In the process of compiling, writing, and designing this website, the team has been attuned to the idea of “woven words” (as in the blog title). Dr. Smol pulls this title from “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth,” a modern English alliterative verse drama inspired by, and written in the metre of, the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon.” Tolkien imagines two characters, Tidwald (Tida) and Torhthelm (Totta), sent by the abbot to collect Beorhtnoth’s body from the wreckage of his defeat, their experience leading to various reflections on the nature of heroism and heroic verse. Totta is passionate about the power of versification and, while Tida mostly discounts Totta’s fanciful words, he is briefly touched by a song about Beorthnoth. The title of the blog comes from Tida’s acknowledgement: “The woven staves have yet worth in them” (HBBS 130).
Broadly, Tolkien seems to understand the writing of alliterative verse as a process of weaving— a delicate, artistic mode of bringing words together. This makes sense to me. It’s easy to imagine alliterating words as the threads with which a line is knit. Or, since trees are a major subject of Tolkien’s visual art, as the woven roots of a tree. In a letter, Tolkien writes, “I have among my ‘papers’ more than one version of a mythical ‘tree’, which crops up regularly at those times when I feel driven to pattern-designing” (Letters 342). Tolkien calls this tree the Tree of Tales, and he uses it (at least in part) as a representation of the interconnectedness of stories. On the designs of the leaves, Tolkien states, “Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognised, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men” (“OFS” 66, my emphasis). Just as the Tree of Tales is woven together through generations of storytelling, so too is alliterative verse woven together through historically shaped structures: alliteration, metre, line weight, formulaic phrases, etc.
Tolkien’s engagement with patterns and repetition in nature is further discussed in Hammond and Scull’s Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator and MacLeod and Smol’s “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy.” Influencing my thinking, MacLeod and Smol turn to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” highlighting Tolkien’s assertion that repetition in nature (as in art) does not detract from its beauty: “Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event” (“OFS” 66 qtd. in MacLeod and Smol 110). Likewise, an alliterative verse text is no less beautiful because it uses repeating structures. Rather, there is an abundance of beauty to be found in the ways writers creatively interpret those structures.
All of the above ideas have influenced the visual design of “Tolkien and Alliterative Verse.” In planning the design of the logo, we decided that we wanted to use the letter “T” (a simple reflection of the title of the website) and some leafy elements that would nod to Tolkien’s associations of alliterative verse with nature. I ultimately drew inspiration from two of Tolkien’s iterations of the Tree of Tales, as featured on the covers of Tree and Leaf (1988 and 2001), using similar branching patterns to draw the “T” as though it were a miniature version of the Tree of Tales. The light-yellow site icons are similarly inspired, all intended as variations on Tolkien’s leaf patterns.
And, for those interested in more technical details, all art on the site was drawn on Procreate using a 4th generation iPad and Apple Pencil. I used a transparent background to make the icons transferrable to various pages on the site, and I primarily used preset inking brushes— these make clean borders that allow the colours of the icons to be changed easily if we ever want a colour palette refresh. Though, I’m a big fan of the red!
For further reading see:
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. HarperCollins, 2004.
MacLeod, Jeffrey J., and Anna Smol. “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy.” Mythlore, vol. 27, no. 1/2 (103/104), 2008, pp. 105–26.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 3–81.
—. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Essays and Studies, New Series vol. 6, 1953, pp. 1-18. Republished in The Tolkien Reader (1966), Poems and Stories (1980), Tree and Leaf (2001) and by Anglo-Saxon Books (1991). Tolkien’s recording of the play was made in 1954, with limited distribution by HarperCollins in 1992 as an audio cassette tape.