Tolkien-Related Stress: Scanning the Ring Verse
You know it as well as I, the famous Ring Verse from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien:
Three Rings for the Elven Kings under the sky Seven for the Dwarf Lords in their halls of stone Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie. One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
Today I thought I would take another stab at trying to scan the blasted thing. This is actually a deceptively tricksy task. You see, outside lines six and seven, which are nice and regular and iambic (and are a translated representation of Sauron’s original “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul”), we are dealing with some form of accentual verse – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accentual_verse – whereby Tolkien puts four stressed syllables on a line, and rhymes the end of the lines. The overall rhyme scheme of the verse is A-B-A-B-A-C-C-A, of course, but the question is: where, exactly, do these stresses fall?
This would not be a problem if Tolkien were running with strict Anglo-Saxon verse: we’d have alliteration to show us the way. Here, we have a looser form of such verse, where we have neither alliteration nor clear caesura-breaks on most lines. And that gets bothersome, because there are multiple different possibilities for the four stressed syllables.
Let’s take these lines individually:
(1) Three Rings for the Elven Kings under the sky (11 syllables total)
Now, it is tempting to shoe-horn some form of regular trochaic interpretation here (THREE rings FOR the ELVen KINGS unDER the SKY), but I reject that on two grounds: based off the One Ring lines, stress really ought to fall on ‘rings’ here, while it also mangles the emphasis of ‘under’.
My interpretation is instead:
Three RINGS for the ELVen Kings UNder the SKY
It feels a tad odd to emphasize ‘under’ over ‘kings’, but I think ‘kings’ can be seen as still coming off ‘Elv'(en). On the other hand, this interpretation actually makes the line anapestic-heavy (da-DUM-da-da-DUM-da-da-DUM-da-da-DUM), and it doesn’t actually feel anapestic. The other option is that the stress falls on ‘kings’ and not ‘under’, but that puts three unstressed syllables between stress three and stress four. Sure, this is accentual verse – it doesn’t matter how many unstressed syllables you stuff onto the line – but I prefer to avoid that sort of gap unless necessary*.
(2) Seven for the Dwarf Lords in their halls of stone (11 syllables total)
Here a trochaic interpretation becomes more viable (SEVen FOR the DWARF lords IN their HALLs of STONE). But as noted before, I do not think we are dealing with regular metrical feet here. This is accentual verse.
SEVen for the DWARF lords in their HALLS of STONE
This creates a three syllable gulf between stresses one and two, and then another between two and three… but I think it’s the best bet regardless. The alternative would be stressing ‘lords’ and removing ‘stone’ as a stress. But I think Tolkien intends us to take the end-rhyming words as stresses, so that feels wrong. ‘In’ might reasonably be stressed if there were more than four stresses total on the line, but I do not think there is.
(3) Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die (8 syllables total)
This one does not invite a trochaic interpretation at all (NINE for MORtal MEN doomED to DIE only works if you force doomed into two syllables and against all reason put the stress on the second syllable. Tolkien clearly does not intend that here).
NINE for MORtal men DOOMED to DIE
The irritating thing here is that ‘Mor'(tal), ‘Men’, and ‘Doomed’ are each candidates for stresses, and only two of the three are allowed to be. I prefer to stress ‘Mor’ over ‘Men’ on the basis that ‘Elv'(en), ‘Dwarf,’ and ‘Dark’ are clear intended stresses in their respective lines – we are seeing the adjectives stressed over nouns. ‘Doomed’ flows onto its alliterative partner ‘Die’ so well that I feel the need to stress it, though I can’t see anything wrong with NINE for MORtal MEN doomed to DIE as an alternative.
(4) One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne (9 syllables)
This one just kills any trochaic interpretations stone-dead. No need to even consider ONE for THE dark LORD on HIS dark THRONE. Better is the iambic One FOR the DARK lord ON his DARK throne, but that takes the stress off the end-rhyme.
