Lazette Gifford
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When Goblins Sing:
Poetry in Prose

By Jessica Corra Tudor
2006,
Jessica Corra Tudor


I recently took my first dip into the wellspring of fantasy's greatest. Yes, I read The Hobbit. The foray was an enjoyable one, but distressing at times. Those times were particular sections where goblins began singing. Now, I am not here to argue that goblins don't sing, but I am a little surprised at Tolkien for what they sing. Let us consider.

Imagine an evil, vile creature that lives in the darkness. This is a goblin. Imagine it singing. While you reconcile that idea, I will move on. If the goblins sang things like "We hate you all and the world will burn, fear our wrath and meet our scorn," well, I might not have a problem. But, no. They have such memorable lines as "funny birds that have no wings, oh, what shall we do with the funny little things?" Now imagine an evil, vile creature. Hard to do? For me it is, anyway (although the few lines he gives them about scorching and burning were more my style).

Tolkien, what have you done to us? Poetry is a wonderful medium. Poetry within books is a wonderful tool. But the purpose of it is not to display your command of meter or rhyme. Poetry, like everything else in the novel, should have a purpose for being there: either to advance the plot or to enhance our understanding of the characters. Musical theatre uses song at emotional peaks to effectively do the latter. Books can too, but only when the songs or poems are used appropriately. This is my beef with The Hobbit.

So, poetry should either advance the plot or enhance the character's depth, unless you're Edgar Allen Poe and just care about sounds. But I digress. How can one accomplish either of those two purposes? Is it even possible to combine mediums? Yes, and here's how.

So as not to scare you, let's think about just poetry for a minute. What is important to poetry?

Every word counts. In a poem, each word has a meaning, a connotation, and a context. All three of these things must work together to convey the poet's exact intent. Mixing and matching those three things is what gives depth and breadth to a short poem or one that makes use of repetition.

Poetry is not just from the heart. There is a school of thought that says a poet can write whatever she wants as long as it means something to her. I say that's only true if the poet is the only person who will ever read the words. Basically, in writing a poem, theme and audience are imperative to consider, because different people bring different things to the poem in their interpretations and readings.

And yes, rhythm and meter are the essentials of poetry, and, most people would say, what define a poem as "not prose." What you do with these facets and how well you do them can make or break your poem, but they alone do not make it worthy of the label "good," or even of being in prose. All of these things combined, however, can and sometimes will do that.

Now, let's think about just novels for a minute. What is important to a novel?

Every scene counts. Do not write an in-depth scene about that innkeeper in the tavern if your party leaves the town and he's never seen again. Do write that in-depth scene between the innkeeper and your main character to show how your character handles the problem said innkeeper presents him with.

Novels are not just from the mind. You can have a great idea but how effectively you convey it is the real issue -- is this another way for saying consider the audience and theme? You bet. A writer can be a veritable genius, but unless he writes in a way that people will understand, no one cares how smart he is. Similarly, don't just write to use fifty-cent words. Make your story say something.

Pacing and perspective and/or voice are the essentials of a novel. They make the difference between a good story and a bad story. One story might be boring if the writer tries to make it a third-person short story, but wonderful as a first-person novella.

The similarities between poetry and prose are the very reason that poetry is suited for use within a novel: they are different mediums that seek to accomplish basically the same end. If you can write scenes that advance the plot or enhance character depth, chances are you can write poems that do so, too. But instead of thinking about a poem from the poet's mindset, consider: whose character am I enhancing? How? Why put this poem here?

The motivation that answers that last question should result from a conscious decision. Often you may think, 'because it looks or sounds good.' That is not a good enough reason. Unless you can answer it with, 'This ballad shows us exactly why Ingrid feels this way about her boyfriend because it mirrors what happened between them,' or, 'If the reader doesn't know the words to the song Johnny does at karaoke, they'll never know why he gets beat up in the parking lot,' then your reason is probably not good enough.

Remember, though, to keep it in perspective. There's no need to go overboard; poetry, like anything luxurious, is best enjoyed in moderation, particularly when placed within prose. Otherwise, you may as well just write a long poem instead of a novel.

So, yes, goblins can sing. And maybe by having them sing what they do, Tolkien is trying to show us that they are not really that vile and disgusting, or that they know how to carry a tune. Or perhaps he's just trying to show us that there is a place for poetry in the novel after all. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin:  ISBN 0-618-00221-9.