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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

The prosody of Taking the Hobbits

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/18/06 at 05:53 AM

This isn’t a post that’s going to make any sense unless you’ve seen, or until you see, this You Tube remix of a couple of lines of Lord of the Rings dialogue.  So go there and invest two minutes and nine seconds in that jolly little song before you read any further.

To be clear: I make no claims for this as a song on a par with, I don’t know, Day in the Life or How Soon is Now?.  On one level it is just annoying; though I’d wager you’d be hard put to deny that it’s extraordinarily catchy.  Watch it twice and you’ll have the refrain in your head all day.  Of the people with whom I’ve shared this link, some think it’s hilarious, others just strange.  But what I like about it is the way it isolates not only the power of a metrical ictus, or ‘stress’, in certain lines of verse to pack a punch, but also touches upon a sense of the longer traditions of Classical prosody by quantity, a much more difficult-to-get-one’s-head-around business.

Let me explain what I mean.  If you’ve watched the clip you don’t need me to tell you that the key line is:

They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard.

Now this phrase picks itself out and sticks in the mind is because it is so vehemently dactylic ([they’re] TAKing the / HOBbits to / ISE-en gard), especially in the emPHATically SHOUTy deLIVery that Orlando Bloom gives the line.  The remix aural cutting-and-pasting serves to emphasise the rhythm of these dactyls (‘[the] HOBbits the / HOBbits the / HOBbits the / HOBbits’).  Dactyls can certainly make verse move onwards with a rollocking, galloping urgency – perhaps the most famous Dactylic poem in the language is Robert Browning’s ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, which fits form closely to subject by reproducing metrically the chunter of the horseride it is describing.

In Taking the Hobbits the Europop electro-oompah-band version of the film’s orchestral theme captures precisely this kinetic and rather jolly motion.  Halfway through the song shifts to a trochaic line of verse, the splendidly and pompously inane ‘Tell me where is Gandalf, for I much desired to speak with him.’ (This, by the way, is a line that the LotR screenplay adapted straight from the novel: ‘Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land.  Now tell us where he is; for I much desired to speak with him again’ [‘The Mirror of Galadriel’, Fellowship p.374]).  It’s a phrase that has now become standard in our house, pretty much for any value of ‘x’ (TV remote, car keys, newspaper, the phone, Lily, Brian) in the sentence ‘tell me where is x? for I much desired to speak with it/him.’

Metrically it’s an interesting line.  It scans as two trochaic trimeters, interrupted by a caesura filled with the unstressed ‘for I’, the couplet ending on a falling feminine unstressed ‘him.’ My incompetence with the Valve font software means that I can’t write this out with little smiley-lines and long dashes above the syllables, as I’d like to, and must again fall back on CAPitalising the STRESSED SYLLables:

TELL me / WHERE is / GANdalf? [for I] MUCH de / SIRED to /SPEAK with [him]’

The mood does change here in the song; you can hear the music shift tempo.  In the first half of the song you can pick out the oompapa triple beats which, rapidly repeated, reinforce the dactylic thrust of the excerpted line (listen to the synth-drumbeat underneath the music).  In the ‘where is Gandalf?’ section the tempo becomes doubled rather than tripled, copying the trochees of the line.  And then it launches back into ‘they’re taking the hobbits to Isengard’ and the song rattles gaily to its end.

But this is the point I wanted to make.  ‘Taking the Hobbits’ makes beautifully plain one of the key divergences in prosody in Western literature.  Briefly we nowadays scan English version metrically, by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.  We are so habituated to this, and it sounds ‘natural’ to our ears, that it’s hard to really take in the fact that the Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t scan verse that way.  Classical prosody depends not upon the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, but by a pattern of long and short syllables.  In one of his essays Robert Graves distinguishes northern metrical verse from Mediterranean quantitative verse by suggesting that the former was composed to the beat of the blacksmith’s hammer, and the latter to the alternation of long and short oarstrokes of rowers.

