On to fantasy narrative poetry. This is heavily prejudiced towards the nineteenth century as far as examples go. That’s my area to be in love with.
1) If you have an oral culture, its poetry should not be free verse.
Know why? Because free verse is harder to memorize than poetry that has repeating patterns. Oral culture relies on memory. If your bards or druids or priests or whoever carries those traditions in their heads can’t rely on patterns, then it’ll be much harder to keep the words alive from one generation to the next.
Note that I said, “repeating patterns,” not necessarily “rhyme.” It is perfectly possible to have patterns other than rhyme, especially if you’re using a language other than English. Beowulf and poems like it used alliteration. Hebrew poetry used repetition of certain phrases, which is why the Bible, translated into English, uses a lot of them. Other poems may use repetition of certain words, certain sound effects other than alliteration, or syllable count to regulate the patterns. If you’re terrible with rhyme, you can find a why to work out poetry that still sounds good.
It’s also possible to cheat and present free verse as long as you’re presenting it as translation. Perhaps it rhymes in elven. The half-elven bard can give the best translation of it possible, and wind up shaking his head and commenting woefully that it sounds so much better in its native tongue. However, please reconsider making free verse the sole means of preserving important ideas. Things are much more likely to be changed or lost.
2) When writing long narrative poetry, choose forms that will comfortably carry your ideas.
I’m talking solely about English examples here, as I never read long narrative poetry in either Spanish or Latin, my only other two studied languages. I’m also giving opinions on just a few forms. There may be some that are more advantageous to individual authors, or which they can make work. Forgive me.
These are two rhyming lines, one following right after the other.
Love, that is first and last of all things made,
The light that has the living world for shade,
The spirit that for temporal veil has on
The souls of all men woven in unison,
One fiery raiment with all lives inwrought
And lights of sunny and starry deed and thought…
From Prelude to Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse.
The advantages, of course, are that it’s a relatively simple pattern to maintain and that you usually don’t have to think of more than one rhyme for a difficult word. (There’s nothing like ending a line triumphantly with “dancer” or “dragon” and then feeling your eyes widen as you realize you now have to come up with four more rhymes that match it. Never mind trying to rhyme “silver”). However, it can become very wearing. Swinburne’s poem is 4488 lines long (here’s the whole thing if you don’t believe me), and though it includes some triplets, it’s mostly couplets. A lot of people don’t finish the whole thing.
This is an adaptation from the Italian; the form runs in six lines with two alternating rhymes and then a final couplet, or like so, where the letters indicate end words that rhyme with each other:
a b a b a b c c.
Byron’s Don Juan is written in this form:
I WANT a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I ‘ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan-
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
Here’s the link to the whole thing.
This form is nice because it sets up natural limits; it’s very easy to separate Don Juan into cantos, for example, and provide some variation so it’s not as tiring as the couplet. However, it can be wearing to maintain, especially if the poet wants to follow not just the rhyme scheme but the iambic pentameter requirement.
This is called after Edmund Spenser, who wrote, you guessed it, The Faerie Queene in it. (Talk about the grandfather of fantasy epics…) Its rhyme scheme is ababbcbcC, and C signals that the last line has six feet, not five. Here’s an example:
Forth came that auncient Lord and aged Queene,
Arayd in antique robes downe to the ground,
And sad habiliments right well beseene;
A noble crew about them waited round
Of sage and sober Peres, all gravely gownd;
Whom farre before did march a goodly band
Of tall young men, all hable armes to sownd,
But now they laurell braunches bore in hand;
Glad signe of victorie and peace in all their land.
The advantages may not be as obvious as the disadvantages, so I’ll list them first. It does sound grand if you can master it, and, like the ottava rima form, it gives the story of the poem a more narrative-like feeling than couplets do. The disadvantages, of course, are that you better know the fuck out of your meter, and you better have some damn good sets of four rhymes each for the b line.
The whole Faerie Queene
And as a shorter example, Shelley’s Adonais, an elegy for Keats.
3) Some tips on shorter forms.
