Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Uses of Poetry in Lord of the Rings

I really enjoyed our discussion of Tolkien’s style today, but I wanted to think more about Professor Fulton-Brown’s question at the end of class about who uses poetry and in what circumstance. In looking over the use of poetry in Lord of the Rings, I noticed three uses in particular (although there are many more): the high proportion of Bilbo-created or Bilbo-influenced songs particularly in the pre-Rivendell section, the use of songs by the wise and the old to recall names and descriptions, and the lament-making, which is the only instance in the book of poetry being created extemporaneously. Bilbo is first introduced in LotR as the most important storyteller, or at least he is to our particular band of hobbits. In an introduction to the first song of the book, the narrator writes, “Bilbo Baggins had made the words, to a tune that was as old as the hills…” (I:III). Later, Pippin starts and the other three hobbits join in for “one of Bilbo’s favourite bath songs” (I:V). In the Prancing Pony, as a flustered Frodo frantically searches for something to distract his audience, he chooses “a ridiculous song that Bilbo had been rather fond of (and indeed rather proud of, for he had made up the words himself” (I:IX). Bilbo’s influence on the hobbits and their access to songs and poetry is thus clear, and in this way, Bilbo parallels J.R.R. Tolkien, the storyteller who gives us access to the many songs and poetry in Middle Earth. The hobbits use these Bilbo-influenced songs as traveling songs, as bath songs, as drinking and eating songs - basically as songs that accompany their day-to-day lives. The most striking thing about these songs is how starkly they cease to exist after the hobbits reach Rivendell. By my count, the amount of songs and poems in the first third of the book is more than the songs in both of the latter two thirds’ combined. The hobbits’ songs in their sheer volume then seem to evoke the kind of joy and innocence of everyday life that ceases to exist once they are confronted with the darkness in the world. 
There is also the usage of poetry to both name and describe people and objects. Treebeard does this when he first meets the hobbits: “What are you, I wonder? I cannot place you. You do not seem to come in the old lists that I learned when I was young. But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists…How did it go?

Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children…” (III:IV)

He uses these memorized songs, which are essentially a categorization of all the creatures on Middle Earth, to determine whether hobbits actually exist, although he does concede that the lists might have changed since he learned the songs. Songs then function as a site of knowledge, a place where dwellers of Middle Earth can come to know about each other. Gandalf uses a similar song, if not an excerpt from the very same song to figure out the history of the palantír.  “At last the wizard passed into a song of which the hobbit caught the words: a few lines came clear to his ears through the rushing of the wind:

Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree.

‘What are you saying, Gandalf?’ asked Pippin. ‘I was just running over some of the Rhymes of Lore in my mind,’ answered the wizard. ‘Hobbits, I suppose, have forgotten them, even those that they ever knew.’” (III:XI). Gandalf, the very wise and knowledgeable, still taps into the cultural knowledge that exists in these songs. Once again, he also comments on the relationship of the hobbits to these songs, saying that they have forgotten them, if they ever knew them at all. The songs that function as memory devices and spaces of understanding elide the hobbits, just as the hobbits do not have access to them. In this way, these kinds of songs mirror the hobbits relation to the outside world in general, in that they have both secluded themselves from the outside world and the outside world has paid very little attention to them.
One final use of poetry that I found interesting is the extemporaneous creation of laments. This first happens after Gandalf’s fall in Moria. In Lórien, all the elves are singing laments for the one they called Mithrandir and Frodo is moved to create his own lament. “It was Frodo who first put something of his sorrow into halting words. He was seldom moved to make song or rhyme…But now as he sat beside the fountain in Lórien and heard about him the voices of the Elves, his thought took shape in a song that seemed fair to him; yet when he tried to repeat it to Sam only snatches remained, faded as a handful of withered leaves” (II:VII). His six stanza lament follows, but it seems that the laments are used as a method of managing grief. By this I mean that they are a way for the characters to wallow in their grief and then be able to move on in their adventures. This happens again when Aragorn and Legolas sing a lament for the fallen Boromir. “Then slowly Aragorn began to sing:

Through Rohan over fen and field where the long grass grows
The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes…
‘O Boromir! From the high walls westward I looked afar,
But you came not from the empty lands where no men are.” (III:I)

Once again, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli give themselves a moment to really feel their sadness about the loss of Boromir and then move on to go after Merry and Pippin. The laments serve a funereal purpose, in that they function as a site of mourning for those left behind. Whatever the purpose of the songs and poems are, it is safe to say that they are inextricable from Lord of the Rings. As we discussed, they give the world a sense of depth and history and long-standing culture that makes Middle Earth all the more real and captivating.



"Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" said...

This post finally solidified something that's been lurking on the edges of my brain for a few weeks now. In Middle-Earth, just as in our own, the songs, epics and poems that form the bedrock of a culture's canon come into being due to a large population combined with a low literacy rate. In Ancient Greece, not every citizen of Athens or Sparta could read, but you could ask a bard for your favorite passage of the Iliad or the Odyssey whenever one came into town. A book of stories in Anglo-Saxon England could not be affordable or accessible for most members of the populace, but there would be a few people around with a harp and some of the more exciting passages of Beowulf. For the most part, literacy is reserved for wealthier classes, those who can afford access to books. I imagine it works much the same way in Middle-Earth. Not every individual can likely read (I speak here of men and dwarves, for elves are a matter that would require more words than I have in this comment), but each has access to the history of their nations through poetry or song. The hobbits, conversely, seem to have little interest in their own history (save their lines of descent), and so their songs deviate from the past and stick to the present, everyday affairs of living.
-Emma Pauly

Unknown said...

Dear GENF,
I enjoyed your comments on three uses of poetry as sites for different performative acts. Hobbit poetry largely for everyday purposes or merriment; lore-poetry for remembrance and cultural history; lamentation for mourning. I think Emma nicely observed that what you are describing looks like an oral culture in middle earth. In other words, acts of solemnity and merriment, events and names of note will only be properly performed or remembered by using songs or poems. I think this is a key insight.
But if poems and songs have such importance, where are the books and written texts? People are literate, after all (Bilbo is translating elven verses and works in Rivendell through the whole tale.). Can we understand better the use of poems and songs by asking about the use of writing? For example, why doesn't Elrond bring out his large tomes at the Council of Rivendell (to back up his account about Isildur, &c)?

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

You did a great job of highlighting when poetry is used, as a story telling device and a cultural phenomenon. Not only do songs and poetry share these stories of the history of Middle-earth with the characters within the plot of Lord of the Rings, but they also allow Tolkien to share stories from within their world with us as readers. I love how poetry and love of language are so intertwined with the act of storytelling within the novel. I think Emma’s comment hits the nail on the head with the idea that song and poetry make stories more accessible to any people who listen. In today’s lecture (6/2/2014) we also talked a little bit about how we don’t need to fully understand a song’s lyrics to understand the beauty of language and story- even if we don’t have translations of elvish poetry as readers, we still understand that they are singing something beautiful and sacred. That ties into your second use of poetry, to name and give importance to people and objects- giving things a story through poetry, and making them important not only to us readers but also to our hobbit friends as they learn about the wider world on their journey. Storytelling and the creation of a culture are totally intertwined, not only within Lord of the Rings but also in our own lives, and I don’t think Tolkien could have taught us about Middle-earth’s history in as believable a way without using poetry and song as his medium. -S. Rajan