Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We Can't All Be Elrond

          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.



  1. Very nice reflection on the importance of the poetry in LotR for conveying Tolkien's larger concerns with "high" and "low"! I especially like the care with which you analyzed The Hoard!


  2. I have been under the impression that Tolkien’s poetic works are criticized, not because they sometimes feel rustic or unpolished—qualities which, as you rightly point out, only serve to convey the poems’ cultural origins—but because at times they contain purely amateurish mistakes. Rather than revealing the cultural nuances within his poems, such mistakes—like his overtly repetitive verses or his narrow descriptions—suggest only that Tolkien is not the best of poets.

    Admittedly, such occasional flaws take little away from the unique flavor of these artistic snippets of Middle Earth. I myself am one of those eager individuals who always read the poems within LotR aloud, creating my own rhythms and even tunes for the words (particularly Tom Bombadil’s. I always loved his rhymes). However, there is an authentic difference between “low language” and poor poetry, and I would hazard that Tolkien is sometimes guilty of the latter. Yet in no way does this suggestion deny the richness and diversity that Tolkien’s poetry adds to his work. For I would imagine that many young fans of LotR would have missed something significant from Tolkien’s epic, if they did not have Bombadil’s sprightly rhymes to hum along to.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  3. One of the things I keep asking about our approach is to what extent does Tolkien’s literary theory have general application, as a theory of creativity? The relationship between culture and poetic form is a very difficult question. Poetry doesn’t always reflect education or status. In medieval literature, fabliaux - the kind of raunchy story that may be familiar from Chaucer or Boccaccio - were once thought to be the stories of lower classes, but they are now (for quite a while actually) understood to have been the avid interest of upper classes as well. The stylistic controls of ‘rustic’ oral poetry are now understood to be incredibly complex, often much more so than later verse which emerges from it. There is nothing simple about it: it is a trained craft. I confess, with sincere guilt: when it comes to The Lord of the Rings I’m not a poem reader either. But I never had the sense that the poems were unskilled. On the contrary I see a great interest in craft. I do not deny that they reflect in some degree the culture and native language of the singer, but I’m not sure their main function is to suggest the variety of cultures in Middle Earth. I think they’re supposed to pierce through the prose, in recollection of something very ancient. I suspect that much of the distaste for the poems is exactly this: a matter of taste. For most people prose is the language of reality, the language of information. I wonder what the success of LotR would have been if the whole thing had been written in a uniform verse, like Homeric hexameters?

  4. This post (and the class discussion which prompted it) resonated with me, I suppose, because I am something of a moderate when it comes to Tolkien’s poetry. That is to say, I don’t enjoy it in and of itself, but I appreciate the role it plays in the “inner consistency of reality” towards which Tolkien strove. The moments within The Lord of the Rings in which characters break out into verse must exist in verse-incarnate to offer “evidence” of the existence of the action in Middle Earth (and that prior to it) are a part of the history and tradition of England (and, as such, maybe the United States?). Tolkien’s work cannot be conflated into a single genre because that would detract from the illusion (Yes illusion--I’m sorry! I am a fan, and respectful, but not a believer myself) that a real “tradition” of this sort exists. Furthermore, the poems and verse serve to break up the action of the novel, which might not seem initially beneficial, but I feel that a halting of the action from time to time, rather than snapping the reader out of a trance, actually contributes to the believability of Tolkien’s history; reality (and oral traditions) are, after all, imperfect. So, it seems that arguing over the overall quality of Tolkien’s poetry, whether or not it is intended to demarcate the highs and the lows of intellectualism and class in Middle Earth (i.e. whether it is good, bad, or bad on purpose) is unnecessary--the results of such arguments are beside the point. Either way, it seems both Team Prose and Team Poetry have paid enough attention to the verse to claim it has served it’s purpose.

    -A. Klooster