J R R Tolkien – one of my favourite authors of all time – once explained that all great fantasy needed to begin with epic poetry.
Large parts of his mythos began as epic poems; and in this he was influenced by Beowulf, which he knew well – he later published his own translation from the original Anglo Saxon. And of course he was also well aware of Milton’s Paradise Lost, among other works.
Narrative poetry was a mainstay of the story-telling genre. But that faded in the face of the novel, which came to prominence in the late eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century, certainly, epic poetry as a means of story-telling to the masses was essentially dead.
Even Tolkien didn’t publish in that form at first – he certainly wrote early parts of his Middle Earth mythos that way, such as the Lay of Luthien, but the elements he ended up publishing were standard prose. Later he wrote, but never finished, an epic account of King Arthur – published, as it happens, earlier this year.
I think he was right about epic poetry. Here’s why.
Epic poetry – like all poetry – embodies the essence of the emotional journey along which all writers must take their readers. (All? ALL). Poetic mechanisms – metaphor, simile, alliteration, the rhythm which must emerge even in blank verse – lifting the writing away from the literal and into the conceptual. We focus not on the plod of words, but on the underlying concepts they convey.
Prose also does this. But poetry has a particular angle. It is good at transferring the emotion you feel as writer into the written word and from there into the mind of the reader.
From Tolkien’s perspective, poetry was also able to effectively convey the emotions of ‘epic’ – the soaring scale, the larger-than-life characters, the raw power of a story founded in the vaulting leaps of his imagination, a world that existed in his mind. But one he wanted to explore, express and share in all the colour, depth and power he could see himself.
In a practical sense, epic poetry is also a good exercise for writers; it demands a very different writing style and thought process from the usual one. And that’s important too. It is too easy to get into the habit of a particular style; to stay sharp, writers need to jog themselves into a different mode every so often. And epic poetry, it seems to me, is a very good way of doing it.
What’s your take on this one?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
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