Thomas Kullmann – Poetic Insertions in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Poetic Insertions in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Thomas Kullmann

Published in Connotations Vol. 23.2 (2013/14)


Throughout The Lord of the Rings, narrative prose is supplemented by poems and songs. The article investigates the nature and functions of these (more than 60) insertions, with a view of providing some indications as to the poetics of this mixture of genres.

All of the poems and songs appear to fulfil a function within the narrative; most of them are sung by a group of characters, or recited by one character for the benefit of a group of listeners, they constitute or record communal experiences, or serve to convey important information. They include songs which accompany wandering, marching to war, drinking, and even bathing; songs which, like ballads, tell a tale from ancient mythology or recent events; riddles, prophecies and incantations; hymns and songs of praise and complaint. Most of them, however, do not serve as expressions of the poet’s or singer’s personal feelings and thus do not correspond to the “mainstream” of English lyric poetry. Their origins can rather be found in Anglo-English poetry or in English folksong, as can be seen from the metres used. Tolkien seems to draw attention to the wealth of a literary and cultural undercurrent which has not usually been recognized by the literary establishment.

The poems and songs of The Lord of the Rings usually give voice to some transcendental experience, open up vistas into a “world beyond,” as e. g. the poem recited by Frodo on “the road” which “goes ever on and on” or the song sung by the Elves when Frodo and his companions first meet them (“Snow-white […]”). The characters usually set about commenting on the poetry or interpreting it. The history of the poems and songs sometimes proves to be relevant to the plot, as does the poem initially recited by Gandalf about the “One Ring.” Gandalf’s competence as a wizard here manifests itself as a philological competence. Sometimes, readers also turn into philologists as they become aware of a poem’s history and the story told by this history, as when Strider sings about Tinúviel, or when Frodo entertains the company at the Prancing Pony inn with a comic song which turns out to be an elaboration of a well-known nursery rhyme. The readers’ attention is attracted to the element of language, of language change and language history.

The poems and songs inserted in The Lord of the Rings appeal to the readers’ interest in sounds, in mechanisms and functions of language, in the creation of meaning and in the potential of stories to structure experience.

1. Poems and Songs in The Lord of the Rings: A Survey

Throughout The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), narrative prose is supplemented by poems and songs.1) As this practice does not correspond to the established conventions of twentieth–century novel writing, I propose to investigate the nature and functions of these insertions in Tolkien's work of fiction, with a view to providing some indications as to the poetics of this mixture of genres.

Concerning the poetic insertions in The Lord of the Rings (more than 60) I should like to proceed from two observations: firstly, all of them appear to fulfil a function within the narrative; they are all part of the plot and motivated by narrative developments.2) Most of the poems and songs are sung by a group of characters or recited by one character for the benefit of a group of listeners; they constitute or record communal experiences; and they serve to convey important information.

Secondly, the poems and songs inserted belong to different, and often very specific, genres and traditions: they include songs which accompany wandering, marching to war, drinking, and even bathing; songs which, like ballads, tell a tale from ancient mythology or recent events; riddles, prophecies and incantations; hymns and songs of praise and complaint. They are of varying length and make use of a large variety of metres and rhyme schemes (a list of the poems and songs is given in the Appendix to this article).

The origins of some of these genres go back to Anglo–Saxon poetry, which includes riddles, charms, complaints (or “elegies”), poems of memorizing as well as tales of heroic deeds (corresponding to nos. 2, 7, 10, 11 and 12 on the list printed in the Appendix).3) The nature poems (no. 6) may remind us of songs in Middle English, like the Harley Lyrics, and their French and Provençal antecedents. Others of the poems and songs in The Lord of the Rings belong to genres or traditions which are part of English “folklore”; they are reminiscent of songs sung at festivals, in taverns, in the nursery, in barracks, at school or in church, serving communal functions specific to the environments mentioned. This particularly applies to the poems and songs listed under nos. 1, 4, 5 and 13, which accompany habitual social activities. Drinking songs (no. 4) have been recorded since antiquity, and some are also found in modern anthologies of English folk–song4); similarly, military officers have always made use of the stimulating effects of music and song (no. 13). Wandering songs (no. 1) are rather well–known in Germany, while they may have been less prevalent in England. The hymns listed under no. 3 can also be considered as “functional poetry” as they obviously accompany some kind of religious observance.5)