Now I’ve read a fair bit of classical verse, and I know the prosodic drill: but I’ll confess that I’m still not entirely sure that it’s even possible for me to apprehend, say, Homer any way except metrically.  I try to imagine Greeks reciting those hexameters in an, even unstressed roll, and hearing the intricate patterning of long and short syllables; but I plain can’t do it myself.  I can identify the difference between the long ‘a’ and the short one (long in ‘car’ or ‘care’, short in ‘happy’); or the long ‘o’ (omega) and the short ‘o’ (omicron) in ‘own’ and ‘on’.  But that doesn’t mean that I can really hear the quantitative dactyls in the Homeric hexameter the way I can unmistakeably hear the metrical dactyls in the hexameter line ‘they’re taking the hobbits to Isengard! They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!’

But one thing that much repeated line definitely does, perhaps because it’s set to music, is make clear how important the length of syllables is to the overall rhythm even of English, metrical verse.  Because, as you listen to it, you notice that the single dactyl ‘Isengard’ takes exactly as long to deliver as the previous two dactyls ‘taking the hobbits to’.  You notice, moreover, that the distinctive roll of the line as a whole depends upon that balance between two short and one long metrical units – a sort of ‘anapestic’ overarching rhythm that nicely counterpoints the actually dactylic syllabic rhythm.

That’s all that I want to say about ‘Taking the Hobbits’ for now, I think.


It is, recognizably, amphibrach that is the meter of “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard”, not dactyl; but somehow amphibarch always gets short-changed one way or the other when they assign metrical labels to English verse. 

I think it’s because of the inherent flexibility of syllable counts in English poetry; in iambic verse you can count on some lines losing initial unstressed syllables pretty often, or gaining extra ones. So you end up calling almost everything a iamb, unless the author really really insists on their initial stresses, in which case it’ll be a trochee. Similarly with three-ictus meters, it’s easier to []-ify the first unstressed syllable and call it a dactyl, what with the fact it’ll often be absent, anyway. Am I wide off the mark here?

By Anatoly on 06/18/06 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d also point out that the ancient English didn’t scan verse with the same metrical schemes of syllable-count meter, and in fact, the chorus line of this piece could also could be seen as a line of Old English poetry (minus the alliteration):

they’re TAKing the HOBbits / to IsenGARD.

In terms of the rhythym, that’s a perfectly formed OE metric pattern, with an A-type line with anacrusis (extra unstressed syllable at the head) in the on-verse (the first half line) and a perfectly formed B-type line in the off-verse (the second half of the line).  And the fact that the ‘I’ in ‘Isengard’ is indeed a longer beat than the other beats in the line suits the OE verse structure, too, since the first stress in the off-verse was the key to the alliterative pattern and the keystone for the whole line—one or two of the stressed syllables in the on-verse has to alliterate with it, and it was often semantically significant, too, as here (they’re taking them where?  to Isengard).  Though here, clearly, there’s no alliteration.

I don’t know if this means anything (Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxonist, but does this line come from the book?) but it was fun to point out!

Footnote:  in OE meter, the off-beats between beats are somewhat variable in number, though within some defined limits.  So, for example, an A-type half-line could be [/ x / x] or it could be [/ x x / x x] or [x / x x / x] (as here) and so forth.

By Dr. Virago on 06/18/06 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anatoly: this is very interesting (or maybe it’s just me that finds it so interesting).  I take your point, but I wouldn’t say the line was amphibrachic.  My understanding, on which I’m very hapy to be corrected by somebody more expert than I, is that amphibrachs rarely make up a whole line of poetry, but are used to insert variety into lines otherwise predominently iambic, trochaic, anapestic or dactylic.  (Am I wrong?)

Amphibrachs are two brachs or short syllables on either side of (amphi) a long syllable.  Building a whole line out of that gives a rocking-horsy stopstart rhythm, for example in limericks:

There WAS a / young LADy / of CHESter

and so on ... certainly amphibrachic, but does it have the galloping movement of the Hobbits line?

You’re quite right, of course, that it’s possible to scan the line into amphibrachs, but I’d say it’s also possible to scan it into dactyls.  Indeed, consulting the Oxford Classical Dictionary, I discover a type of dactylic line I didn’t know about.  I quote: ‘the placing of a U, - or UU before the two types of hemiepes, as a spring off, produces U - U U - U U - U U or U - U U - U U - - sometimes called prosodaic or enoplion.’

