Poetry's Power in Middle-earth

by MerryK with responses

Considering that Tolkien was a Professor of English, and that he translated several ancient and medieval poems, I should not have been in the least bit surprised by the amount of poetry in Middle-earth. It is so much throughout, however, and so deeply integrated, that after scores of readings I had simply stopped noticing its presence in LOTR. It was only when I was looking for clues to Legolas' personality that it jumped out at me. Besides the poem that he improvises, or so one assumes, in Cormallen ("To the Sea, to the Sea!"), Legolas recites another poem in Minas Tirith ("Silver flow the streams from Celos to Erui"), and also the song of Nimrodel in Lothlorien. Legolas, unlike most young persons today, clearly enjoyed poetry.

And he's not alone. Songs and poems are throughout elven culture: Arwen sings a song of Elbereth in Rivendell, Galadriel sings a couple in Lothlorien, the other Lothlorien elves compose laments for Gandalf while the Fellowship is among them, and Gildor and his elves are singing when Frodo and his companions meet them. (I will not even try to take into account the brilliant examples from The Silmarillion, nor the...interesting ones from The Hobbit.)

The Rohirrim, also, have a verse for every circumstance. Eomer comes up with one right on the Pelennor Fields, and there are two written after the War describing parts of that battle, plus a funeral dirge for Theoden. Aragorn recites one of their poems to give Legolas and Gimli a taste for their culture, and even their battle cries have poetic qualities.

Since Tolkien enjoyed poetry, it would make sense that two of the races he admired would also enjoy it...however, poetry goes down much deeper into the soil of Terra Central.

Faramir, for instance, is accounted a lover of lore, but from the way he speaks one can deduce that he was not reading merely history; poetry flows through his speech as he says things like “We look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.” The Warden of the Houses of Healing knows at least one old rhyme, and even the Eagle who bears news of the Ring's destruction to Minas Tirith gives it in the form of a poem. Both Gandalf and Aragorn resort to poems when telling of Lorien and of Beren and Luthien, and the Ents have many poems and presumably more, very likely all of epic length. The hobbits may recite poetry only rarely, but their frequent songs are lovely and meaningful even without music (Bilbo, of course, is very fond of poems of all kinds), and Sam can come up with one even in the midst of Mordor. And does one even have to mention Tom Bombadil, whose every word has meter and cadence to it? Even the Barrow-wight uses poetry to snare his hobbit prey.

Light verse it may sometimes be, but poetry is not to be underestimated in Middle-earth. Perhaps it is because Middle-earth was sung into being, rather than spoken, that gives all the inhabitants a natural understanding of the power of flowing words, sung or no—or perhaps it is merely an Elven influence. Whatever the case, it is clear that, never used for mere beauty, poetry is fully understood and appreciated in Tolkien's world.

Unlike in a Victorian novel, where poetry is for evening entertainment by the fire, or for whispering wooingly in a fair maiden's ear, there is a strength to Tolkien poetry that gives it a place in all times. More than once we see poems creating order from confused emotions, providing courage to those in danger, and letting forth joy in happier times. Whether mourning the new loss of a beloved one, or expressing pure bliss at a warm bath, the inhabitants of Middle-earth know that words can express it all.

In a way, one can sense that, without poetry, Middle-earth would fall into a more chaotic pattern. Perhaps it is poetry's gift, the ability to create beauty from even the most drastic of circumstances, that keeps the Elves sane through millennia of toil and grief. Perhaps it is the power and persuasion of poetry that aids perseverance in Men of Gondor, giving them hope that a king will come with healing in his hands. And when tragedy happens, perhaps it is poetry that keeps Rohan together, letting them know that even out of doubt and out of darkness, one can ride singing into the sunlight, sword unsheathing.

Whatever one may think of the quality of Tolkien’s verses and songs, there is something wonderful in the idea of a poetic culture, the kind of culture that we used to have. With so much hate being thrown around, it’s refreshing to see societies, even if fictional, put their stronger emotions into something beautiful instead of something hurtful. Tolkien managed to convey the power of poetry in almost every line of LOTR, and it is a power to be given respect and honor every bit as much in the real world as in Middle-earth. What’s important about poetry? Ask the Elves...and the Hobbits...and the Rohirrim...and the Ents...and the—you get the point.

Response by sarahstitcher:

MerryK, what a wonderful essay! The songs and poems in LOTR are one of the aspects that make it feel most "real" to me. In the morris community, there is much singing, and it's accepted that some things are best expressed through song than explanation. (lately at the pub I've been singing "For A' That" as a kind of homage to My Guys, I think they get it without my having to explain it) The feelings run the gamut from tender and heartfelt to rowdy and boisterous.
I've always wanted to learn to sing the Flanders and Swan "in the bath" song because of how it reminds me of the bath song in LOTR. And I've been trying to find a tune to fit Sam's song in Mordor to, since it would be very singable.

Reply by MerryK:

Have you heard the BBC radio dramatization of LOTR, Sarah? I adore the tune that they put Sam's song in Mordor to.