The communal functions of the poems and songs listed under the headings of nos. 8 and 10 are not as obvious, as their main purpose is a narrative one. They belong to poetic traditions, however, which certainly flourished (and flourish?) at festivals and in taverns. Narrative verse, in the form of “ballads,” constitutes the bulk of the texts found in anthologies from Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) to The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2012). Many of the traditional ballads deal with England's or Britain's historical and mythological past (like “The Ancient Ballad of Chevy Chace,” “The Ancient Ballad of the Battle of Otterbourne,” “Sir Lancelot du Lake,” etc.)6) and can thus be compared to the tales told in verse about Gil–galad, Tinúviel and Eärendil (Appendix 8.1, 8.2, 8.4).7)

The poems and songs found in The Lord of the Rings are thus reminiscent of a wide range of English poetic traditions and practices34); they do not, however, belong to the category of poetry which is considered to constitute the literary canon. Common definitions of poetry or “the lyric” emphasize the subjectivity of poetry and its function of expressing the poet's personal feelings, as well as “the immediacy of felt experience” (Lindley 3),8) qualities which are certainly found in the work of “canonized” poets like Petrarca, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats. In The Lord of the Rings, it is only in some few poems (listed under the heading of “meditation,” no. 9) that the speaker or singer gives words to his or her personal outlook and plans, using the first person singular pronoun; but even here, as in the songs composed and sung by Bilbo, the hobbit, and by Galadriel, the elf queen, the outlook voiced is a typical rather than an individual or subjective one.

An analysis of the metrical forms used corroborates these observations: the poems and songs of The Lord of the Rings make use of a wide variety of metres, the most original of which is certainly the alliterative verse used by the “Ents” and the “Riders of Rohan,” which obviously follows the rules of Old English alliterative poetry (as e.g. in the Beowulf epic).9) It is mainly used for heroic praise (no. 10) and memorizing (no. 12), two “genres” which are also found in Old English poetry.

Most (if not all) of the other metres used are part of the repertoire of English folksong. The most prominent metre found in the novel is iambic tetrameter, with rhyming couplets. This metre is mainly used for the walking songs (no. 1), for some of the hymns (no. 3) and some of the mythological tales (no. 8). Tolkien here resorts to a metre sometimes found in narrative folk poetry—there are several examples in Percy's Reliques10)—, but which was also used by Geoffrey Chaucer (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Romaunt of the Rose) and occurs in Renaissance pastoral poetry (e.g. Marlowe, “Come live with me and be my love,” The Penguin Book of English Verse 31–32), in some metaphysical poems (e.g. Marvell, “Had We but World Enough and Time,” The Penguin Book of English Verse 135–36) and in nineteenth–century children's poems (e.g. Stevenson, “In winter I get up at night,” A Child's Garden of Verses 1). While it is a very simple metre, it is also a metrical form which links Tolkien to canonized, highbrow poetry. Sometimes iambic tetrameter poems take a more sophisticated form by using alternate rhymes (10.1) or a complex strophic structure (8.2).

The poems listed under the heading of “riddling information/prophesy” (no. 2) are mostly composed in a dactylic mode, with lines in which a stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed ones.11) This metre certainly allows for verse which is closer to the rhythms of English prose; many narrative folksongs make use of this metre.12)

Another of the metres used, however, has often been considered to be characteristic of folklore: the ballad metre which can be analysed as iambic heptameter, with a caesura (or even a pause) after the fourth stress, used for poem 6.3 (“When spring unfolds the beechen leaf”) and 9.2 (“I sang of leaves”).13) According to Geoffrey Russom, this metre is sometimes called “common metre” (57). There may also be a rhyme at the end of the first part of the heptametric line, so that we could speak of a ballad stanza (with four stresses in lines 1 and 3, and three in lines 2 and 4) rhyming alternately; this is the metre used in a song sung by Legolas, telling a mythological tale (8.6), and in the meditative verses by Bilbo (9.1) and Sam (9.4). In Percy's Reliques the ballad metre is the most prominent form of narrative verse (e.g. “King Estmere,” “Sir Patrick Spence,” “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,” “The Children in the Wood”).14) The iambic octometer used in the long tale of Eärendil the mariner (8.4; 227–30), which on the page is rendered as four–line stanzas with four metrical feet each, the second and fourth line rhyming, also constituted a metrical form much used in popular narrative verse.15)

