Elvish poetry occupies a special place in Tolkien’s Legendarium. It is always instantly recognisable and different from the verse of other peoples in Middle-earth. Varied in style and tone, focus and subject matter, Elvish songs and poems always give a lot of food for thought. Their poems in The Lord of the Rings present a story of their own.

As the Third Age is gradually coming to its end and the dominion of Men is nearing, the Elves feel the inevitable doom of waning, should they stay in Middle-earth. This knowledge of prospective fading and, thus, the necessity to leave Middle-earth for the Undying Lands to avoid such a fate is increasingly haunting the Elves throughout the Third Age. All these leave a significant mark on the Elvish verse that we hear in The Lord of the Rings. It differs dramatically from the light-hearted and lively poems of The Hobbit, and is dominated by nostalgia, sadness and longing.

When in Rivendell, Bilbo puts his finger precisely on the kind of songs and poems the Elves choose to recite in The Lord of the Rings:

He [Frodo] stood still enchanted, while the sweet syllables of the Elvish song fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody. ‘It is a song to Elbereth,’ said Bilbo. ‘They will sing that, and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight. Come on!’

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 312; emphasis mine)

While the phrase «songs of the Blessed Realm» can refer to both – the songs which were made up in the Blessed realm or the songs dedicated to it, one thing is certain: the Elves miss the Undying Lands. Their longing for the Blessed Realms is understandable. It is the place where they belong and will know no waning and fading, and so will be able to live in bliss while Arda endures. By the end of the Third Age the Elves feel like wanderers in Middle-earth and not entirely at home, which feels in their hymn to Elbereth:

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!

O Queen beyond the Western Seas!

O Light to us that wander here

Amid the world of woven trees!

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 105)

The Elves’ calling to Varda seems to be a solace for them in the distant lands far from where their home is. The hymn to their most revered Valië is what links the Elves with Valinor. As we see in The Lord of the Rings, just pronouncing the name of Elbereth can work wonders and help in desperate need, even to those not of Elvish origin. Imagine then what power it must have over the Elvish hearts, who nurse their estel as is their custom and empower it by remembering Varda, calling to her for protection and comfort.

Nostalgia and longing are especially prominent in Galadriel’s songs. Her Song of Eldamar is pierced with sadness and desire to return to the Blessed Realm:

Beyond the Sun, beyond the Moon, the foam was on the Sea,

And by the strand of Ilmarin there grew a golden Tree.

Beneath the stars of Ever-eve in Eldamar it shone,

In Eldamar beside the walls of Elven Tirion.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 489)

Galadriel has dwelt too long in Middle-earth, so her nostalgia and the feeling of homesickness have reached their peak. However, remembering that she is an exile, Galadriel questions a possibility for her to return home. It is a moment of great vulnerability and uncertainty: Galadriel wants to return to Aman, but she is unsure whether she can do it or not. She also understands that with the destruction of the One Ring the fair realm of Lórien will not endure and will fade: While here beyond the Sundering Seas now fall the Elven-tears. / O Lórien! The Winter comes, the bare and leafless Day; / The leaves are falling in the stream, the River flows away (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 490). The end of the Ring and of the Age will mean the end of the Elves and their realms in Middle-earth.

The poem we know as Namárië takes Galadriel’s longing and nostalgia even further. Also referred to as Galadriel’s lament, it is full of melancholy and sadness: ar sindanóriello caita mornië / i falmalinnar imbë met, ar hísië / untúpa Calaciryo míri oialë /  Sí vanwa ná, Rómelli vanwa, Valimar! (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 497)*The song causes sadness in Frodo’s heart in spite of being beautiful: it brings him no comfort. The words of the verse remain graven in his heart, though the Hobbit did not entirely understand them with the song being in Quenya.

Tolkien’s using the ancient Elvish tongue no longer spoken in Middle-earth, but which is still used in the Blessed Realm, emphasises an important point. First, it reminds us of Galadriel’s background: born in Aman, it was the language she learnt to speak long ago, and for her Quenya is the reminder of her home, her past and more blissful days. Moreover, the use of Quenya hints at the depths of Elvish culture and digs even deeper into the past of Arda bringing out an almost dead language, also known as Elven Latin. Thus from the Third Age Tolkien reaches out to the Elder Days, to the Blessed Realm and shows how much time has passed since the world was born and how much the Elves belong to those days of old rather than the Third Age.

It is also the reason why the Elvish songs in The Lord of the Rings are chiefly about the past. The Elves are not really concerned with the present days anymore: for the fair folk they are nearly over. They mostly sing about the heroes and places of the past, like the song of Amroth and Nimrodel or composed by the Elves and sung by Aragorn the tale of Beren and Lúthien. The Elves choose to remember the valiant deeds of their people, battles they won and stories they were part of. They cherish their past and feel strong connection with it, thus detaching themselves from the present of Middle-earth.

Morever, the topics the Elves touch upon in their songs are not generally known in the Great Lands. For most dwellers of Middle-earth of the Third Age all the names and events the Elves mention in their poems are vestiges of the past or something unknown from a distant land, fantastic tales to be told by the fireside. Faramir finds it hard to believe that Galadriel really lives in the Golden Wood, while Théoden marvels at the Ents having considered them no more than a myth. If characters are that surprised by fantastic things around them, no wonder that the Elvish tales present a distant and unreal world to them. Thus we see a gap between the Elves and other dwellers of Middle-earth: the Elves seem almost alien in the world where the Men are increasingly dominant and tales of the past are dismissed as mere myths. 

The song that looks into the future, though not deprived of a certain sadness and melancholy too, is the song of the Sea by Legolas. It is full of longing for the place where he has never been to but would very much like to go:

For our days are ending and our years failing.

I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.

Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,

Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,

In Eressëa, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,

Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever!

(Return of the King, p. 280-281)

The song speaks of the fate of the Elves who will soon all depart from Middle-earth forever and leave it in the power of Men. In many ways it echoes Galadriel’s words about the waning of the Elvish realms and the Elves sailing away. Verlyn Flieger notes that it also links to Sam’s words in the very beginning of the book about the Elves going West. The fair folk leave never to return and take a significant layer of culture and traditions with them, and their poetry in The Lord of the Rings is reflected in Sam’s words:

‘They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the Sea, they are going into the West and leaving us’.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 59)

Notes:

*and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us, and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya for ever. Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar! (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 497)

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. Michael D. C. Drout – J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment; Taylor & Francis Group, LLC; 2007.

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.