Chapter 8 of The Fellowship of the Ring
In this chapter, Frodo and the hobbits leave the hospitality of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. Almost immediately, they get lost in the hills east of the Old Forest. In a dream-like sequence, they are trapped by wraiths and entombed in one of the burial mounds, where Tom rescues them in one last timely intervention.
The line in this chapter that struck me hardest comes near the chapter's opening, as the hobbits depart from Tom's house and turn for one final look at Goldberry:
There on the hill-brow she stood beckoning to them: her hair was flying loose, and as it caught the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the glint of water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet as she danced.Think about that last word: danced. Danced? Goldberry isn't waving goodbye, or blowing kisses. She is dancing so that the grass "flashes" under her feet. Is she tap-dancing? Pirouetting? Cakewalking? Well, your guess is as good as mine. In any case, it's an extraordinary image. But it's not an outlier. This one word made me realize how much song and dance play a role in the chapter and the book as a whole.
Consider: So far, the book has been liberally salted with songs/poems (Eight by my count, plus numerous musical numbers delivered by Tom). Hobbits frequently dance, like when Frodo's companions dance for joy when he decides to take them on his journey or when Tom dances at the beginning of the present chapter. And, most significantly, in the first paragraph of this chapter, Tolkien tells us that Frodo "heard a sweet singing running in his mind" as he lay dreaming. This beautiful music seems to give Frodo a connection with the higher powers.
But it isn't merely the forces of good that sing. As Frodo lies in the barrow, even the wraiths break out into song:
Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable.Music is equally essential to the rescue of the hobbits in this chapter. Frodo summons Tom with a song that Tom taught him. And Tom triumphs by entering the tomb and out-singing the wraiths:
Tom stooped, removed his hat, and came into the dark chamber, singing:
The barrows are alive with the sound of music!Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight! Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
I have a suspicion that most readers politely blot most of this singing and dancing out of their minds as they read. Certainly, this is the route taken by filmmakers like Peter Jackson, in whose films the music is kept on a short tether. After all, if you take all the music and dance at face value, The Lord of the Rings becomes a cross between a novel and a musical. Like in a musical, characters dance and (especially) sing in order to express strong emotions.
|From the Lord of the Rings musical|
It's easy to forget how unusual all this poetry really is. I was recently at a book launch for Giles Blunt, the thriller writer. One of the characters in his new book is a poet, and he included several of her poems in the book. At the launch, he especially thanked his editor at Random House for keeping these poems in the text, since most publishers have a strict "no poetry policy" (in his words) for all novels. Now of course, Tolkien wasn't writing a thriller -- but it's fair to ask, what sort of book does include so many characters who are ready to sing when they walk, bathe, or suck the life out of hobbits?
I have trouble finding clear precedents in literature. Greece and Rome bequeathed to us a a sharp division between poetry and prose; something was either a poem (like The Aeneid) or it was prose (like The Annals) -- so classical epic isn't much of a precedent. Similarly, chivalric epics (which were a big influence on Tolkien) were sometimes written in prose and sometimes in verse, but they don't mix the two. Norse Sagas, of course, have poetry interspersed in the text -- but I'm not sure that this poetry was actually sung by the characters, as much as it was composed and then recited. And certainly, there's not a lot of dancing in the Icelandic Sagas.
The Hebrew Bible is the only book I can think of where song and dance are often incorporated into the text as the natural behaviour of the characters. For instance, look at these passages from Exodus:
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying,
I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously:
the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (Exodus 15:20)Also famous is King David, whose singing and harp-playing a central to the story of his life. Think of his haunting lament at the death of Saul and Jonathan:
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!But even in the Bible, this mix of song and prose narrative is primarily a result of the way the Bible was written: many hands over time stitched together folk tales, folk songs, courtly histories, and hymns into a patchwork quilt. As a result, you will often get songs jumbled together with stories. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was written by one man as one coherent work.
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. (2 Samuel 1:19-20)
Where does this leave us? Well, my main point is a simple one: don't let familiarity mask how unusual The Lord of the Rings actually is. The characters often sing and dance in ways that are highly unrealistic. This is not normal for a novel, and certainly not a fantasy novel. It's an approach to portraying reality that resembles a musical more than an epic.
Why? Musicals are such a popular genre of performance because song and dance can deliver a powerful emotional punch -- a punch which is much harder to deliver with nothing but the spoken word. Although breaking into song isn't true to life, audiences in a theatre leave this aside because the music delights them and heightens their experiences. I think it is this heightened world that Tolkien wanted to create with his own songs. He envisioned a hyper-real world, where the colours were more vivid and the landscape throbbed with strange life. In this fantasy world, wizards cast spells and elves live forever -- and people sing to express their feelings. It's all part of the same magical and fantastic world.
[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Goldberry" Acrylic on Board (1976).]
You can find my commentary on Chapter 7 here.