Don’t the great tales never end?

(Two Towers, p.400)

Readers of Tolkien are very well aware of how many songs and poems the Professor included into his books. Varying in length and tone, form and function, these verse pieces play a very important role in the general world-building.

When creating Middle-earth and its extensive mythology Tolkien aimed at making it appear as real as possible. His view of it as of the imaginary past of our world called for a detailed study into every little aspect of the world. Functioning as a reflection of a people’s culture, traditions, values, background and history, poetry can tell readers a lot about a certain race, event or period in time in both – real and imaginary worlds.

While some – especially first-time – readers tend to skip poetic pieces in Tolkien’s books and might not be of a very high opinion of his talent as a poet, they miss a very important aspect touched upon by the Professor himself in a letter to his son Michael. Though Tolkien’s comment applies to The Lord of the Rings only, his words are also valid about all poems which can be found in other Middle-earth stories:

My ‘poetry’ has received little praise – comment even by some admirers being as often as not contemptuous (I refer to reviews by self-styled literary blokes). Perhaps largely because in the contemporary atmosphere – in which ‘poetry’ must only reflect one’s personal agonies of mind or soul, and exterior things are only valued by one’s own ‘reactions’ – it seems hardly ever recognised that the verses in The L.R. are all dramatic: they do not express the poor old professor’s soul-searchings, but are fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them, and to the situations in it. . . . .

(Letters,  306)

Most poems Tolkien composed for his books work perfectly well within the context they were placed into as they were made up not as a random set of rhyming lines but as a necessary, harmonious part of a certain episode in a story. One cannot – and should not – attempt to understand these verses without the context of Middle-earth or otherwise they will make little sense: for instance, the famous Verse of the Rings sounds clear within The Lord of the Rings and makes total sense when we learn the whole story. Taken out of its literary background it would seem obscure and even meaningless to those not familiar with the narrative.

In Tolkien’s works poems complement the narration and add the necessary dimension to the Legendarium: without poems it would have seemed flat and lacking depth as a very significant cultural layer would have been removed from the world. Every race in Middle-earth has a very distinct style of poetry which helps us learn about their values, background and culture. Verse form is used for entertainment, passing of news, messages or warnings, encouragement or setting riddles. But one of the most important roles of poetry in Middle-earth is giving historical references by means of tales in verse form. Poems and songs contain a huge layer of historical information and hint at the vast background of stories, the extensive past of the world and its long history.

In the world where oral tradition plays a huge role and tales are first told and only then, if at all, written down, a lot of lays and poems were composed about major historical events or personalities. So it is hardly surprising how much we can learn about the history of Middle-earth and its greatest personalities or events from songs and poems. In this instance Tolkien’s world reminds the Cauldron of Stories that he mentions in his essay On Fairy-Stories.

Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.

(On Fairy-Stories)

The depth and enormity of this particular Middle-earth cauldron become especially acutely sensed in The Lord of the Rings. Various tales in poetic forms recited throughout the narrative tell us of a huge historical background the world accumulated by the Third Age. These poems connect the ages of Arda, show changes taking place in Middle-earth and emphasise a recurrent pattern in life. For new readers verses can be an introduction into a deeper historical past of the secondary world they have entered by opening a book, while for those familiar with the tales mentioned in those poems and songs, verses work as a reminder of a big historical vault of stories spanning the long history of Arda.

From songs and poems recited by various characters throughout The Lord of the Rings we learn of Gil-galad and the Last Alliance, Amroth and Nimrodel, Beren and Lúthien, Durin and his folk, get a glimpse of the distant Eldamar, become more familiar with Rohan traditions and hear of Eärendil’s great feat. Not taking part in the events of the Third Age, all of the personalities and events from the poems appear as a memorial of the old days, a reminder of the past glory. The tale of Eärendil is especially interesting because it shows how cyclic the history of Middle-earth is and how closely connected the events in the world can be, even though they might be separated by many ages. This is clearly seen in Frodo and Sam’s conversation in Cirith Ungol:

‘…Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’

(Two Towers, p. 400)

We see that Frodo and Sam were added into this vast Cauldron of Stories that is Middle-earth: they became part of the story that started long ago and continued through ages with changes of decorations and personalities. Looking at the star of Eärendil in the sky Frodo and Sam of the Third Age feel connection with the heroes of the First Age who committed deeds of great valour. It was by means of poems that the Third Age generations learnt of those past heroes who became renown in their times to carry their glory through ages in verses.

