During the course of his life J. R. R. Tolkien composed a lot of poems. He tried his hand at various styles, applying them successfully to show where the poem belonged, what inspired it or which culture it could be related to. One of the most interesting examples of Tolkien’s verse is The Hoard.
Long ago only one line was enough to spark Tolkien’s imagination and make him set pen to paper. Line 3052 from Beowulf “iumonna gold galdre bewunden”, which Tolkien translated as “the gold of men of long ago enmeshed in enchantment” (Letters, № 235), brought The Hoard to life. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond name the possible date of the poem composition as the end of 1922 . Its first publication was in 1923 in The Gryphon, the magazine of the University of Leeds, when the poem bore the inspirational line as a title. Besides, this first version was rather different from later rewritings. In 1937 it was reprinted under the same name in The Oxford Magazine, but that was already a largely emended version. With a few more alterations the poem — now entitled The Hoard — was published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book in 1962.
In a letter to Pauline Baynes, who agreed to illustrate The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien wrote in 1961:
I suppose one would also have to except ‘The Hoard’ from being ‘light-hearted’, though the woes of the successive (nameless) inheritors are seen merely as pictures in a tapestry of antiquity and do not deeply engage individual pity. I was most interested by your choice of this as your favourite. For it is the least fluid, being written in [a] mode rather resembling the oldest English verse […]
(Letters, № 235)
Within the world of Middle-earth, the poem, as the whole poetic collection from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, is the translation of Hobbit poetry from the Red Book of Westmarch. These pieces, written by Hobbits (Bilbo, his friends or their descendants in particular) have to do with the legends of the Shire in the late Third Age. Thus The Hoard firmly belongs to the folklore of Middle-earth and, as Tolkien wrote in the preface to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, depended “on the lore of Rivendell, Elvish and Númenórean, concerning the heroic days at the end of the First Age” (Adventures of Tom Bombadil, p. 32).
In the same preface Tolkien noted that there were echoes of the tale of Túrin Turambar and Mîm the Dwarf in the poem. Though there are no names given in The Hoard, some outlines of the events of Middle-earth or the prototypes of some characters from the body of Middle-earth legends can be found reflected there, too: Gods, labouring to make the world a beautiful place; Elves, creating things out of precious metals and gems to accumulate treasure; Dwarves with their sometimes unhealthy love of gold; dragons sleeping on treasure taken from someone else; Men craving for gold and gems. The whole poem might as well be seen as a very general overview of the events of Middle-earth through the prism of a terrible vice playing its ruining part in many of these events, and that vice is greed.
All of the unnamed characters of The Hoard fall victims to the curse of the Elvish gold. The Elves of old create many beautiful things, but soon darkness falls:
But their doom fell, and their song waned,
by iron hewn and by steel chained.
Greed that sang not, nor with mouth smiled,
in dark holes their wealth piled,
graven silver and carven gold:
over Elvenhome the shadow rolled.
(Adventures of Tom Bombadil, p. 98)
After the doom fell, the first person to become possessed by the accursed gold was a dwarf. He spent his entire life making things out of precious metals and working with gems only “to buy the power of kings” (ibid., p. 99). As the years were passing by, he was becoming older and more possessed by the hoard. It dimmed his senses so that he did not even hear the approach of a dragon who killed the dwarf and appropriated the hoard.
In the tales of old, as well as in Tolkien’s tales, dragons are well-known lovers of jewels. They sack kingdoms, pile all the treasure together and sleep on this precious mountain knowing exactly where each thing is, not really having any practical use for the treasure but still lusting for it unhealthily. The dragon who overcame the dwarf was the same. “He would snuff and lick” the gems sticking to his belly and “he knew the place of the least ring beneath the shadow of his black wing” (ibid., p. 99-101). However, after the years spent on the cursed pile he grew old and deaf to everything happening outside. This became his undoing as a young warrior came to the hoard, killed its guardian and appropriated the gold.
Unsurprisingly, the same horrible fate was in store for the warrior who went on to become King. His formerly glorious realm was slowly deteriorating as the treasure was tightening its hold on the king so that he could think of nothing else but the gold. Just like the dwarf and the dragon before him, the king was able to enjoy life no more and took no pleasure in the things he had previously loved: he was only concerned about the hoard. His negligence led to the sack of his kingdom and his own inglorious death.
At the end of the poem only the hoard remains. It is the only thing referred to in the present tense as it is still here, whereas everyone who ever dared touch it has been long dead. Nobody can approach it or unlock the doors where it is hidden. The hoard outlives everyone else:
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.
(Ibid., p. 102)
In these ominous final lines there is a feeling that the hoard, though unwanted and unapproachable at present, will always be there for somebody to find and that sooner or later the day might come when the doors are unlocked and the evil curse awakens again.
The poem has a very definitive tone with an Anglo-Saxon flavour. The rhythm is clearly felt and strengthened by the rhyme: The Hoard calls for slow chanting as it was the tradition with alliterative verse in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond also note the use of the pause between the half-lines, as it was the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon verse . The pause is not marked by a space in the poem, but is rather naturally made when The Hoard is read aloud. Dominating hard consonants, like d, g or b create the effect of hardness, just like the hard bed of gold, silver and gems on which the dragon sleeps. Tolkien used quite a lot of alliteration (the repetition of initial consonants in a line with a certain stress pattern — a very common device in Anglo-Saxon poetry): “On the mound grows the green grass” (ibid., p. 102), “his halls hollow, and his bowers cold” (ibid., 101) or “and the white waters they with gold filled” (ibid., p. 98) and consonance (the repetition of consonant sounds in the words that are in close proximity, usually at the end of words): “Of thieves he thought on his hard bed, and dreamed that on their flesh he fed, their bones crushed, and their blood drank” (ibid., p. 100).
Line 3052 from Beowulf that inspired The Hoard describes a huge pile of treasure with an ancient curse on it: this hoard is not to be touched. The destructive power of greed and the feeling of possessiveness is ever present in Tolkien’s works. Such possessiveness is never good and leads to the undoing of many characters just because of their coveting some treasure. Apart from many other enchantments that could be used, possessiveness and greedy lust for precious things lay another really strong curse on hoards, and its infectious, contagious effect spreads onto anyone touching it. Right was Thorin Oakenshield, who himself fell victim to the dragon-sickness, as Tolkien called it: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (Hobbit, p. 333).
This reflection marks this blog’s third birthday. I would like to thank everyone who has been reading, visiting and sharing my writings for all these years. Your support means the world to me!
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2014
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
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