Friday, April 18, 2014

Poetry, Peoples, and Memory

Somewhere towards the end of class, we came to discussing the place of poetry in Tolkien’s work, versus the prose. If Tolkien’s prose and dialogue is so flexible, and is so able to capture a range of cultures and personalities, we asked, then what is the purpose of the poetry? Why it is used? Why is it used when it is used? How is it used? We did begin to look at the different styles for different cultures, as seen particularly through the moments assigned in The Lord of the Rings this week, but, I feel, never really came to an answer about that initial question of the place of poetry.

I’d like to try to articulate (in far too many words) one possible ‘answer’ that’s been floating around in my mind, which has to do with the connection between poetry and memory. To me this is in keeping with the broader idea of The Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth as part of an English mythology, as then combined with the idea of oral histories. I think of epic poetry like the Iliad or Beowulf, which may have come from oral tradition before being written down. While the poems and songs in The Lord of the Rings are obviously not epics (if nothing else, there’s hardly any time at the end of the Third Age to sit down for such a marathon), they are still intimately tied with the characters’ culture and cultural memories.

Middle-Earth has writing and scripts aplenty, and yet most of the history presented to us, especially the key ‘cultural’ history, is done so orally. Certainly there are books—the Red Book of Westmarch, of course, or the Book of Mazarbul in Moria. There is written lore in Gondor, and in Rivendell. And part of it may just be that it is more interesting to hear characters discuss the reading than to do the reading ourselves. And yet there’s something more—when characters mention or draw upon the memories of peoples, they speak of songs, not things they read in books. When Sam finds the halls of Moria “darksome,” Gimli is confident that they were not so at their peak, though he had never himself been, because it “is still remembered in our songs” (LotR 315). He then breaks in to such a song. Entering Lothlórien, Legolas knows the river Nimrodel at once, because “the Silvan Elves made many songs long ago, and still we sing them in the North” (LotR 339). Once they have rested by the river, and heard the (I presume prose) tales of Lothlórien known to the Elves in Mirkwood, Frodo hears the voice of Nimrodel on the water, and Legolas, noting this, sings a song of the elf Nimrodel.[i]

So what, you may ask? This is a universe where it’s not uncommon to whip out a song or poem at the right occasion,[ii] you may say, and hey, the old songs are good songs, so people still sing them, and naturally they’ll carry a memory or two, being old. To that I just have one more thing I’d like you to read. As they are departing Lórien, Gimli mourns to leave Galadriel, and for learning “the danger of light and joy” that is greater than the danger of “torment in the dark” (LotR 378), crying, “Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!” and then:

“‘Nay!’ said Legolas. ‘Alas for us all! And for all that walk in the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin, for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlórien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.’

‘Maybe,’ said Gimli; ‘and I thank you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.’” (LotR 378-9).

Alas for me, Gimli changes the subject to focusing on their boat (“I do not wish to drown my grief in cold water”) and Legolas never responds. So I can’t really guarantee, at least from this alone, that the Dwarves and the Elves inherently have different kinds of memory.[iii] But I’d like to toy for the moment with the idea that they do, as tied to their different styles of poetry. That is to say, the use of different styles by different peoples says something about their sort of cultural ‘personalities’ not just via the aesthetic of the styles of poetry, but also via what those styles and those races’ use of those styles emphasize or preserve.

While Dwarves naturally have nothing on the elves’ lifespans, they are not entirely short-lived, and Gimli’s song is of ‘deathless’ Durin, one of the fathers of the race of Dwarves. I say this just to emphasize that both songs reach back very far in the history of Middle-Earth, making them further worth comparing. We discussed in class how the Dwarf songs are reminiscent of ballads. And Gimli’s song of Durin and the origins of Moria (pages 315-6, again, for reference) is one such song. It is nearly a narrative, and it is also nearly a straight chronology. (I’ll get to those ‘nearly’ bits in a moment.) While being narrow, specific, and self-contained, it also encompasses all of Dwarf history, in the sense that it begins with Durin waking from sleep and then enters the current moment at the close of the song (“The world is grey, the mountains cold,” &c.) It does not pause to explain Durin’s identity to the listener explicitly, but reveals it through the narrative itself. The song begins by telling us how fresh and new the world was—“No stain yet on the Moon was seen,/No words were laid on stream or stone”—when Durin awoke from sleep “and walked alone.” And in the next stanza, he names “the nameless hills and dells” and the wells he drinks from are “yet untasted.” So he is old, the first, because the world is unstained and unnamed and untasted when he wakes and walks alone. We also have his vision of the crown of stars above his reflection in the Mirrormere in the same stanza as his naming and tasting—he and his kingship are tied to the land, which he himself is discovering by naming.

