Tolkien-Related Stress II: Scanning the Oath of Fëanor 

I have just taken a stab at scanning Tolkien’s famous Ring Verse:

https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2023/01/17/tolkien-related-stress-scanning-the-ring-verse/

I noted that the problem with the Verse is that it is too loose in its accentual nature: it is sometimes unclear where the four stresses are supposed to fall on a given line. I also noted that if Tolkien had chosen a more strict form of Anglo-Saxon verse, these problems would have been resolved.

To illustrate this, let us consider an example where Tolkien does adhere to a stricter form of alliterative poetry. Often only two of the stressed syllables alliterate, rather than three… but no-one ought to be in any doubt where the stresses fall on a given line. And unlike the Ring Verse, there is none of that end-rhyming business, something introduced to English via the Norman Conquest.

The ‘stricter’ example I have in mind is the Oath of Fëanor – or at least the English-language representation thereof.

https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Oath_of_F%C3%ABanor#The_Oath

Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean,
brood of Morgoth or bright Vala,
Elda or Maia or Aftercomer,
Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth,
neither law, nor love, nor league of swords,
dread nor danger, not Doom itself,
shall defend him from Fëanor, and Fëanor's kin,
whoso hideth or hoardeth, or in hand taketh,
finding keepeth or afar casteth
a Silmaril. This swear we all:
death we will deal him ere Day's ending,
woe unto world's end! Our word hear thou,
Eru Allfather! To the everlasting
Darkness doom us if our deed faileth.
On the holy mountain hear in witness
and our vow remember, Manwë and Varda!

Now spot the stressed syllables (in bold):

Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean,
brood of Morgoth or bright Vala,
Elda or Maia or Aftercomer,
Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth,
neither law, nor love, nor league of swords,
dread nor danger, not Doom itself,
shall defend him fromanor, and anor's kin,
whoso hideth or hoardeth, or in hand taketh,
finding keepeth or afar casteth
a Silmaril. This swear we all:
death we will deal him ere Day's ending,
woe unto world's end! Our word hear thou,
Eru Allfather! To the everlasting
Darkness doom us if our deed faileth.
On the holy mountain hear in witness
and our vow remember, Manwë and Varda!

Four stresses per line, at least two of which alliterate. Nice and neat and tidy. Say what you like about Fëanor, but he does things properly, so far as getting his verse right.

As clarification:

  • The cornerstone of alliteration in this form is the third stressed syllable. It must alliterate with at least one (ideally both) of the previous stressed syllables on the line. If you have the fourth stressed syllable alliterating too, that’s considered overkill, and was historically frowned upon. Note that Tolkien avoids this trap – the third and fourth stresses never alliterate.
  • The importance of the third stressed syllable actually helps clarify some ambiguities. The line “finding keepeth or afar casteth” repeats both f-sounds and k-sounds. But it’s the f-sound that governs the line here, since the third stressed syllable of the line is -far. Similarly, on the last line, we have repeats of v and m. But the m-sound rules because the third stressed syllable is Man-.
  • All vowels alliterate with each other under this system. Hence Eru Allfather being alliterative.
  • This verse uses enjambment – where sentences can continue across multiple lines. This is actually one of the distinguishing features between Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse verse. Anglo-Saxon verse uses enjambment, Old Norse doesn’t.
  • No kennings. Tolkien does not use them (understandably), but even in his sources they are rarer in Anglo-Saxon than Old Norse.

As luck would have it, we also have an earlier form of the Oath, also in alliterative form:

Be he friend or foe   or foul offspring
of Morgoth Bauglir,   be he mortal dark
that in after days   on earth shall dwell,
shall no law nor love   nor league of Gods,
no might nor mercy,   not moveless fate,
defend him for ever   from the fierce vengeance
of the sons of anor,   whoso seize or steal
of finding keep   the fair enchanted
globes of crystal    whose glory dies not,
the Silmarils.   We have sworn for ever!

Here Tolkien goes so far as to provide us with formal caesura-breaks. Note that the line “of the sons… whoso seize or steal” does not actually break the rule about the third and fourth syllables not alliterating. Under this system, s-sounds and st-sounds are distinct (as are sk and sp), and do not alliterate with each other. We are thus seeing quite a strict form here!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: