Friday, April 24, 2015

They Sang Too

by Jean Roberta

At the risk of taking up more of my fair share of space on this topic, I have something to add about the cultures of the past.

Before the invention of television, and especially before motion pictures and radio, most people created their own entertainment. This meant that music was once ubiquitous in every culture I have ever heard of. Look up a book on “folk music,” and you will find work chanties that were used to maintain rhythm among teams of men performing repetitive motions. You will find ballads of various kinds: the kind that were passed down within families, and the “broadside” versions that were quickly composed when someone was executed in public. You will find lullabies and love songs and laments and jokes in verse.

There is a reason why remarks about "playing the lute" when that instrument was popular (see the illustration) often included a double-entendre. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Structured poetry and song lyrics are essentially the same thing, so musical cultures produced poetry on the page. Older novels nearly always include poems. (Does anyone remember that Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s famous horror novel, first published in 1818, includes verses by the author’s husband?) Sir Walter Scott, a novelist who was widely popular in the nineteenth century but rarely read any more, included poetry in his work. Reading his books as a teenager, I could imagine his characters singing.

My teenage years saw the rise of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, who had been known (if at all) as a medieval scholar before he was discovered in the 1960s as a fantasy writer. As one reviewer of the time pointed out, nearly all his characters (elves, dwarves, hobbits, magicians) sing, sometimes at length. (The orcs, who are evil to the core, seem to be the exception. Of course, they would be philistines with no rhythm.)

Several years ago, one of my students in a first-year university English class requested that we study the poem from Lord of the Rings that begins: “Earendil was a mariner/Who tarried in Arvernien.” The words almost sing on the page.

When each novel in the Lord of the Rings series was turned into a blockbuster movie, I was impressed. The plots, the characters, the cultures, the dialogue, even the terrain (filmed in New Zealand) all seemed faithful to the novels. But where was the music? It's there in the background, as in all Hollywood movies, but the characters don’t sing. Would their sagas have seemed too anachronistic in the current age? Were singers and musicians too hard to find?

As a reader of fiction written in the past, I am usually aware of the importance of song when I write historical stories. Alice in Wonderland (first published 1865) is largely a series of parodies by “Lewis Carroll” of poems by contemporaries, such as William Wordsworth. In my tribute story, “Becoming Alice,” Alice’s cat Dinah sings the following, a popular song in the fictional world of my story:

“When your bosom’s aflame/With desire beyond shame/To be fondled, embraced and hard-pressed,
When you’re mad as a goat/’Neath a starched petticoat,/And you wish to be wholly undressed,
Then you’re simply alive./You just need a good swive,/And to satisfy others as well.
No need to tut-tut./The whole world is in rut,/And you’d find no such pleasures in Hell.”*

In my ghost story, “Authentic” (set in a local historic building, the official residence of the first Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan and his wife in 1905), the First Lady of a newly-formed Canadian province hints at her past love affair with a girlhood friend when she sings a song of her own composition, accompanying herself on the piano. The modern-day historical consultant who sees and hears her thinks Diana is a tour guide wearing the evening gown that the real Diana wore for her full-length oil portrait. As it turns out, Diana is a ghost who is capable of exchanging emails.

For better or worse, I can’t quote Diana’s song here because I don’t have a copy of it at home. (The story appears in Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories from Lethe Press, 2008.)

For writers of historical fiction who feel that structured verse is either too hard to write or too cheesy to read, here is a scary fact: before the rise of the novel in the 1700s and before traveller’s tales of the 1600s, written narratives not only included poetry, they were poetry. Look up The Canterbury Tales (referred to in my last post), or a faithful version in modern English, and you will find that every story is told in rhymed couplets. Look for The Song of Roland (to learn about “courtly love”) and you will find verse after verse after verse. The same is true of Beowulf, a stirring hero story in Anglo-Saxon or Old English (spoken in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066). In my mother’s time, every university student who majored in English had to study Beowulf as a foundational work.

Does anyone plan to write a book-length historical erotic story in poetry? (Or even a story-length erotic poem?) That would be an interesting project.

*”Becoming Alice” can be found in my single-author collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe) and in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 13, ed. Maxim Jakubowski (Constable & Robinson).


  1. Wow, this is a cool mid-day addition. To your point about Lord of the Rings, I think it's telling that most of the trailer for The Hobbit movie was the characters singing the song about the Misty Mountains. I also think it was the best scene in that movie. They got a bit of a clue, I think!

    My heart quails at the thought of taking on the project you suggest, but I think it would be an awesome thing to read!

