Sir Christopher Lee Sings and Recites Treebeard’s Song by J. R. R. Tolkein

Lyric:

In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the
Spring.
Ah! the sight and the smell of the Spring in Nan-
tasarion!
And I said that was good.

I wandered in Summer in the elm-woods of Ossiriand.
Ah! the light and the music in the Summer by the
Seven Rivers of Ossir!
And I thought that was best.

To the beeches of Neldoreth I came in the Autumn.
Ah! the gold and the red and the sighing of leaves in the
Autumn in Taur-na-neldor!
It was more than my desire.

To the pine-trees upon the highland of Dorthonion I
climbed in the Winter.
Ah! the wind and the whiteness and the black branches
of Winter upon Orod-na-Thön!
My voice went up and sang in the sky.

And now all those lands lie under the wave,
And I walk in Ambarona, in Tauremorna, in Aldalómë,
In my own land, in the country of Fangorn,
Where the roots are long,
And the years lie thicker than the leaves
In Tauremornalómeë.

I have wanted for a long time to share my vision of poetry. In my vision, poetry is no longer so disembodied or abstract as that we commonly encounter. Poetry is composed of words, and words, as long as they are in the mind, are not dead, not ghostly, but are living and an extension and an act of the mind and the brain.

If a poet could give his still-living, newborn poem into the hands of someone who knew what to do with it – who would keep it alive with his breath – then poetry all over the land would begin to live again.

Part of “keeping poetry alive,” I feel, is reading it aloud. Unfortunately we (in the U.S. at least) are not generally taught elocution in school anymore, so this is difficult for us. We don’t like the sound of our own voices. Albit advises us to hear a prophetic voice in our heads, and I would equally advise us to see pictures in our minds as well.

But better than both of these is a living context.

At its best, a living context is a warm, breathing, wet human voice coming directly from a warm breathing seeing speaking human being standing before us. Context is also the sounds and sights and places that surround that human being as he speaks our poem. Context can be occasion – a wedding, a birthday, a sacred event or congratulatory party. It can also be a place in a story.

I have been looking, since last night, through videos on youtube of renowned actors reciting poems. I have been surprisingly disappointed. There is a really awful way of reading poetry out there, with a flat voice that equalizes all words, and a tiny breath between each line, and no semi-musical sustenuto.

Christopher Lee is a magnificent exception. He knows how to sustain his voice between words, to let it rise and fall, to bring in subtelties of tone that, in ordinary speech, indicate difference, distinction, likeness, and many other para-verbal aspects of speech.

Finding this video, I believe I know why. Christopher Lee knows how to sing as well as recite!

This performance is marvelous because here we have him doing both. It is also marvelous because, although we don’t have a living breathing recitator standing before us, we have a recording that can help us imagine what that would be like. Finally, it is marvelous because it has a context that we all know and love – The Lord of the Rings.

A word about that masterpiece. (Not all has yet been said about it – it is not even 100 years old yet.) I have long believed that the measure of a man’s goodness is the strength of his love for what is good. The Lord of the Rings is a very long composition about something richly, substantively good, in perhaps the only way that we are capable of understanding it – that is, in the loss of it. That something is not, like evil, contained in a single ring, a couple of towers, or some other local artifact. It is a worldwide good. Only through this book do we really see our own world as good and as in the last stages of slipping away, because he shows us what our world would have looked like in the first stages of slipping away.

Thus, the Lord of the Rings is full of sorrow, but it is not the despair that we ourselves so often suffer (which more resembles the greif of Smeagol.) It is the clean honorable peircing sorrow of those who have seen and been cultivated by something very, very, good, not just something brimful of goodness but something that is a much taller vessel for that goodness than we have ever seen. And they watch it sail away.

If we can share that sorrow, then perhaps we can also be touched by a ray of that good.

P. S. Here’s the album this performance is taken from.

15 thoughts on “Sir Christopher Lee Sings and Recites Treebeard’s Song by J. R. R. Tolkein

  1. Thanks to Albit and Michael Baumann for provoking these renewed reflections on poetry, and inspiring this post. Hopefully, some more in the same vein will follow.

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  2. “I have been looking, since last night, through videos on youtube of renowned actors reciting poems. I have been surprisingly disappointed. There is a really awful way of reading poetry out there, with a flat voice that equalizes all words, and a tiny breath between each line, and no semi-musical sustenuto.”

    I love hearing poetry aloud, too, but actually greatly prefer a flatter voiced style to the clip you have posted here. I like experiencing the words themselves and their natural cadence in a relatively even voice. . . it makes for a stiller atmosphere that I find soothing, while too much expression jars. I wonder if this is simply a personal preference in style or if I am at one or more removes from the true soul of poetry! 🙂 When I have more time I will read the essays you are posting with interest.

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    • OK, from my breif survey, there seems to be two competing schools of thought about this already in existence. One says that the recitator ought to emphasize the meter, putting various kinds of emphases, pauses, stops, low notes, high notes, etc. where suggested by the rhythm, the meter of the poem. The idea is that the poet knew what he was doing, if the poem is any good, and has put the important words at the important spots in the meter, and that metrical poetry can’t be distinguished from prose except by this method. This would be the bard or minstrel. It’s the kind of thing you would have heard at a Greek banquet or around a norse fire.

      The other school of thought is the “actor” who is trying to bring out, not the poem in its fullness, but the character or drama that forms part of the poem. This is the idea that the recitator should emphasize the relationship between the words, the sense they would have if the poetic lines disappeared and the same expressions were read as prose. This seems to go along with the school of thought that sees form as artificial in the first place, and prefers poetry that hs no meter.