ONE for the DARK lord ON his dark THRONE
Stressing ‘his’, rather than ‘on’ might be viable, but I think feels forced in context. ONE for the DARK lord on his DARK THRONE is viable too, I think, but since Dark Lord is not getting treated as a spondee (DUM-DUM), I don’t think Dark Throne should either.
(5) In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie (11 syllables)
This is actually an excellent candidate for trochaic interpretation (IN the LAND of MORdor WHERE the SHADows LIE), but as ever I do not think the verse invites that.
In the LAND of MORdor where the SHADows LIE
Arguably, this is the easiest line to scan thus far. All four stresses are clear-cut, and while a case can be made for replacing ‘lie’ with ‘where,’ the end-rhyme principle overrules that.
(6) One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them (11 syllables)
Here we depart from the accentual verse to insert a verse-quotation – a translated version of Sauron’s infamous words. Thus we are not dealing with four stresses on this line, but rather five:
One RING to RULE them ALL, One RING to FIND them.
It’s regular iambic trimeter, followed by a caesura-break, followed by iambic dimeter (with a stray unstressed ‘them’ inserted at the end). Nice and straight-forward.
(7) One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them (13 syllables)
A continuation of the Sauron quotation. Which means we are still dealing with regular iambic verse, and not accentual verse.
One RING to BRING them ALL, and IN the DARKness BIND them.
Iambic trimeter, caesura-break, iambic trimeter. Again, forget about the final ‘them’, it is ‘find’ and ‘bind’ that is the relevant stress and rhyme.
(8) In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie (11 syllables)
A repeat of line five.
Such is my best attempt to make sense of the Ring Verse. As noted, I think there is some frustrating ambiguity about where exactly those blasted stresses fall.
There are, however, a couple of further points to make.
Firstly, this is far from the only example of Tolkien engaging in such loose, non-alliterative accentual verse. The famous song battle between Finrod Felagund and Sauron is actually covered in this variety of verse – albeit with a different rhyme scheme:
He chanted a song of wizardry, Of piercing, opening, of treachery, Revealing, uncovering, betraying. Then sudden Felagund there swaying Sang in answer a song of staying, Resisting, battling against power, Of secrets kept, strength like a tower, And trust unbroken, freedom, escape; Of changing and of shifting shape Of snares eluded, broken traps, The prison opening, the chain that snaps. Backwards and forwards swayed their song. Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong The chanting swelled, Felagund fought, And all the magic and might he brought Of Elvenesse into his words. Softly in the gloom they heard the birds Singing afar in Nargothrond, The sighing of the Sea beyond, Beyond the western world, on sand, On sand of pearls in Elvenland. Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing In Valinor, the red blood flowing Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew The Foamriders, and stealing drew Their white ships with their white sails From lamplit havens. The wind wails, The wolf howls. The ravens flee. The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea. The captives sad in Angband mourn. Thunder rumbles, the fires burn —- And Finrod fell before the throne.
Note the four stresses per line, regardless of how many syllables there are total.
The other point is that the Ring Verse is eight lines total. Now, this would normally be unremarkable were it not for the fact that a distinctive form of Old Norse alliterative poetry (dróttkvætt) is also eight lines: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliterative_verse#Dr%C3%B3ttkv%C3%A6tt
The Ring Verse is not actually in dróttkvætt form, of course, but given Tolkien’s love for all things Old Norse, it is at least worth pointing out. We even get a couple of examples – accidental or otherwise – of dróttkvætt-style internal rhyming on some of the lines. Rings/Kings is a full-rhyme, Nine/Men is a half-rhyme, One/Throne is another half-rhyme (and Dwarf/Lords is just plain old assonance)… but they don’t align with the stressed syllables, so it might well just be an accident.
To round off, here is a YouTube recording of the Ring Verse, as recited by Tolkien himself:
*Listening to Tolkien, that first line might well be
Three RINGS for the ELVen KINGS under the SKY.