When Tolkien interrupts the narrative of LOTR with a song or a poem, the poetry sometimes lacks the clarity of the prose that deftly takes us to Orodruin and back again. The tale of Beren and Luthien and Elrond’s archaic way of speaking recall the majesty of the elves and the Elder Days. In contrast, the Hobbit’s tales of Tom Bombadil and Samwise’s lumbering words feel unpolished and straightforward, revealing their rustic origin. Yet the poetry is in the work for some reason, and the contrast in the quality of the poems contributes to the mythology as well. This contrast exists because of a distinction of culture, of which are at least two, cultures as practiced by the Elves, Men, Dwarves, etc, and culture in terms of high and low. The use of a variety of speech and poetry in the place of prose fills in the portrait of the different cultures in Middle-Earth.
First, there are the cultures of different peoples. Tolkien takes great care to bring out this distinction in language. Each race of Middle Earth has their own language, so that the language or dialect of a character reveals their background. Even within races there exist different languages. The many groups of men are separated by linguistic barriers. As Tolkien tells Tiller, the BBC producer, in Letter 193, the Rohirrim use an almost too perfect version of Common Speech, as it is not their native tongue.
Just as important, language reveals a culture’s the association with other peoples. When Numenor begins to resent the restriction against travelling west, the kings name themselves with the Numenorean Adunaic instead of Elvish Quenya. When Elendil and Tar-Palantir remain friendly to the elves, they return to using Quenya names. For hobbits, Tolkien writes that their name is a “worn down form of a word preserved more fully in Rohan: holbytla ‘hole-dweller’” (LOTR Part 3, Del Rey edition 2001, 456). Because the language of the hobbits is related to that of the Rohirrim, this connection reveals an ancient interaction between the two peoples. Different languages display out the cultural distinctiveness of a character. Simultaneously, the history and relation between different languages serves to tie different cultures together. Through language, Tolkien introduces the complex interaction between the different races in Middle-Earth.
The second distinction in culture is between high and low culture. In Letter 165, Tolkien writes, “there are certain things that move me specially, the inter-relations between the ‘noble’ and the ‘simple’ for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving” (220). Tolkien’s interest in primary reality’s social stratification reflects itself in his poetry. Elrond’s speech contains an archaic word order that conveys his education and high standing. By contrast, the speech of the hobbits are not only more plain, but also more rustic and less learned. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are rough and unpolished, like folk rhymes tend to be. Its verses contain a rhyming scheme that lends a lumbering gait to the poems. A good example for this is in The Hoard, which starts, “When the moon was new and the sun young/ of silver and gold the gods sung/ in the green grass they silver spilled,/ and the white waters they with gold filled” (240). The AABB… rhyming pattern is broken by awkwardly enjambing long lines with prepositions and articles. This creates a lopsided rhythm, so that one can almost imagine a diminutive hobbit shuffling down a path, reciting the tales of Tom Bombadil and other folk stories. As a comparison, the shorter lines in the Lay of Leithian condense the tale of Beren and Luthien so that the lines are convey more vivid imagery and the rhythm feels smoother.
Poetry helps describe life that refined education or high culture have not embellished. Auerbach writes of St. Francis of Assisi and humility, “He was no theologian, and his knowledge, though respectable in itself and ennobled by his poetic powers, was essentially popular, direct, and concretely accessible” (162). St. Francis uses poetry to describe mundane events because poetry can embellish the everyday without removing its clarity.
These cultural distinctions we discussed in class with regards to speech. As Shippey writes, Tolkien possessed an “unusual ability to suggest cultural variation by differences in mode of speech” (69). Furthermore, Le Guin notes the necessity of an exacting style for filling out Tolkien’s mythology. Given this style and Tolkien’s ability to make cultural contrasts apparent in his writing, could cultural distinctiveness not exist in the poetry also, and might the poetry be sometimes less than astounding due to their cultural origin, and not a lack of ability from Tolkien?
If Tolkien set out to create a complete alternative world, and did so with a distinction between high and low culture in mind, then the culture of this world would reflect both the high as well as the low. It would not make sense to hear Sam describe an Oliphaunt with the same polished skill that Elrond uses to recall the fall of Gil-galad and Elendil. But at the same time, the reality of Middle-Earth is not complete without describing the cultural background of humble characters like Sam or other hobbits, who have not been well-educated in song and verse. Their experience comes from the oral tradition of hobbit society, and the rough edges of their folk songs reflect this lack of learned expertise.
Perhaps this justification for the quality of poetry in Tom Bombadil and other hobbit folk stories is an excuse for Tolkien. But Tolkien’s attention to detail in his epic leads me to suspect that he meant to provide cultural items which are less than examples of literary perfection. In our own reality, not all works of literature are great examples of high culture. The imperfection of the poems, at least to this reader, create a sense of authenticity, a sense that what I am reading emerged from the traditions of people existing in Middle Earth, and not just the skilled hand of an author in our primary reality.