I also said nearly a straight chronology. The song does not directly describe the contemporary moment of the singer until the end of the song, except by way of comparison— “The world was fair in Durin’s Day,” for instance, implying now it is not quite so fair. But it does carry the listener a little way forward through history, through briefly mentioning the falls of Nargothrond and Gondolin, before tracking back to describe Durin as king, and the halls he ruled in. But the stories of those Elvish cities are not at all explained—they are just mentioned by way of further setting the distance and contrast between the “Elder Days” and the singer’s contemporary moment.[iv]

Finally, the song is nearly a narrative. It might seem to sort of begin as one, describing Durin’s naming and tasting, but it really remains descriptive rather than narrative. And even the descriptions are quite brief and straightforward. There is no detail of the growth of the race of Dwarves and of Durin’s folk; they are hardly even present, except as “unwearied,” and then only after an inventory of all that they have done but only through a sort of metonymy. It is not “The Dwarves then smote the hammer on the anvil” or “the Dwarves then clove [various gems and such] with chisel,” but “There hammer on the anvil smote,” and “There chisel clove.” And finally, the song jumps straight from describing the city at its peak to entering the darker time of the speaker, from the trumpets at the gate to “The world is grey, the mountains cold” (to contrast with the young world and green mountains of the Elder Days). And here, again, the kind of metonymy: the absence of the Dwarves is seen only through the cold and stillness of their tools (and instruments—there’s a “harp” mentioned!). The shadow “in Moria, in Khazad-dûm” (now finally explicitly named) lies “upon [Durin’s] tomb,” and no one else’s. Though the descriptive quasi-narrative encompasses the long span of the race’s history, the race is largely absent, their rise and decline captured in the fate of Durin alone. (That makes the last stanza—with its “But still”—all the more interesting to me.)

That last stanza begins, “But still the sunken stars appear,” a memory preserved in the physical world itself, but in Mirrormere, which seemingly few of the Dwarves singing this song have actually seen, and so rather the memory of the memory is what is preserved and reflected by the song. So what is there in that memory of memory? There is Durin, and a memory of the city at its peak. There is the inherent connection between the Dwarves and these lands—to them, Durin named them, and even as they are cold and dark he sleeps beneath them again, even after the “mighty kings” of the Elvish cities passed into the West he (and the Dwarves, implicitly) remain, dormant but not dead. Thus there is the final line’s assurance—“when,” not if—that Durin will awake again, presumably with the craft and splendor and light in the dark of old, as described. And there is the Dwarves’ own history of themselves as a race, which focuses on their craft, as they are replaced with their own tools and the tools’ work.

The shorter summary of my reading of the song of Durin is that it is largely self-contained, straightforward, with very few and very deliberate leaps between the “then” of the story being told and the “now” of the storyteller. It is more descriptive than narrative—that is, reflective, in the sense that it captures and reflects very specific images or moments, such that even with the sense of time passing and of movement and crafting, the scenes are almost tableaux. That is to say, the song of Durin, and the way it presents and remembers Dwarvish history, is to me not unlike Gimli’s description of memory as he perceives it as “only mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram” (where, I might re-emphasize, the memory of Durin’s crown of stars is still reflected, literally and then in song). The point that I’m trying to make is that not only does the broader aesthetic of this ballad-like structure aesthetically paint a picture of Dwarf speech, language, and culture, but that this is supplemented by the way the narrative is structured and the way things are described, which further provide a sense of Dwarf self-image and their own sense of their culture and cultural memory. And that this sense, if Gimli’s words are source enough, might literally capture for us how Dwarf memory (collective and individual) operates, contrary to that of other peoples.