Poems in The Lord of the Rings show that life never stands still and moves only forward. They draw our attention to cycles interchanging each other and show how heroes come and go, how various events recur age after age. Close connection between the ages in Middle-earth is emphasised by poems that, as a form of oral lore, bridge the cultures of the present and of the past together and serve as transmission of the great tales from the old days, keep the past events alive for future generations to learn from and be inspired by.

When in the horror of Cirith Ungol Sam goes on to ask Frodo if he thinks they will ever appear in a poem or a song to be told to children by the fireside and passed from generation to generation, little does he know that their tale will be put into words very soon indeed. On the fields of Cormallen Frodo and Sam’s valiant feat becomes engraved into the vast oral lore of Middle-earth forever:

And when the glad shout had swelled up and died away again, to Sam’s final and complete satisfaction and pure joy, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leave to sing. And behold! he said:

‘Lo! lords and knights and men of valour unashamed, kings and princes, and fair people of Gondor, and Riders of Rohan, and ye sons of Elrond, and Dúnedain of the North, and Elf and Dwarf, and greathearts of the Shire, and all free folk of the West, now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.’

And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: ‘O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!’ And then he wept.

(Return of the King, p. 277)

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tree and Leaf; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

8 thoughts on “Great tales never end.

  1. I was certainly one who in my earlier readings of The Lord of the Rings tended to run past the poetry and to dismiss it as unimportant. Of course I first read the story before The Silmarillion was first published and so I missed the background to the poetry but I regarded it in the same way that I did the songs in a musical, as an interruption to the story. It has only been in my last reading of The Lord of the Rings that I have begun to feel the power of the poetry whether it is Aragorn singing part of The Lay of Beren and Lúthien just before the Nazgûl attack, or Bilbo’s chanting of his own telling of the tale of Eärendil in the halls of Elrond that Frodo finds “just fits” with his own dream of the flowing river, or even the joyous simplicity and power of Tom Bombadil’s songs. I even wondered at one time whether the whole of the journey to the mountain was just a part of a song that Tom Bombadil would sing in the winter months before going down the Withywindle to meet Goldberry once more in the springtime. Of one thing I am sure and that is that the songs are a kind of distant echo of the music of the Ainur.
    You note that Tolkien’s legendarium is a reimagining of our own mythical past and so his poetry is a part of our spiritual landscape too. I think Tolkien understood this very well. All of this adds to the power of his work.

    1. I must admit that when I was first reading The Lord of the Rings, I also tended to read through the poems quicker than I should have. At that time I failed to grasp their importance. It was only after reading The Silmarillion and then re-reading The Lord of the Rings when I started to realise how important poetry is. Tolkien did a wonderful thing: all those songs create an impression of such vastness, that you feel how huge and many-dimensional the world is.

  2. My favorite example is one that reaches far into the future of the story. JRRT just stops the story of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields to give us Snowmane’s epitaph. It’s just one couplet. Who put it there? It’s not how they write verse in Rohan. It’s someone from Gondor using alliteration, but not getting the foreign rules right.

    Another reason I am in Corey Olsen’s debt, for pointing it out in a Mythgard Academy lecture, long ago: That little poem wasn’t even put in the book by a hobbit. It was added by a scribe, probably in Ithilien, many years into the Fourth Age. It fascinates me to find myself time travelling in the middle of a battle scene.

    1. Wow, thank you for pointing that out to me, Joe! That’s a fascinating point. So, poetry is like time-travelling. You can go back, stay in the present by singing about something around you, or glimpse into the future like in your example. What an ultimate time-machine!

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