The poetry of ‘The Lord of the Rings’
‘All that is gold does not glitter’:
Looking through this book last week I was struck afresh by the
significance of its poetry. Its sixty two chapters are interspersed with
more than seventy poems making the poetry an integral part of the
narrative. And as the poems are invariably sung or recited by one or
other of the characters, they add a dramatic as well as an emotional
value to our experience of the book. For this reason Tolkien may be
regarded as a notable innovator in the art of the novel. Pasternak's
'Dr. Zhivago' is another novel that contains poetry. But there the poems
are all tucked away at the end of the book and have no direct relevance
to the story.
The poems are in various styles depending on the context. Tolkien was
an expert in Old English literature, one feature of which was the
riddle. Here is Gollum bitterly recollecting one of his own riddles, all
of which Bilbo had guessed correctly to gain possession of the Ring in
the first instance.
"Alive without breath; As cold as death; Never thirsting, ever
drinking; All in mail, never clinking.."
No doubt the reader will emulate Bilbo! Here, now, is a modernized
excerpt of the Old English poem, 'The Battle of Maldon':
"Thought be the harder . Heart the keener, Mood the more . As our
might lessens. Here our lord lies . Hewn to pieces, The good on the
The Lord of
And here are the words of Eomer, heir of the aged Theoden who has led
his men into battle against Sauron's forces and met with his death:
"Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, Meet was his ending. When
his mound is raised, Women then shall weep. War now calls us!... Out of
doubt, out of dark to the day's rising I came singing in the sun, sword
unsheathing. To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:.."
Tolkien does not merely imitate the alliteratively stressed line and
heroic tone of the Old English, he adapts these to create a style
entirely his own. But a sweeter, sadder note is sounded in the quite
different style of these lines:
"I sing of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew: Of wind I
sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew....O Lorien! The Winter
comes, the bare and leafless Day; The leaves are falling in the stream,
the River flows away. O Lorien! Too long I have dwelt upon this hither
shore And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor. But of the
ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me, What ship would
bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?"
This is the song of Galadriel, last queen of the Eldar, the once
dominant elven race of which only a remnant are left on Middle-Earth.
They are confined to the forests and know they must soon pass over the
Sea. The music bears echoes of the early Yeats of the Celtic twilight,
"I will arise now and go, for always night and day I hear lake water
lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or
on the pavements grey, I hear it in deep heart's core."
Here again, what we have is the imaginative recourse to a literary
influence to convey an emotional state arising from the context. It
acknowledges the transience of life in this world and the inevitability
of departure, but admits of a Hamlet-like apprehension about "that
undiscovered Country, from whose Bourn no Traveller returns."
More ancient even than the elves is Tom Bombadil. He is a larger than
life character who recalls the Green Knight of the Middle-English poem
'Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight'. (Tolkien's scholarly edition of the
latter is well-known.) He dwells in the Old Forest with his wife,
Goldberry, the 'River-daughter', his love for whom he constantly
celebrates in song:
"O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water! O reed by
the living pool! Fair River-daughter! O spring-time and summer-time, and
spring again after! O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves'
By that pool long ago I found the River-daughter, Fair young
Goldberry sitting in the rushes, Sweet was her singing then, and her
heart was beating!"
Is there an echo of AA Milne here? viz: "Where the water-lillies go
To and fro Rocking in the ripples of the water, Lazy as a leaf lies the
Lake King's daughter, And the faint winds shake her, Who will come and
take her? I will I will! Keep still, keep still."
Perhaps, yet the experience goes so much deeper than the childlike
rhythms suggest. For the hobbits, at this juncture, enjoy a much-needed
respite giving them an insight into the personal tranquility that can
still be enjoyed in a hostile world. In this instance it comes from
maintaining a Wordsworth-like "natural piety and from, in the words of
the Biblical proverb, "rejoicing in the wife of one's youth".
The most painful moment in the book is when Gandalf the Grey, the
original leader of the journeyers, perishes in his efforts to protect
the rest. His last words, as he is dragged down to mutual doom by the
enemy, are, "Fly, you fools." Frodo's lament for him is noteworthy:
"A deadly sword, a healing hand, A back that bent beneath its load; A
trumpet-voice, a burning brand, A weary pilgrim on the road. A lord of
wisdom throned he sat, Swift in anger, quick to laugh; An old man in a
battered hat Who leaned upon a thorny staff. He stood upon the bridge
alone And Fire and Shadow both defied; His staff was broken on the
stone, In Khazad-dum his wisdom died."
Beyond grief over Gandalf's disappearance, the song conveys something
of the appreciation that true leadership evokes. Its beneficiaries
recognise that its authority is coupled with solicitude, its power with
self-sacrifice, its wisdom with self-control. And that it is ultimately
a tragic role since true leadership does not shrink from its
responsibility, even in the face of death.
Thrill of adventure
Perhaps the best known of the poems is 'A Walking Song', originally
made up by Bilbo and now taken up by Frodo:
"Upon the hearth the fire is red, Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet, Still round the corner we may meet A
sudden tree or standing stone That none have seen but we alone...Still
round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though
we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden
paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun."
This may seem just a jaunty song about the thrill of adventure or the
zest for the quest, but it is more than that. It suggests that to
deserve "hearth and bed" or one's 'comfort zone', one should be prepared
to venture beyond and "take the hidden paths towards sun and moon" even
at personal cost and risk. This is confirmed by the last verse:
"Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread
Through shadow to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. The
world behind and home ahead, We'll wander back to home and bed."
The true sense of belonging is achieved not at the expense of the
searching spirit but as a reward for satisfying it. And this is, after
all, the spirit of the book as a whole.
The hobbits treasure their Shire home with its 'well-farmed,
well-ordered countryside'. Yet they realise that its continued security
and prosperity depend on their accomplishing the long and perilous
mission of the Ring. Amidst all their trials and tribulations they
experience the hitherto undreamed-of wonders of Middle-earth and
recognise that, to quote Hamlet again, "there are more things in this
world than (were) dreamt of in (their) philosophy".
When they finally return to the Shire, they have acquired all the
experience, exposure and authority they need to restore and to safeguard
it. Finally another riddle, this time of Gandalf's making. It is about
the suspicious-looking 'lone ranger' known as Strider:
"All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are
lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached
by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the
shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The
crownless again shall be king."
When Strider eventually reveals his true identity the hobbits
understand the application of the riddle to him, particularly its first
line - Tolkien's inversion of the usual proverb. And this is an apt
allusion to the poetry of 'The Lord of the Rings' in general. For
although the poems may appear somewhat insignificant among the abundant
glitter of the prose narrative, their closer consideration does, indeed,
affirm the truth of the saying - "all that is gold does not glitter."