I know that I’ve already demanded your attention far longer than I was supposed to, but I hope you’re intrigued and will bear with me some more to look at Legolas’ song of Nimrodel (pages 339-41). I’ll try to keep it briefer/make my points in reference to Gimli’s song. To start, recall that in class we identified Elves more with lays and chants, many of them therefore longer affairs (Legolas says that even this song of Nimrodel is but an excerpt, for the full is “long and sad” and he has “forgotten much” (LotR 341)).[v] This in itself is distinct from the Dwarves, who are more concise (not that ballads are that short), and who capture much of history with relatively few words. In the Elvish poem, there is also a different kind of mingling of times and of purpose. That is to say that the transitions between the narrative of the story itself, the exposition regarding whose story is being narrated, and the allusions to the contemporary moment of the singer are more fluid and happen more often than in the Dwarf song, but despite this, those separate purposes are also themselves more distinct. Where before Durin and his context were described even in contrast to the speaker’s moment and context, here multi-stanza is a description of Nimrodel and her fairness, and then there a jump to the present (“Where now she wanders none can tell,”), and then there the sorrow of Amroth being borne away from Nimrodel, and then there some exposition regarding Amroth (“Of old he was an Elvish-king,” &c.), then there his leap into the sea, and then a return to the present (“But from the West has come no word,” and so on). The moments are incredibly distinct—each has its own place and purpose. The closest we get to the kind of mingling we saw in the song of Durin is the description of Amroth as a king “When golden were the boughs of spring/In fair Lothlórien,” which does create a contrast with and reference to the present, implied in that the boughs are not so golden in spring now. But the “then” vs. “now” dichotomy is not driven home in the way that it was with the Dwarves, with even the parallel structures of the two lines regarding the world and the mountains of Durin’s Day and now. That is, while the different moments and purposes are more distinct in the Elf song, the fluidity and ease with which they execute the sudden switch between these moments or purposes is actually I think a different kind of mingling rather than a total separation. Each purpose is separate in the telling—one does not describe Nimrodel through her disappearance—but they are all of one moment, intermingled in the process of telling of the story. This structure expresses, as tied with Elves’ long lives and memories, a kind of compression of time. What I mean is, even as their memories are long, and though they have a real sense of that distance in time between Amroth and the present, that distance does not necessarily mean separation or distinctness in the way it seems to in the Dwarf song.

The Elf song also puts a far more intense attention to detail than the Dwarf song. This sense of intensity has two sources. For one, the sense of detail comes from having specific individuals described. Contrast this to the metonymy of tools and harps of untold number (and therefore imagined to be many, though nameless). But the detail is also part of the description itself. Here we have four stanzas of Nimrodel’s appearance, as well as how she carries herself and how she sings. Rather than the Dwarves’ tableaux which are a picture in time while simultaneously capturing the passage of time and the growth of a race, the specificity of Nimrodel’s description ties it to a specific and incredibly detailed instant, as though the storyteller and the hearers are observing her and all the qualities of her fairness in that moment right before them. Contrast also to descriptions of Durin as described by his actions or the splendor he accomplished, versus Nimrodel and her beauty, fully image-based. Further, the descriptions are nearly all similes, and nearly always likened to some aspect of nature—light in her hair “as sun upon the golden boughs” or her voice “as falling silver” like the waterfall. Our images of Amroth, too, are all similes—leaping into the sea “as arrow from the string,” diving “as mew upon the wing,”[vi] and “riding” in the ocean foam “like a swan.” Rather than the simple images taken for their own sake in the song of Durin, the Elvish song creatse an intensity and specificity of images by pairing them each with other images. That intensity, to me, keeps the tale alive in a way very different than the song of Durin. Rather than a preservation and a reflection of things that are past, the story described is tied to images of the present moment, of nature and of movement, again in a way that seems to me to blur the separation between past and present. It is to me, if you will, as Gimli has heard of Elvish memory: “more like to the waking world than to a dream,” more like to the present experience than to some separate, partway-remembered experience.[vii] If we imagine the entire song of Nimrodel executed in this same style, we might get an even greater sense of the incredible length and reach of Elvish memory, while simultaneously its sort of compression of that reach. The Elvish memory depicted here also seems to imagine themselves and their race as very distinct and individualistic, as well as tied very tightly to nature and to their surroundings, and the beauty therein. Again, Legolas doesn’t confirm or deny what Gimli has heard about Elvish memory, but I’d like to think based upon his song excerpt that it isn’t wholly untrue.

Thanks so much for sticking through this. I know it was way too long, but I got sort of hooked and couldn’t stop, and really wanted to lay out my case. I sort of noted in the first endnote that in narrowing my focus to these two moments for lengths’ sake, I’ve neglected a lot of work (both in and beyond The Lord of the Rings) that could either enrich, complicate, or totally contradict what I’ve said. But it’s a start! What are your thoughts, friends?