      I confess that when I read poetry silently, the meter often overpowers me and I want to emphasize the relationships and sense of the words, instead. However, Americans, even in everyday speech, speak so flatly and don’t seem to hear what they are saying. The don’t seem to hear the music and history in the words they are using. To me this is not natural.

      Because I didn’t know there were two schools of thought out there, I’ve always assumed that a good recitator should be able to emphasize both the sense and relationships inherent in the grammar of the sentences that compose the poem, and the musicality of the meter or of whatever other aural devices the poet has made use of. Thus, my desire has been for as much emphasis as possible. However, if forced to chose between the two, I would choose the metrical emphasis that you hear in Tolkein or Christopher Lee. As an example of what I don’t like, I think Benedict Cumberbatch’s poetry readings are too timid. (Sorry, B, we love you!)

      So perhaps you could clarify what it is you want to hear. Do you feel that the American way of speaking is really natural? Or does your preference really fall into one of these two camps?

      How, for instance, would you read (if you were a master of elocution and could read however you liked) G. K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto”?

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      • Wow, you know a lot more about all this than I do! That said, let me see if I can clarify what it is I like to hear.

        The first time poem I was deeply struck by when I heard it read aloud was “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden. The woman who read it spoke slowly and in a measured voice almost devoid of emotional expression or emphasis. She followed the “natural” meter of the poem and paused at the end of lines– it was not an improvisational read by any means, and she didn’t change her voice to make it any more sing-songy than ordinary speech. When she was done, it hung in the air like a tangible thing. I felt I had encountered the poem, as *sound* rather than as literature, in a very clear and direct way. I think that became my ideal and I have a preference for poetry that is read in her style.

        I am trying to analyze the “why” now. Is there a difference between emotional emphasis and verbal emphasis? Can you put stress on the appropriate syllables in a poem without muddying it with emotional expression? I think so.

        However, perhaps the best way to read is more dependent on the poem and some simply call for more expression than others. Having listened to your Christopher Lee recording a few more times, I am appreciating it more. I’d have to spend more time on “Lepanto” to have a good idea of how I would ideally read it, but it looks like it would require some energy and enthusiasm to be read authentically, at least in the earlier parts.

        “Lycidas” is one of my favorites, and I have listened to this recording several times with enjoyment. He’s flatter in some places and more expressive in others. I prefer the flat parts.

        On a more musical end of the spectrum, I really enjoy Loreena McKennitt’s adaptation of “The Dark Knight of the Soul.”

        Thanks for letting me ramble. 🙂 This was fun.

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        • Yikes, I did not edit this very well before hitting post. The first sentence of my second paragraph is a mess. I would fix it, but I don’t know if I can edit my comments once they’ve posted.

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        • Leah, I confess I couldn’t finish ‘Lycidas.’ My preferences must be pretty rigid, I guess, but it bored me to distraction. 😦 Sorry.

          The Loreena McKennitt, though, was superb.

          I looked up the Auden poem and I do believe that it would indeed be impactful recited in the way you described. There’s a feeling of, “He’s dead so I’m dead so the whole world should die” in the text that kind of lends itself to that. The persona is frozen. She’s (He’s?) speaking atrocities, cosmic selfishness, just out of pure blown-away mind-wiping shock. Plus, it’s so very colloquial. I don’t see any other way of reciting it.

          Auden is very different from classical poets so that may have something to do with it as well.

          Chesterton is quite traditional and I agree, “energy” is the word that desribes what ‘Lepanto” is asking for. Specifically there would be a feeling of strong rhythmic drums, and there would be two or four words per line that would be spoken more loudly and higher. I think that is what Chesterton would have expected. Another consideration is the length of the poem. Spoken flatly it would be practically hypnotic!

          Oh ramble away, this is great! It’s leading me to conclude that the flat way is the recitative style that belongs properly to modern-style poetry, and that anything in the classical manner would require a style of recitation that would reflect the soul of the poetry. That classical poetry is more inherently musical, more formal, and reflects a completely different quality of aliveness demands a more musical, formal, and animated style of recitation. Or at least that’s my current theory.

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  3. lol, that’s okay about the Lycidas reading. My husband had the same reaction as you. It may be an instance of poor taste on my part, but it appeals to me in some moods. 😉

    “It’s leading me to conclude that the flat way is the recitative style that belongs properly to modern-style poetry, and that anything in the classical manner would require a style of recitation that would reflect the soul of the poetry.”

    I am leaning in that direction as well. How would you read “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by G. M. Hopkins?

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    • I’m a very poor reader and speaker, Leah, so I can’t really experiment with it. (If you’ve ever seen the television show ‘Bones,’ my speech sounds a lot like the main character’s way of talking.) What I don’t like is the way my voice compulsively curves down at the end of each line, and I hear so many people reading poetry that way. I think it’s wrong – it sounds like whinging.

      I think a reader must have a positive, definite idea of what he wants to hear, and the ability to make his voice do that – and it seems to be so rare a skill (or gift.)

      However, I will say that with ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ I notice that in addition to the strict meter and the crammed-full diction, there seems to be something that reminds me of the poetry from the dawn of the English language… the stressed alliteration, the beating heart.

      I agree that to read it emotionally, as if it were a soliloquy in a play, would be mistaken. It is so clearly a composition – a most deliberate and exceedingly economic arrangement of words – and not the spontaneous outpouring of the heart or quiet metering out of thoughts. It is the exact opposite of colloquial!

      I think a very rhythmic reading would be in order. Something almost sing-song, like the way you would hear read Beowulf. The question of where the voice goes high or low, where it grows strong or soft, is beyond me! I wish I could come into that secret.

      Here’s a reading of beowulf that seems to fit the bill. I’m not sure what’s different about it. It’s not introspective acting, it’s not expressing an internal landscape. The reader becomes the instrument of the poem, perhaps? The poem plays his voice?

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