So perhaps your eyes are now crossing (I hope I haven’t scared you off completely…), and you don’t want to write a national fantasy epic anyway, you want to write simpler narrative poems. ‘Kay. How about the ballad? That rhymes a b a b, or a b c b, and you can play all sorts of tricks with it. For example, each last line could be a refrain, or even the second and fourth lines, staying the same from stanza to stanza. The refrain, whether it’s a simple line repetition or a nonsense chorus along the lines of “Hey nonny-nonny, a nonny-nonny-ho!” will help function as a memory placeholder, and could make the ballad a good choice if you have a person singing or chanting who’s not either a trained bard or literate.
Here’s one of Swinburne’s ballads that uses the same words to end each second and fourth line, “in the mill-water” and “for the king’s daughter.” The words before them vary, but those remain the same. And here’s another that uses the same rhymes for every second and fourth line in the poem, though the words themselves vary.
Other things to do with shorter forms:
- They may be more likely to concentrate on local legends than the great, world-spanning or national epics.
- They may contain the names of specific people that the poet knew when he first made them up, but on the other hand, they may be more generic. “The king’s daughter” can pass into local poetry long after the king’s daughter lived, and long after everyone has forgotten who she really was. (See point 4).
- They can contain jokes, puns, alliteration—especially if you’re using that scheme instead of rhyme—and other tricks. Dramatic poetry and lyric poetry don’t have the lock on those.
4) Poetry doesn’t have to be the same as history.
It really, really, really, really, really, really doesn’t. One reason I get so frustrated whenever fantasy narrative poetry does appear is that it almost always corresponds one-on-one to its world’s history. Sometimes that has an explanation; if the characters are hearing the poetry from its original maker, then of course he may have witnessed the events during his lifetime and then set them down in verse. But if hundreds of years have passed, and the poetry has gone through various translations or handing from mind to mind, why’s it still perfect?
People do, gasp shock horror, put things in poetry that are not entirely true. They twist things for the sake of a rhyme. They flatter their patrons and insult their enemies; go read Byron if you don’t believe me. (For some reason, there are a lot of fantasy authors who are aware of this with music and have their bard characters threaten to write unflattering songs about people who insult them, but their poets worship truth. Bah humbug). And though oral cultures can preserve their traditions remarkably from generation to generation, that doesn’t mean that after four thousand years, a group of non-immortals will be telling the legend the exact same way. Deliberate corruption doesn’t even have to enter into it. Time plays its own game of Telephone.
Consider letting your poetry be art as well as history, or art instead of history. And please, could someone throw this into prophecies and have them not be preserved perfectly?
5) Narrative poetry’s the perfect place to reach out to other stories that might not appear in your story themselves.
This is because a lot of people, among whom are fantasy readers, are conditioned to a) tolerate or even admire obscure allusions in poetry and b) think it’s going to be more difficult to read than prose. If they get really irritated, they’ll skip past it, and no harm done. If they do read it and are intrigued, then they won’t yell at you for not laying out all the mysteries of your world in the poem. They may be inspired to watch for clues, or do a little more digging.
Reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I enjoyed the narrative poetry, such as “The Fall of Gil-Galad” and Aragorn’s song of Beren and Lúthien, but treated it as an addition to the book, and forgot about the allusions when I became more engaged in the storyline. Reading those poems again after reading The Silmarillion, I saw a whole other level there. I now knew who Gil-Galad was, and exactly how much of the Beren and Lúthien story Aragorn’s little song skipped. (Say, 9/10). There’s a whole backstory to the novel that appears as a shadow, a deepening. The narrative poetry reaches out to it—if you know it’s there. There are plenty of people who don’t care for The Silmarillion or Tolkien’s poetry, but still read and enjoy the book. Narrative poetry like that’s the best kind of in-joke, one that enhances the pleasure of people who recognize it but doesn’t intrude on the others who are trying to read and enjoy. (I despise authors who bring the whole story to a crashing halt while inserting an in-joke, or make the resolution of the plot depend on something only a few will recognize).
Two things more: I’ve realized that while I love reading and writing prose fiction like blazes, and I admire music, it’s poetry that reaches in and tears the heart out of me, makes me weep, and makes me want to study it academically. Fantasy narrative poetry is, for me, the best kind, combining a good number of my obsessions as it does. So this rant is a lot more personal than the others.
And finally, poll on the next rants will be up soon!