  2. I think there was a bit of singing/chanting in Elvish at Aragorn's crowning, too, and Pippin sang to the Steward of Gondor, and I'm pretty sure Pippin and Merry did a bit of song and dance at some other point, but yes, there should definitely have been more singing.

  3. Oh yes, the languages! It was very cool to hear Elvish and Dwarvish and even Orcish spoken aloud. You're right, Sacchi, now I remember that there was some singing in the Lord of the Rings movies, and Annabeth, you're right about The Hobbit.

    I probably wouldn't have missed most of the songs/poems in the books if everything else in the movies hadn't been so amazing - beyond the fantasies of most of us who read the books in the 1960s.

  4. Dinah's song sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan riff to me...! ("When you're lying awake/With a dismal headache/And repose is tabooed by anxiety/I conceive you may use/any language you choose/to indulge in without impropriety") (from memory, might not be strictly correct...)

    This is a great post script. I have stories that include poetry. (My tale "The Last Amanuensis", which will come out next month from Fireborn, is an example.) However, the notion of writing an entire book or story in verse is daunting.

    Given the general belief that poetry is "hard", who would read it?

  5. Another thought. My father has a fantastic verbal imagination. I grew up listening to his stories and the songs he wrote. In my family, we also read verse, very young. I wrote my first poem when I was seven or so. I recall in grade school a subject called "Recitation", in which several of the assignments involved memorizing and reciting poems.

    I still remember the poems I recited. (One, in fact, was "The Merlocks", by J.R.R. Tolkein.) And I suspect that this early and continuous exposure to meter and rhyme has contributed to my abilities as an author (such as they are).

  6. I'm sure your early exposure to meter and rhyme had a good effect on you, Lisabet. I think every fledgling writer should try her/his hand at a sonnet, a villanelle, or possibly a limerick, if only for practice. In my creative writing classes, I always assign a structured poem, and the discordant results from my current students are part of what inspired me to write this post. In most cases, they seem to have no sense of rhythm, and they don't know how they could acquire this gift. (I had a lot of exposure to Gilbert & Sullivan operettas on my parents' LP vinyl records when I was growing up, so I'm sure those lyrics influenced me.) What especially dismays me about my students' failed efforts to write structured poetry is that most of them are fairly good at fiction, non-fic (vehement editorials about current issues) and drama. And these are students who chose to take a writing class, usually because they've been writing as a hobby for years. Yet poetry eludes them. It seems fairly obvious that there is a culture gap between the young adults of the 21st century and most people in the past.

    1. My mother used to share memorized poems, too, though rather odd ones for modern tastes. When I was conferring with the minister of their church (and the one I grew up in, very New England Progressive) about her funeral, I told him of her love for WWI poet Rupert Brooke, but omitted her favorite Vachel Lindsay poem, "The Congo," which was intended as anti-slavery but sounds deeply racist. It was the rhythm she loved--quite a bit like modern rap songs, now I come to think of it.

      I was also brought up with Gilbert and Sullivan (I was in three Junior High School productions of the operettas) and my whole family sang in the church choir and various community musical productions.

    2. All this background probably helped contribute to your writing career, Sacchi. I clearly remember "The Congo" because it was a staple in Junior High School English classes in my time. I found it embarrassing, especially the chorus of "boomlay, boomlay, boomlay BOOM" to show that colored folks had rhythm, even though a white man wrote it. In the movie "Dead Poets Society," a group of teenage boys recite it with enthusiasm, to show that they are developing a love of literature. That scene made me cringe.

    3. We had to write a sonnet in our HS AP English class. I'm sure we had to write other forms of poetry but that I managed to write a sonnet is something I'm very proud of. Heck, anyone can write haiku or limericks.

  7. True enough, a novel-length piece (or even a story-length piece) in verse probably wouldn't be read. A work like that might become a surprise hit on a stage, like Ntozake Shange's "choreopoem," "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuff."

    In the 1990s, I belonged to a small drama group, LIFE (Little Improvs for Education) affiliated with the local AIDS org, that put on skits, often in high schools, to educate people about HIV, AIDS and related issues (safe sex, reckless behaviour, etc.) One member of our group was an Irish Catholic nun who loved to write rhymed verses about sex! She and I were the official writing team for the group, so we wrote line after line about protecting yourself, negotiating consent, etc., then we recited our lines in performance. It seemed clear to me that Sister Maisie's upbringing contributed to her skills. (I don't know where that material is now. The group disbanded years ago.) Hands-on exposure to music and poetry composition now largely seems to be a feature of Third-World culture (sometimes in First-World cities).

  8. I imagine in the LOTR movies music was minimized dut to time constraints. Hell, look at what happened to poor Tom Bombadil!


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