Thursday, May 08, 2008

How the Dwarves of Yore Rang My Bell By Keith Badowski

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Poetry Society newsletter, December 2007.

I suppose every poet can point to a few formative experiences with poetic works that inspired attentiveness to poetry and stirred up the desire to make more poetry. In my case, the earliest poem imprinted on my consciousness was J.R.R. Tolkien’s song/ballad that begins “Far over the Misty Mountains cold” from The Hobbit.

The primary means of transmission was the animated version of The Hobbit which aired on television in 1977—when I was nine years old. In heavy rotation on my turntable was the vinyl record album of the soundtrack, and to this day, I can still hear the dwarves singing their history for Bilbo Baggins:

Far over the Misty Mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away, ere break of day,
To seek our pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells,
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

I’m sure, at the time, I thought of this poem mainly as a song, one I could sing along with as I memorized the entire soundtrack through repeated listening. The other thing that the animated show inspired in me back then was an interest in writing and reading. As I realized that The Hobbit was based on Tolkien’s book, I wanted to read it and Tolkien’s other books—The Lord of the Rings series. Also I began to have the desire to make books, after Tolkien’s model. My earliest writing attempts were fantasy stories, featuring far off lands, sword-wielding heroes, and strange monsters.

I became more aware of Tolkien as a poet while studying a unit on Poetry in middle school. When asked to memorize a poem to recite in class, I chose “Over the Misty Mountains”, probably because it was still rattling around in my head from my earlier overdose.

While Tolkien’s song did not immediately inspire me to write poetry, it has had a lingering influence on poetry writing—which began in earnest during high school. My very first published poems appeared in the high school literary magazine, Everness, in 1984, including a fantasy adventure ballad, entitled “The Ivory Bear”, loosely modeled on the style of Tolkien’s “Over the Misty Mountains”.

Hither came he to the Mount of Fate;
He came with a purpose from the Land of Hate.
The tale he had heard had brought him there;
The tale he had heard of an ivory bear.

The bear of gems and ivory forged
Placed on an altar with gold they gorged.
His plan was such to claim it all
For the race who had made it had taken a fall.

Yes, I admit it’s not very good, but I think the influence is obvious. I remember having so much fun writing it too, with all those rhyming couplets.

In college English Lit classes, I was exposed to Tolkien’s influences, Anglo Saxon poetic narratives, such as Beowulf, and Middle English alliterative poems, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien’s use of alliteration sank very, very deep hooks into my poetic tastes. How I still adore the sounds of phrases such as “Misty Mountains”, “dungeons deep”, and “hollow halls”.

To this day my own poems often slip into alliterative phrases. I must go back through in the revision process to cut some of these, because otherwise an excess of alliteration would give a funny, archaic feel to what I’d prefer to be contemporary sounding poems. Yet I never cut the alliteration entirely, because those sounds are what first won me over to poetry. For me that stylistic tool still contains a bit of magic.

It’s not only fun to reminisce about a formative poetry-related experience; it’s also informative to your current writing to be aware of it. Perhaps by looking back at influential poems you can become more conscious about the stylistic and thematic choices you now make as a poet. Try to identify and revisit the poems that made the earliest imprint on you. You might just rediscover a “mighty spell”.

Keith Badowski is employed by a Methodist church in Phenix City, AL. His poems have appeared sporadically over the years in publications such as Oxalis, Monkey, and Rambunctious Review. To learn just how big a geek he is, visit his blog, entitled “There Goes the Top of My Head” which is found at

1 comment:

Irene Latham said...

Hi Keith - I too had the misty mountains imprinted on my young mind... my sibs and I watched that animated Hobbit many many times. Good stuff! I saw an interview question asked of Natasha Tretheway: what 3 books most changed your life? I'm thinking probably you'd have to claim Tolkien. :)