Centuries before books, movies, and electric lighting, people had far fewer options for entertainment in the evening. One major source of entertainment was telling each other stories, stories about exciting adventures and heroes. 9 times out of 10, those stories were told in poetry or song.
That’s something we’ve lost.
It’s not altogether our fault – it happened before we were born. As technology advanced, our stories evolved. The printed word became more and more common (along with the ability to read), and now stories are read much more often than they are told. In the process, the link between stories, poetry, and music has weakened. While some songs and poems still include narratives, using poems or songs as part of a long story is fairly uncommon.
With one major exception.
There is one plot type that traditionally uses both poems and songs within the book and often as part of the plot, and that is the quest (or the hero’s journey). The hero has to go defeat some major evil to avoid catastrophe and through the adventure generally learns or grows in some way. Since this is exactly the type of story people told each other for centuries, it would make sense that the story-telling link to poetry remains strongest in this type of story.
A.K.A. the fantasy genre.
The quest archetype is most common to fantasy, and, really, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We’re talking about mythologically-scaled heroic adventures, and that can be difficult to accomplish without gods, magic, or magical creatures. Some science fiction novels manage it, but there is a flavor to the story type that is distinctly suited to fantasy.
So is that why there’s such a strong tradition of using poetry and songs within the fantasy genre? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 5 from The Hobbit, let alone the rest of Tolkien’s books. A few other poetic fantasy authors include Brian Jacques, Susan Cooper, and J.K. Rowling who all use poetry and songs as part of their exposition and setting – when the poems aren’t leaving cryptic clues that are vital to the plot.
Most other genres don’t do this. For many books, if they use any poetry at all, it’s only a line or two that is referenced or used for a specific effect. These heroic sagas not only use full poems but multiple ones within the story. That’s a dramatic difference. Is it only because of tradition and how the stories evolved?
Or is there something about legendary heroes that simply cannot be captured by prose alone?