In my essay dedicated to poetry in Tolkien’s books I have spoken about the importance of verse in Arda. Spanning a significant period in the Third Age, The Hobbit is no exception, and its many poems and songs scattered all over the book are very representative of the peoples who sing them. In the present essay I will look into the Elvish poetry in The Hobbit and see what it tells us about the fair folk.
Elvish songs in The Hobbit strike many readers as rather unusual for this noble and dignified race: simple and at times even nonsensical, these verses do not always have any solemnity or loftiness inherent to the Elvish culture. But even despite the apparent simplicity, the songs that the Elves sing in the book are very telling of their character and can reveal a careful reader a lot about the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar.
The first point to be taken into account when we speak of Elvish songs in The Hobbit is that the general tone of the whole book is much lighter than that of The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings. So is the Elves’ poetry: it is more carefree and lively than serious and historical. What is more, when we hear the Elves singing in the book, we find them mostly in everyday situations which do not call for grandeur, but are best accompanied by light-hearted, easy-to-sing songs.
Elvish desire to accompany their mundane chores with songs is not surprising. In The Fellowship of the Ring Bilbo remarks to Frodo: «Not that hobbits would ever acquire quite the Elvish appetite for music and poetry and tales. They seem to like them as much as food, or more» (Fellowship of the Ring, p.311). Gifted singers and musicians, Elves love poetry indeed. It occupies a substantial part of the Elvish culture, and it is in verse that they preserve a lot of historical information, choose to tell tales, pass messages, warnings or provide entertainment.
The most whimsical song we hear from the Elves in The Hobbit is the one welcoming Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves to Rivendell. Totally in the present tense, asking numerous questions and stating obvious things, the song seems to be made up right on the spot by the cheerful Elves or, as Verlyn Flieger remarks (1), it is an occasional song having a clichéd chorus which can be easily tailored to any situation:
O! What are you doing,
And where are you going?
Your ponies need shoeing!
The river is flowing!
here down in the valley!
(The Hobbit, p. 57)
We see that the Elves are simply having fun – in fact, so much fun, that even Gandalf rebukes them for «over merry tongues». But merriness is one of the chief Elvish qualities: they are joyful people and like enjoying themselves. They surprise Bilbo and some Dwarves by calling out their names, which proves that they are also «wondrous folk for news» and that, generally very knowledgeable, Elves are aware about what is happening in the wide lands.
This verse also points to an interesting feature found in a lot of Elvish poetry. The stanzas of the song differ from each other in structure. They do not follow the same pattern strictly, but have several additions of variety in the form of either extra words, or even extra lines. This irregularity shows the unusual approach the Elves take to writing their poetry which thus can be instantly recognisable and distinguished from the poetry of other folk.
In the annotated Hobbit Douglas Anderson shares Tolkien’s draft of another Rivendell poem that is exactly what many readers have come to expect of Elvish poetry. Entitled Elvish Song in Rivendell, the verse did not make it to the published Hobbit and seems to date from the early 1930s. It is the song calling the Elves home:
Come home, come home, ye merry folk!
The sun is sinking, and the oak
In gloom has wrapped its feet,
Come home! The shades of evening loom
Beneath the hills, and palely bloom
Night-flowers white and sweet.
(Annotated Hobbit, p. 92)
This song is again exemplary of the Elvish approach to writing poetry. It consists of three stanzas: the first two have the same rhyme, rhythm and structure, whereas the third takes the life of its own and stands out as an almost odd one out with its reminiscence of an energetic chant: Sing merrily, sing merrily, sing all together! / Let the song go! Let the sound ring! (Annotated Hobbit, p. 92).
Another trait typical of Elvish poetry is beautiful and poetic portrayal of nature in verse. Being tied to Arda and bound to live there until the world endures, Elves love everything nature-wise, so it is unsurprising they speak of it extensively and admiringly in their songs. Treating nature with love and respect, the Elves weave evocative imagery of the world around us into their songs making the verse sound exquisite and nature – look breathtaking.
This love of nature is seen in the song we hear from the Wood-elves in Mirkwood. While doing their usual routine – sending barrels to Lake-town – the Wood-elves are singing. Whereas the short work chant with its «Roll-roll-roll-roll, roll-roll-rolling down the hole» (Hobbit, p.212) is very descriptive of what the Elves are doing and so onomatopoeic that we can almost hear the barrels moving, the other song is a different matter. It describes the way the barrels have to go before they reach Lake-town. The Elves describe this journey in the most poetic way:
Float beyond the world of trees
Out into the whispering breeze,
Past the rushes, past the reeds,
Past the marsh’s waving weeds,
Through the mist that riseth white
Up from mere and pool at night!
This simple song emphasises what is dear to the Wood-elves by concentrating on the world around them. Living in seclusion in the forest of Mirkwood, they are especially close to nature. Their love of all plants shines in detailed mentions of the things growing. The Elves can see the beauty even in the most familiar environment where they have been living for years and never cease to admire the aesthetics of the world around them.
When Gandalf and Bilbo are back to Rivendell, they are again welcomed by a song. Producing the impression of the Elves singing incessantly since their previous encounter, it is very similar to the one the travellers heard on their first stay in the valley, but still there are substantial differences: this new song acquires a more serious air. It seems that nothing has changed in Elrond’s realm since Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves left it the previous summer. Rivendell is still a beautiful place and the Elves are as merry as ever. It feels like all the storms pass Imladris by and the Elves of this land are very much untouched by what has recently occurred in the wide world, except that they know of Smaug’s death of course.
Above all, this song gives us yet another glimpse into Elvish values:
The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure:
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?
Come back to the Valley.
Added to the already familiar emphasis on nature there is one more Elvish value: the comfort of one’s own home. This significance laid in Elvish songs on the immaterial above the material things seem to echo Thorin’s last words to Bilbo: «If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world» (Hobbit, p.333). Drawing our attention to the things that really matter the Elves remind us that the best things in life can be found close at hand if one pays enough attention to them and sets their priorities right.
The final song in The Hobbit we hear from the Elves is a traditional lullaby. Beautiful and evocative in imagery, it is another example of fine Elvish art:
Sing all ye joyful, now sing all together!
The wind’s in the free-top, the wind’s in the heather;
The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower,
And bright are the windows of Night in her tower.
Celebrating the beauty and the quiet of the night, the Elves create a poetic and classic lullaby with a rocking, swinging rhythm – a very suitable verse to be sung at the end of a very long and dangerous journey. It seems to be putting a final stop to the adventures and inviting to the more peaceful environment to relax and have some well-deserved rest.
Elvish songs in The Hobbit are very different in tone and subject matter, but at the same time they are united by several common features. Focused on the present, the songs celebrate the instant moment and show the Elves’ ability to enjoy their lives in the now. All of the verses provide very poetic imagery of the world around us and give readers a glimpse into Elvish culture and values, show what matters to them. Finally, all of the Elvish songs of The Hobbit show a very unusual approach Elves take in composing their songs. Uneven in structure, they often change in rhyme and rhythm abruptly and stanzas can differ from each other significantly even within one song to demonstrate how fine the poets Elves are.
(1) J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia – p. 521
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson – The Hobbit or there and back again: revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2003.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- Michael D. C. Drout – J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment; Taylor & Francis Group, LLC; 2007.
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