It’s an artificial exercise, of course, because we’re only dealing with a single line; you need a number of lines to establish the pattern.  At a pinch I suppose I could present the whole text as the rather repetitive

They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard.
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
Gard gard gard gard
They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard
Gard gard ggard gard
The hobbits the hobbits the hobbits the hobbits
To Isengard to Isengard
The hobbits the hobbits the hobbits the hobbits
To Isengard to Isengard
The hobbits the hobbits the hobbits the hobbits
To Isengard to Isengard

The one line by itself might conceivably be considered amphibrachic; but I’d say that ‘to Isengard to Isengard’ isn’t.  (Mind you, I’d have to confess that ‘The hobbits the hobbits the hobbits the hobbits’ is much choppier and less fluent, which is to say more amphibrachic than dactylic).

By Adam Roberts on 06/18/06 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr Virago.  Your intervention is fascinating.  I know lamentably little about OE scansion; which is to say, I must learn more.  Is there a standard book?  (I don’t mean on the poetry, but specifically on the metrics of it?) Was Manley Hopkins off the mark with his supposedly Anglo-Saxon-inspired ‘sprung rhythm’, I wonder?

“Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxonist, but does this line come from the book?”
This line doesn’t come from the book, as it happens.  Indeed, although some of the Rohan chapters include Anglo-Saxon-esque verse inserts and some egregious alliteration, the idiom of the book is largely English Victorian at the start, and King James Bible in the middle and towards the end.  As a versifier JRRT owes a fair bit to Swinburne, actually; which justifies my prosodic interest at second-hand, for Swinburne knew intimately the rubrics of classical and modern scansion, and experimented widely with combining metrical and quantitative rhythms together.

Lord of the Rings.  Ach, and for all its faults, I love that book.

By Adam Roberts on 06/18/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve really enjoyed this typically off-the-wall entry into prosody.

Unfortunately, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on poetic metre, so I’ll leave the commentary to you, ladies and gentlemen; but I can’t help feeling that Adam is onto something here.

The problem is, something in my bones tells me that the dactyl is central to the Lord of the Rings. It gnaws away at me. I just can’t put my… ah well. You know.

Sorry. Just my attempt at an academic joke.

By on 06/20/06 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Griffin, over there in Gower Street.  A more properly dactylic sentiment, of course, would be: ’the dactyl is key to the Lord of the Rings‘.  Now all we need do is set it to a europop synthdrum and we’ve a hit on our hands.

By Adam Roberts on 06/21/06 at 04:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I don’t know if you’re following up on these comments, but in case you are, I should first say that my knowledge of OE verse structure is rudimentary—I usually work with Middle English texts, but I teach OE, so I know enough to do that.  For a very basic introduction, any intro to Old English textbook will usually give you a run-down on the verse forms.  As it happens, Baker’s Introduction to Old English is entirely on-line here and gives a good introduction to verse in Chapter 13.

Off the top of my head, I don’t know the specialist literature in OE verse. I should—I could tell you who to go to for ME, at least—but Baker’s book, again, will probably give you the standard bibliography.

By Dr. Virago on 06/21/06 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr Virago ... thanks very much; that link looks extremely interesting.

By Adam Roberts on 06/21/06 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or, a finger is key to the Lord of the Rings?

By on 06/21/06 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The dactylic finger upon which young Frodo
displays the bad ring, Tolkien’s magical widget? there’s
something in that, yes, that’s worth a quomodo,
something let’s say that the hobbity digit shares
maybe with metrical textual meaning, or
maybe it’s symbols and some indeterminate
process of Derrida-Foucault-style reading. But
now’s not the time. I’d sooner Exterminate
Rational Thought (and I’d do it full hatingly),
rather than drone on thus, excruciatingly
spooling out dactyls so faux-hesitatingly.
This line will therefore end all-terminatingly.

Enough!  Or too much.

By Adam Roberts on 06/21/06 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By Isabel on 06/29/06 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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