Some of the poems and songs found in The Lord of the Rings resist metrical categorization: while they are rhymed in couplets and contain a fixed number of stresses, the number of unstressed syllables between the stresses is not determined. When using traditional terms of prosody, we can only classify these metres as “irregular”; this term, however, might be considered a misnomer, as, in the poetry in Old and (in part) Middle English, as well as in the early stages of the ballad and folksong traditions, it is “regular” that stresses rather than syllables are counted.16) As an Anglo–Saxon scholar, Tolkien may have considered syllabic metres as an import from French and other Romance languages, and set store by the “accentual metre” (Leech 118) characteristic of native (Germanic) poetic traditions. Characteristically, accentual metres most often occur in songs and poems which belong to Old English genres: incantations (no. 7, but also cf. 2.1), praise (10),35) complaint (11); they are also used for “familiar” poetry: drinking and bathing songs (4, 5), and “natural magic” (6).36)

We see that Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings makes use of a wide variety of traditional and popular metrical forms, choosing metres with respect to situation and genre. Sometimes a variation goes along with a shift in the addresser or addressee: in Frodo's elegy on Gandalf, supposed dead, his lines rhyme alternately; when Sam adds a stanza, he switches to couplets (10.1; 350–51). The message in verse by Queen Galadriel addressed to Aragorn is much less regular than that given to Legolas (491–92). With all these variations Tolkien consistently avoids the metres prominent in canonized and anthologized poetry from Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare to Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, most notably iambic pentameter, rhymed or unrhymed.17) As with the poetic genres, Tolkien seems to draw attention to the wealth of a literary and cultural undercurrent which (while it has been the object of study of antiquarian and folklore societies and individual researchers since the sixteenth century)18) has not usually been recognized by representatives of the literary establishment. His pretexts from popular and folk culture can be located in forms known from the periods of Old and Middle English, as well as folkloristic traditions from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.19)

However, two aspects the poems do have in common with a lot of canonical poetry, and Romantic poetry in particular: they are sometimes difficult to understand; and that they often give voice to some transcendental experience, open up vistas into a “world beyond.”20) In The Lord of the Rings it is the listeners and sometimes even the singers themselves who are baffled by the poems' words, and this uncertainty sometimes provides suspense and furthers the plot.21) It should also be noted that, while the poems are part and parcel of the plot, they are clearly marked as a distinct type of utterance; they are sung or recited; and the beginning and end of song or recitation are clearly marked. On the printed page this distinction between poetry and prose is emphasized by the italics invariably used to reproduce poetry.37)

2. Poetry and the World Beyond

As an example of the transcendental quality of poetry I should like to refer to the poem recited by Gandalf the wizard (2.1):

Three Rings for the Elven–kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf–lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
. (The Lord of the Rings 49)

Alliterations (“Mortal men”) and repetitions (“Dark Lord on his dark throne”) serve to set off the poetic text from ordinary narrative prose and evoke the sentiment of a world beyond the ordinary world, full of mystery and danger. The poem climaxes in a kind of incantation, describing the superior powers of the One Ring, with its triadic phrasing and the repetition of the place–name of Mordor. With the discovery of this very ring, the supernatural world, or rather the world beyond, has entered the cosy environment of Frodo the hobbit at Hobbiton in the Shire. To the reader, Frodo's experience of the supernatural is conveyed as an experience of poetic language. The shift from prose to poetry serves to direct the focus of the reader's attention away from the meaning to sound and form, from the signifié to the signifiant. It is the beauty of the language—of repetition, metre, and rhyme—which suggests a notion of a world beyond the extent of which cannot be comprehended in ordinary words, i.e. words which only convey a meaning rather than an experience of sound.

When Frodo sets off on his quest, this to him constitutes a setting–off to the unknown, and again this experience of reaching out into an unknown world is expressed through a poem (1.1):

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say
. (72)

To Frodo, this poem conveys the notion of the world beyond the confines of the known world, the Shire. To the reader, it is again through the poetic devices of repetition, metre, and rhyme that this experience of crossing boundaries is represented.

It comes as no surprise that the Elves are also introduced through a poetic insertion. At the hobbits' first meeting with the Fair Folk, they hear a song (no. 3.1):

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!

If the hobbits only partly understand the song, so will the readers: the elves sing of a world “beyond the Western Seas” which we have not heard about yet. This world is apparently characterized by beauty, by extreme whiteness, light, shining, and silver. The hobbits' excitement at meeting the elves, this supernatural people, is conveyed to the reader as an experience of language, with repetition, metre, and rhyme elevating the words from common speech. The language does not just denote beauty, it becomes beauty. This is not least because of the beautiful names mentioned in stanzas 2 and 4, of Elbereth and Gilthoniel, names that emphasize the letter l, which obviously characterizes this people of Elves. Their association with the letter and sound of l seems to convey the notion of the elves being –l–ight, –l–iquid, e–l–usive, possessing a set of characteristics conveyed by the sound itself, which is clearly iconic in that it appears to resemble the meanings attached to it.22) The elvish song, of course, becomes pure sound, pure signifiant, when we hear or read it in the original Elvish tongue (poem no. 3.2).23)

It is in the form of poems, as well, that mythological tales from the world of the elves are made known to the characters and the reader, as in the verses on Gil–galad the Elven–king (no. 8.1) and the tale of Tinúviel and Beren (no. 8.2). The “enchantment” mentioned in the latter text (beginning of third stanza, 187), is transmitted to the reader by the poetic form. Again, an experience out of the ordinary (the passion of love) is experienced as language out of the ordinary.

