10 July 2017

And his feet are faster -- Old Tom's Trochees (FR 1.viii.142)

copyright Alan Lee


Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. 
(FR 1.viii.142)

So I was driving down the road thinking of Tom Bombadil, as one does. The bit about the feet had long seemed to me to be only one of the many odd things Old Tom says. But now it occurred to me that there may be more here than eccentricity. For virtually every word out of Bombadil's mouth is poetry. Whether singing or speaking, his words are rhythmic and predominantly trochaic, though not perfectly regular. We can see this clearly in the lines I quoted, three out of four begin with slow and heavy spondees, but then suddenly switch to trochees and rush off to the end of the line. The other line is entirely trochaic:

Óld Tóm Bómbadíl ís a mérry féllow.
Bríght blúe his jácket ís, ánd his boóts are yéllow.
Nóne has éver caúght him yét, for Tóm, he ís the Máster:
Hís sóngs are strónger sóngs, ánd his feét are fáster.


A trochee is a metrical foot which in English consists of two syllables, the first stressed and the second unstressed. The English noun trochee comes from the Ancient Greek adjective τροχαῖος (trochaios). This in turn derives from the verb τρέχω (trecho), meaning 'run'. Τροχαῖος, moreover, is shorthand for τροχαῖος πούς (trochaios pous), which means 'running foot'. Trochees thus run. They are much swifter than their opposite, iambs (unstressed, stressed), which in poetry both Greek and English have long been used to represent the rhythm of normal speech. All of this will have been well known to Tolkien, who, like many educated Englishmen of his day, had learnt a great deal of Latin and Greek at school. It was this, he said, that helped him discover his love of poetry:

'[As a child] I was, for instance, insensitive to poetry, and skipped it if it came in tales. Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse.'
(OFS ¶ 56)

In this connection it is also intriguing that most other poetry in The Lord of the Rings is iambic, though the lengths of the lines vary.  Hobbit poetry tends to be in iambic tetrameter, Elvish in iambic heptameter, or alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Two things make this noteworthy. First, the first elf poem we encounter in The Lord of the Rings is in iambic tetrameter, which we normally associate with hobbits, but we are hearing this poem, which the Elves are singing in Elvish, as it is understood and represented by a hobbit (FR 1.iii.79). Second. Bombadil's songs are also in heptameter, but a largely trochaic heptameter. Thus their seven trochaic beats counterbalance the seven iambic beats of the 'elf meter.' Clearly Tolkien devoted thought to details of this kind, and one wonders what might lie behind this metrical opposition. When the poet is also a philologist who professes that '[t]he incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval' (OFS ¶ 27), there is certainly room for further inquiry.

So the faster feet of which Tom spoke may not be the feet we thought they were.

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