on works by Morris, including his translation of Völsunga saga and his prosimetric romance, The House of the Wolfings (Carpenter 69). Much later, in a letter written in 1960, Tolkien acknowledges the influence of Morris's House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains on some of the content of The Lord of the Rings (Letters 303). These prosimetric romances are late [End Page 23] works by Morris, written after he had learned to read Icelandic and collaborated on several saga translations with his teacher, Eiríkr Magnússon.7 Morris himself links the sagas and his own prosimetric romances in a letter to T. J. Wise in November 1888: he says of his soon-to-be-published The House of the Wolfings that "it is written partly in prose and partly in verse: but the verse is always spoken by the actors in the tale, though they do not always talk verse; much of it is in the sagas, though it cannot be said to be performed in their model" (Morris, Letters 302). Whether the final clauses of this passage mean thematic material is derived from the sagas although the form is not, or that the form is like that of the sagas, but not identical to it, the passage confirms that the sagas and prosimetric composition were naturally linked in Morris's mind.8

As his letter to Edith Bratt in 1914 makes clear, Tolkien began the composition of prosimetric narratives long before starting to write The Lord of the Rings, and a full account of his use of the medium would consider a number of texts, including of course The Hobbit. The present essay, however, concentrates on his most sustained prosimetric performance, The Lord of the Rings. This text includes more than eighty poems or verse fragments and only nineteen of the work's sixty-two chapters contain no verse at all (every chapter to II, iv inclusive contains verse).9

Verse and Prose in the Icelandic Sagas

Since Icelandic sagas and Morris's saga-inspired romances...