A few thoughts on poetry in fantasy.

It’s mu turn and I really wanted it to be a review. But I couldn’t, yet again, finish my review of “Fatale” graphic novel series, and I’ve found something I want to share. So today’s post goes into the “wyszperane” (“found in the net”) category. My source is, as usuall, /r/Fantasy, where Mark Lawrence’s “When the language flexes its muscles” was recommended (with entry entitled “Get your stinkin’ poetry out of my fantasy book!” 😉 ). The initial purpose of this category of posts was not to write big texts, but rather link interesting and thought-provoking essays, add a short commentary and maybe initiate discussion in the „comment” section.

First – I generally agree with the author. Two important quotes:

„A lot of people say they hate poetry. That’s fair enough – the school system bears a considerable responsibility for that.” – amen to that, it almost killed my interest in poetry.


„Poetry is a distillation, the highest concentration of linguistic content, and like all strong flavours it won’t be for everyone at every stage in their life.”

I’ve read and enjoyed my share of simple, action-oriented novels, where language was almost reduced to its utilitarian function. But literature is more than a description of a sequence of events and the beauty of a fantasy/sf masterwork is in its language as well as its plot or characters.

But what about actual poems in fantasy? Lawrence is less enthusiastic, rightly noting, that most of the time they’re bad. Well, a good novelist is not necessarily a good poet. I’m a fan of some of Herman Hesse’s novels, but don’t think much of his poetry. And, within genre, even Tolkien has his better and worse moments. But, first, the better moments are excellent, second, poem put inside a novel shouldn’t, in my opinion, be judged by the same standards as independent poetry. Why? It’s a part of a bigger piece. If a bard’s song – not all bards are masters, their songs are meant to be enjoyable. If a riddle by an oracle, it’s purpose is to provide protagonists with some obscure hints. Not change the way we see the world. Such poems enrich the novel even if they’re not great by themselves. Unless they suck too much.

There isn’t much good I’m willing to say about the Wheel of Time, but there are some nice songs there, available in audio. Nothing great, but they work as popular song from a fantasy world. They make us understand the culture and people of the setting better.

Poems_by_J.R.R._Tolkien_-_SlipcaseOf course, it’s best for them to be both good in themselves and as a part of the whole novel. Like “The Road Goes Ever On” or, toutes proportions gardées, some of the poems from the “Malazan Book of the Fallen”, also available in audio and better than the ones from the WoT. Or in case of Ursula Le Guin, who precedes the first Earthsea novel with a short epigraph:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky

– The Creation of Ea

Would a lack of these verses make “A Wizard of Earthsea” a bad book? Certainly not. Does it make it better? Definitely.

On the other hand, I hate the Sorting Hat’s songs from HP and usually skip them in every fanfic I read (and sometimes give up the fanfic just for having a particularly pathetic version). Maybe that’s because I was too old when I’ve read Rowling for the first time…

Or, sometimes, we have someone like Tim Powers, whose excellent “Anubis Gates” or “The Stress of Her Regard” seem to be born out of his love of romanticism and its great poets. Byron, Shelley and others are present as characters and widely quoted and their quotes form an integral part of the story. You could read his books as action-packed thrillers, but omitting poems deprives you of these novels’ hidden depths.

Ok, long enough for a short post, let me just quote something that always comes to my mind when I read about an orc invasion about to descend on a peaceful village:

An immense coldness from the Longobards
Their shadow sears the grass when they flock into the valley
Shouting their protracted nothing nothing nothing.“

(Zbigniew Herbert)

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