[i] This post is already far, far too long without trying to parse out what Hobbit poetry—in The Lord of the Rings and in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil—means about Hobbit memory, especially say Bilbo’s poetry versus Sam’s. Or what Aragorn’s song of the men of Rohan (“to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years are lost in the mist of time” (LotR 507); “Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young.... So men still sing in the evening” (LotR 508)) means about the people of Rohan—or about Aragorn. I haven’t touched Ents, either, nor poems that are less historical than moment-based (Frodo’s song/lament for Gandalf, Aragorn’s for Boromir), nor Galadriel’s song of Lorien and of leaving Middle-Earth (page 372). But I thought I’d at least mention their not being mentioned in this post.
[ii] I think of Aragorn, crying out a few lines about Gondor as he spots it while in pursuit of Merry and Pippin and so must turn away (LotR 423). So typical.
[iii] Perhaps someone with more nerd cred can pull a reference from somewhere in the History of Middle Earth for me. I do at least believe they sleep inherently differently, as when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are tracking the Orcs who have Merry and Pippin captive—check out page 429, for instance.
[iv] Without saying anything useful about it, I’d like to note how interesting it seems to me that those two cities are the ones chosen.
[v] I will elect to make nothing for today of the fact that he has “forgotten much.” I bet Thranduil remembers the whole thing.
[vi] Bold for Wood-Elves, who assuredly have seen no gulls diving into water...
[vii] No comment on Tolkien and dreams.


  1. Would love to know if anyone managed to get through this post who has also finished the reading for Monday? I have new and totally scattered thoughts especially following the reading on "The Ruin" and wonder if anyone else is having thoughts, and more coherently than I.

  2. Thanks so much for your post on this topic because I, too, was also very interested in the use of poetry and its connection with memory. I agree with you on your view that the poetry stems from Lord of the Rings’s connection with oral histories such as the Iliad and the Beowulf. My opinion is that poetry is strongly connected with memory because it provides a structure to make it easier to remember the contents of a story. Add in familiar episodes, themes, rhythm, and various literary devices (i.e. alliteration), and it is much easier to pass down an important story in this way compared to a prose-like narration.
    I like your discussion of Elves versus Dwarves in memory and I think what might be worth noting is that the difference in their lays is inherently tied to their different styles of language. The lays reflect their ways of speech. The Dwarves seem to have “jumpy” episodic memories; I think the dwarvish poem is very much shaped by their language. We see Gloin speaking in short direct sentences where the speaker must fill in the connecting gaps. This is of course opposed to the Elves, like Elrond, who have more lengthy sentences and archaic speech that reveal their age and experience. This is in turn is reflected in the structure of the Elvish songs that show the fluid, connected, and seemingly timeless Elvish memories.
    I also noticed in particular the interplay between prophecy and poetry. Poetry seems to be a main vehicle for conveying important prophecies, especially about Aragorn, and I think this speaks to the usefulness of poetry as a memory tool, and also the significance of poetry in Lord of the Rings. Poetry briefly provides a glimpse into historical tradition, and reminds the characters they are a part of a story that begun long before them and will continue long after them (i.e. Luthien and Beren).

  3. Thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking post on the nature of oral history and cultural memory! I am very impressed with this comparison of Elvish vs. Dwarvish modes of remembering as a reflection of their lifespans and language. I like your reading of the Elves as inhabiting an ongoing present (in your words, “a kind of compression of time”) in which their poetry tells of far past events they can themselves sometimes recall, whereas in Dwarvish poetry there is a clear sense of the passage of time even as the poems create descriptive tableaux.

    This seems a very specific answer to the very broad questions you pose at the start (“Why it is [poetry] used? Why is it used when it is used? How is it used?), but I think that the nature of cultural memory is very much at heart of characterization, and you do an excellent job discussing why these particular poems appear in the moments they do. I would very much like to see your analysis of the poetry of hobbits and men in this vein, to see what we might glean about the nature of their memory and story telling!


  4. !! Not that anyone is reading this far back, but if they were I would direct their attention to p. 195 in Shippey's "The Road to Middle-Earth," which was in the recommend reading for the other discussion day for which I must do a blog post (June 2's class).