Poetry's Power in
by MerryK with responses
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
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.
MerryK, what a wonderful essay! The
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
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.