Poetry in Fantasy

So, this is a divisive thing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about random poetical interludes in fantasy writings. The use in fantasy is no surprise, really. Much early fiction we know about was poetical. That’s how you got your story remembered. The metre helped your verse steep in a performer’s brain, back when people hadn’t moved to see that writing could be used for fiction as well as accounting. And even when fiction became a genre divorced from both the performative and poetical aspect, if one wrote epic, one could not help but think of Homer, Virgil, and (later) Milton. Not to mention the folk music in which the fantastical continued to breathe in the shared consciousness to preserve aspects of celtic culture, and other magical tales: fairies, druids, dragons and other lore*. (See, for example, the Ballad of Tam Lin, which inspired Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.)

Verse is embedded in fantasy.

However, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write poetry for toffee. And neither can many much more successful fantasy authors. I have no fixed opinion on Tolkien’s verse, but at least half the people I know who call themselves fans readily confess to skipping the ‘song bits’. (I can’t bring myself to skip any of it, personally, but I can’t deny it wasn’t the main draw on the books.) I’ve heard the same about Watership Down, but I have to say, on rereading, I found the rabbit epics both captivating and spine-chilling. (But then, that is a book very carefully and subtly tied to the Homeric root.)

In the average fantasy, though, what is your opinion? Love? Hate? One can’t blame an author if they aren’t a natural poet, but then, why try if you know you suck? And yet…

And yet some poems of fantasy and SF poetry genuinely catch me. Take but one piece from Anne McCaffrey’s song-rich Pern books:

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.

I know this rhythm is yanked from some famous poem, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is**. I just know that if I start out intoning the original I usually end up wanting to finish with the one from Pern. And that’s OK – every poet is a thief. Churchill stole rhythms from classic literature to create some of the most powerful and iconic speeches in history, and I think that’s a good thing.

Or take John Brunner. I remain in profound awe of his achievement in Stand on Zanzibar, not least the folk poems and dirty limericks that add colour to the ‘Tracking with Close-ups’. Oddly, on a random flipping through of this rather lengthy book I only found the dirty ones about the woman who attacked the super-computer, go figure (e.g. one of 5 poems given in ‘Tracking with Close-ups’ 17):

The case of Teresa’s instructive-
It shows how extremely seductive
A shiggy can be
If her an-atom-ee
Is first rendered super-conductive

I also find Pamela Belle’s sparsely but powerfully used poetry profoundly moving. Take this, describing Sar D’yenyi, and giving us a first, personal glimpse into Ansaryon’s heart, as he quotes it:

Though skies may fall, and put an end to dawning:
Though seas run dry, and fiery mountains roar:
I once saw Sar D’yenyi in the morning,
And my heart is filled with joy for ever more.


Some fantasy poetry sucks bottom, I think most people would agree to that, but some of it is profoundly beautiful, moving, and effective. Do you have a favourite bit? Is there some fragment of made-up epic you want to hear the rest of? These are just some of my favourite SF&F fragments, what are yours?

*Of necessity I realise I’m giving a woefully brief and hopelessly anglocentric account.

** I remembered. Try this on for size:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes…

Oh, wait now, I’ve done it again…

7 thoughts on “Poetry in Fantasy

  1. Very interesting topic.

    I think Tolkien’s poems/songs were great. I have a hard time coming up with anything else that has really struck me, even though I know there are several times I’ve wished I could read the whole poem/song.
    I think the intros to the chapters in Steven Erikson’s Malazan books are good (,so far – I just finished book two,) and some of them are pieces of songs/poems.

    In my experience most of the other poetry, at least in fantasy, are badly done. And, in my opinion, seem to be thrown in just because Tolkien did it.

    I did read the Norwegian translation of the science fiction epic poem “Aniara” by Swedish author Harry Martinson, and I actually liked that despite not being a fan of poetry generally.

    • I wonder if people dislike the Tolkien poems because they mark a break with narrative – especially early on in LotR, where the pace is very slow. I don’t mind them, personally, but it’s been a long time since I read them!