3. Hobbits (and Readers) as Philologists

The main phenomenon which characterizes the poetry found in The Lord of the Rings is the embedding of these poems in the narrative: the characters do not just recite or listen to poetry, they usually set about commenting on it or interpreting it.38) Their interpretations do not primarily consist in elucidating the meaning; indeed, sometimes uncertainties are left as they are. What interests the characters more is the provenance of these poetic texts. The poems and songs of The Lord of the Rings have a history which is often discussed by the listeners and sometimes proves to be relevant to the plot; like the ballads mentioned above, they also appear to be part of a living tradition, as some of the characters are shown as being engaged in translating and communicating ancient as well as more recent poetry.

Let us look at the first quotation again containing the poem about the Rings: Frodo finds engraved on the mysterious and indestructible ring an unreadable script which is represented on the printed page. The mystery of the ring's magic is conveyed to the reader as a mystery about a piece of ancient writing. Gandalf can identify the characters and the language as “Elvish, of an ancient mode” (49). It was not just written by elves, but by elves of some former period of time. Gandalf also knows the meaning, which he renders in poetic language, using the Common Tongue spoken by the hobbits, rendered as English on the printed page. It is the complexity of the provenance of the poetic text which greatly enhances its significance and conveys a notion of the ring's importance to the reader. At the same time, Gandalf's competence as a wizard manifests itself as a philological competence which the reader can witness on the printed page.

The hobbits themselves also engage in a philological exercise when Frodo, on setting out, speaks the poem beginning “The Road goes ever on and on.” Pippin remarks “that [it] sounds like a bit of old Bilbo's rhyming” (72), reminding him of the style of Bilbo as a poet. He wonders if Frodo imitated Bilbo's verses; Frodo himself cannot say if he made up the poem on the spot or heard it long ago. Actually, the words are almost identical to those sung by Bilbo seventeen years and thirty–seven pages before (35) when saying farewell to Gandalf. While Bilbo sung the lines, Frodo is speaking them. The reader is invited to become a philologist, to make an attempt at supplying those pieces of interpretation which the characters are trying to grasp.24)

The hobbits also discuss the tone and meaning of these lines. On Pippin's remarking that the poem “does not sound altogether encouraging,” Frodo replies by giving an outline of Bilbo's philosophy of life:

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to […]” (72)

Bilbo is certainly unique among the hobbits in imagining life as a journey toward the unknown, to a world beyond, a journey beset by dangers and uncertainties. Frodo, and the reader, enter into this image, and premonition, when Frodo sets out on his quest, the poem emphasizing the importance of this step. We should also note that, as with the poem on the ring, the significance of the poem is enhanced by its being old. If Frodo had made it up on the spot it would not carry the connotations of ancient wisdom and general truth.

If the poem, as recited by Frodo, does not sound altogether encouraging, this is certainly due to a slight but significant change in the wording: while the fifth line in Frodo's version reads “Pursuing it with weary feet,” Bilbo sung “Pursuing it with eager feet.” This change of adjectives obviously characterizes the greater psychological depth of Frodo's quest which, more than Bilbo's journeys, can perhaps be understood as emblematic of the storms and stresses of human life.25)

This poem can well be compared to another one, which two other hobbits, Pippin and Merry, make up, albeit using phrases from previous texts (1.3):

Farewell we call to hearth and hall!
Though wind may blow and rain may fall,
We must away ere break of day
Far over wood and mountain tall
. (104)

The narrator informs us that this song “was made on the model of the dwarf–song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune” (104). The reference is to the story of Bilbo and the dwarves setting out to regain the treasure stolen by Smaug the dragon, as told in Tolkien's previous work of fiction, The Hobbit (1937). Readers of The Lord of the Rings are invited to look up the reference themselves, in case they have a copy of The Hobbit ready. The main similarity consists in the exclamation: “We must away! We must away! / We ride before the break of day!” (104). In The Hobbit, the song contains several stanzas with a very similar wording; this is what Bilbo hears when going to sleep:

