Friday, October 2, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: Fog on the Barrow-Downs

Goldberry, acrylic on board, Brothers Hildebrandt (1977)

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: 
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!
The barrows are alive with the sound of music! 

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
Now I know that song is central to Tolkien's mythology -- after all, his creation story in The Silmarillion is a vast piece of music. It's clear that Tolkien saw music as intrinsic to both magic and holiness. But today I'm not so much interested in Tolkien's myths, as I am in taking a step back and looking at the structure of his book, laced as it is with musical interludes.

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.
(Exodus 15:1)
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!
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)
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. 

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.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 9. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 7 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Goldberry" Acrylic on Board (1976).]


  1. The Rankin-Bass Hobbit movie was a good-faith (and hare-brained) attempt to add contemporary music to Tolkien. It matched the book by seeming to show that the characters (heroes and villains both) sang as part of their day-to-day lives. And the stage musical of LotR from about 10 years ago added modern music and dance that arose organically from the action. Do you think either of these captured what Tolkien was going for?

  2. I like to imagin Tolkien putting music in his mind to all these songs and humming while writing. I really wonder how they sounded for him.

    1. My understanding is that there are some recordings of Tolkien singing the songs in The Fellowship of the Ring (I think the CD is still available on Amazon.) I just searched youtube, and there is a nice version of JRRT singing the dwarves' song from The Hobbit:

  3. What a lovely, interesting, and thought provoking post. ;)

  4. The prose and poetry admixture comes from Tolkiens love of the works of William Morris (which he points to in Letters) but here's an example:

    The man was young, lithe and slender, and had no raiment but linen breeches round his middle, and skin shoes on his feet. As he stood there gathering his breath for speech, Thiodolf stood up, and poured mead into a drinking horn and held it out towards the new-comer, and spake, but in rhyme and measure:

    “Welcome, thou evening-farer, and holy be thine head,
    Since thou hast sought unto us in the heart of the Wolfings’ stead;
    Drink now of the horn of the mighty, and call a health if thou wilt
    O’er the eddies of the mead-horn to the washing out of guilt.
    For thou com’st to the peace of the Wolfings, and our very guest thou art,
    And meseems as I behold thee, that I look on a child of the Hart.”

    House of the Wolfings

    Tolkien doesn't go quite so far as to have verse for every utterance as Morris does, and of course narrative poetry has a central position in Old English and Icelandic literature. Agree that poetry does seem to be Tolkiens idea of a purer, earlier, higher and more true language, and hadn't considered Tolkiens Catholicism to have a bearing on that, and you're probably right.

    On this reading, beyond the magic of language, the Fog on the Barrowdowns was all about the randomly generated hex-crawl sandbox campaign!

  5. The centrality of poetry/song in Anglo-Saxon life cannot be underestimated nor the role of music/poetry in the Mass which Tolkien attended daily. The rythmns of his faith are reflected in his writings.
    Goldberry dancing has echoes for me of Shiva and also the Hassidic stream of Judaism.

  6. Don't discount Tolkien's documented love for the Finnish language, which influenced his Elvish. The Kalevala has characters who effect magical results through song. Vainaminoen is the exemplar. There is even a singing contest between wizards the n one tale.

  7. Fascinating comments! So much to say. Matthew's comment reminded me of Rankin/Bass' "Return of the King" with its highly musical orcs: ("Where there's a whip there's a way")

    And Zhu's point about William Morris is fascinating. I've never read any of his works but now I'm going to have to dive in. It sounds like he does provide some form of the "precedent" that I was looking for.

    What tradgardmastare and Doomsdave said about the Kaleva reminds me of the battle of spells and songs between Sauron and Finrod Felagund in the Silmarillion. It's one of my favourite passages:

    "He chanted a song of wizardry/Of piercing, opening, of treachery,\Revealing, uncovering, betraying,/Then sudden Felagund there swaying/sang in answer a song of staying."

    What's intriguing to me is that there are so few episodes of singing in the Silmarillion, as opposed to The LotR and The Hobbit. The Sauron/Felagund poem is the only important episode of singing that I can think of off-hand, and even that is specially bracketed by Tolkien, who tells us that the verse is actually from another (fictional) work, 'The Lay of Leithian':

    "For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the king was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian" [and the poem follows]

    I find that reference to the Lay of Leithian fascinating. It reminds me a lot of the lament of David that I quoted in my original post. Right before that poem, the biblical narrator tells us that this song comes from the (now lost) Book of Jashar. Such a literary device gives this part of the Silmarillion a biblical feel: a compound of overlapping songs and stories.

    But why are there so many more songs in the LotR than the Silmarillion? This goes back to genre, I guess. Perhaps there's something about the lightness of verse that JRRT thought was (generally) incompatible with the elevated tone of the Silmarillion -- whereas both The Hobbit and The LotR are (at root) books written by hobbits.

    1. The Silmarillion as pubished doesn't contain much verse. but Tolkien wrote verse versions of several of the tales, published in the History of Middle Earth series. It may be that the editorial direction of the 1977 Silmarillion was more prose-orientated for commercial reasons. I'm quite sure, though I could not point to a source off-hand (maybe rivendell?), that Tolkien conceived of Elvish lore generally to be transmitted in poetic form.

  8. The 16th century Chinese work, "Journey to the West" (upon which the TV series "Monkey" is based) employs a lot of poetry and singing throughout. Monkey will frequently break out into a poem or song describing the heroic feats his staff had performed.

  9. Late to the debate. Sorry. I thought of Tom Bombadil as the Lord of the Dance, and agreed with Doomsdave and Tradgardmastare about Väinämöinen.

    Once the creation is finished he only makes fleeting interventions (just the one in LOTR). He lets us get on with making our own decisions, and allows evil to occur for reasons we do not know.