      I think there’s some truth to the thought that poetry just gets thrown in because Tolkien did it. On the otherhand (and, granted, this is SF, rather than F) Brunner and other SF writers have used poetry to great effect, at times. When you’re writing something as textually (and inter-textually) rich as Stand on Zanzibar, drawing on made-up works to colour your world is a real bonus. One thing I found really limiting in writing my mixed format novel (which drew heavily on Brunner’s style), Cyborgs and Androids, was that although I wanted to use a lot of poetry to provide context and commentary on the action, I was uncomfortably aware that I couldn’t write poems for the time in which the novel was set, in the way that Brunner does. Fake news articles? Yes. Fake academic texts on cognitive science? Yes. Fake poetry. No.

      I like a lot of poetry, but am wary of trying SF&F poems. But I’m not sure why. If I enjoy the Ballad of Tam Lin, or the Iliad, why shouldn’t I like a modern poem in that vein?

  2. when I was younger, I had a real issue with poetry squished into fiction. I didn’t like it, and I was very stubborn about it. there was always something about the meter versus prose that was so jarring for me

    these days I’m a little better about it, or perhaps I’m just running into better examples of it. In one of Tim Powers’ books, the villain can only speak in iambic pentameter, yet it written in prose, and only after you start wondering what’s up with the meter do you find out the guy is cursed. Also, recently in Patrick Rothfuss’s recent Wise Man’s Fear, there is some meter written as prose (which you just have to read out loud!!), and a few “song” parts that work too.

    • I haven’t read any Tim Powers – which book is that? It sounds like an interesting curse!

      I like a lot of mixed genres and playing with style, but sometimes being a novelist just isn’t the same thing as being a poet, and the result is forced, trite, and pretentious. It’s possible that, as Weirdmage suggests, some authors just feel that they *ought* to do it, even if they’re not very good at it, but others I have the impression they really think they’re a lot better than they actually are, and then it just jars. As I say above, it’s a thing that concerns me with my own writing. Sometimes I’ve tried it and it’s gone badly. Sometimes I feel the piece needs it, but I *think* I’d rather feel the lack of it than do a poor job.

  3. I have a problem with Tolkien’s *songs* because what he’s trying to do is replicate the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics in short-form – and, frankly, you can’t. Not even Tolkien can.

    But his poetry is another thing altogether. His grasp of language, and the way it works, is strong enough that he can match words to rhythm perfectly. Just look at the One Ring poem – or my particular favourite – Aragorn’s:

    All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those who wander are lost.
    The old that is strong does not wither,
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    A light from the shadows shall spring;
    Renewed shall be sword that was broken,
    The crownless again shall be king.

    It works both on a lingustic and a narrative level: it adds grace and mystery to a slightly scruffy, potentially (at that point) threatening character, and it gives an epic legitimacy to his story.

    Plus, it’s awesome 😉

    I’m fairly sure there’s an earlier version somewhere in another of his books, or in a biography of his. It’s not *quite* as awesome, which just goes to show that even Tolkien needed to take a couple of passes at some things.

    That word, though: epic. That’s probably the crux of a lot of the poetry in fantasy, right there: we’re culturally hard-wired to associate epic with poems. If you include poetry somewhere, perhaps it’s a way of saying you aspire to the same scope?

    • That’s a very good distinction to make with Tolkein, and I hadn’t! Despite thinking that the One Ring poem is AWESOMEBEYONDAWESOME, and also liking the other poem you mention, I was only thinking about the songs. They are of course, different.

      I find it interesting that both of those are prophecies, as well as poems. I wonder if it makes a difference? C. S. Lewis is pretty good for prophecy, too:

      Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
      At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
      When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
      And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again

      I get chills just rereading it. I wonder if that’s just the writer’s superior skill at that form of verse, or if it’s also tapping into something about what fits with the flow of the story – probably both.

      You’re probably right about trying to bring in epic, but then failing because of being forced into a short form. Possibly what works better in Watership Down, for me, is that we hear parts of the rabbits’ favourite tales of El-ahrairah, which serve both as fok tales, and possibly fragments of a larger work in an oral tradition. It works perfectly for a society that has no writing, and, of course, is incredibly appropriate for a story that draws to heavily on the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. Rereading that book after listening to a number of lecture series on Homer and Virgil made it a complete joy. I guess it’s a skill of working with your story, and your story’s style, rather than against it, as well as having a personal skill at the chosen verse form.

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