Far over the misty mountain cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day,
To find our long–forgotten gold
. (36, cf. 24–25)

Actually, the messages or tendencies of the two songs are rather different. While the song in The Hobbit conveys the dwarves' greed and stubbornness, Pippin and Merry give voice to a spirit of adventure, looking forward to seeing the elves, among other things.26)

The borrowing from the dwarf–song, however, is not the only one: Readers of The Lord of the Rings will easily recognize the line “and whither then we cannot tell,” from Bilbo's and Frodo's song. The poem turns out to be a composite of previous texts. This, of course, as Julia Kristeva has taught us (see 66), applies to all texts, but in The Lord of the Rings this intertextual mechanism is “metatextually” rendered explicit (cf. Kullmann 37–38).

A different sort of metapoetical reflection is provoked when Frodo answers the poem as if it were an ordinary communicative utterance:

“Very good!” said Frodo. “But in that case there are a lot of things to do before we go to bed—under a roof, for tonight at any rate.” “Oh! That was poetry!” said Pippin. “Do you really mean to start before the break of day?” (The Lord of the Rings 104)

Pippin seems to share the assumption of many amateur poets that poetry is not to be taken seriously, that it is an exercise in wit rather than in conveying some truth. Frodo will soon remind his friends of the real dangers awaiting them on their journey which do indeed necessitate an early start.

Poems, and indeed texts in general, are shown to be dependent on one another, and thus to tell a story, additional to the information conveyed by the words. The poetic sensibility of the characters of The Lord of the Rings, and, by implication, the reader, is based on an aesthetics of imitation rather than originality. The value of a poetical text is enhanced by its age and history. In order to read and appreciate the story told by a poem's history, readers become philologists.

Another example of philology entering the plot of The Lord of the Rings occurs when Sam Gamgee recites a poem, provoked by Strider's remark on the history of the ground they are crossing:

“[…] It is told that Elendil stood there watching for the coming of Gil–galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance.” The hobbits gazed at Strider. It seemed that he was learned in old lore, as well as in the ways of the wild. “Who was Gil–galad?” asked Merry; but Strider did not answer, and seemed to be lost in thought. (185)

Strider, whom the hobbits only knew as a wanderer, unexpectedly turns out to be learned in “old lore.” But more surprises are coming when Sam Gamgee begins “murmuring” the poem (no. 8.1):

Gil–galad was an Elven–king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea
. (181)

If the company was surprised by Strider, they are even more so when learning that Sam, the ordinary hobbit, has also been infiltrated by elf–lore.

Sam Gamgee rather inadvertently provides a poetic answer to the question “Who was Gil–galad?” by repeating a song he had heard from Bilbo, but never understood. Now it is Strider's turn to be surprised, as he never knew that Bilbo had been aware of elfen–lore to that extent. Sam's lines appear as “part of the lay that is called The Fall of Gil–galad, which is in an ancient tongue” (181–82). Readers of The Lord of the Rings will of course be able to notice the similarity of the line on Mordor: “in Mordor where the shadows are” (181) to that of the ring poem, “in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie” (49) and begin to be aware of the hidden connectedness of the ancient history of Middle–earth (cf. Shippey, The Road to Middle–earth 85). They are also put in a position to reflect on the process of oral traditions: Just as with some nonsensical nursery rhymes, words and sounds may have been preserved while the meaning has not.

Poetry emerges as the main medium in the process of handing down ancient history or myth. This also applies to the tale of Tinúviel which is told, or rather “chanted,” by Strider (no. 8.2):

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock–umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glittering
. (The Lord of the Rings 187)

Strider then proceeds to give the footnotes: the song is a translation of an elf poem composed in a special genre which is given an elfish name, “ann–thennath” (189). As the present version only provides a “rough echo” (189) of it, curiosity is raised to know the original. The hobbits' desire to see the elves is conveyed to the reader as a philological desire of discovering a hidden source and understanding an ancient language.

Strider's introduction to his chanting contains a discussion of the effects of this poem: it is fair, it is sad, and it lifts up our hearts (187). The poem tells an archetypal love–story; it is fair because the beauty of the lady is conveyed through the beauty of the song's form, tune, and language; it is sad because we are induced to imagine the difficulties experienced by the lovers; and it is uplifting because it allows us to experience the grand feeling of love and brings us closer to the ultimate potential of humanity.27)

On the plot level, the poem takes the hobbits deeper into the world of the elves and the history of Middle–earth in which they are going to take a part; they can certainly do with an uplifting of hearts, given the heroism which will be expected of them. Strider's interpretive remarks allow the reader to see the potential of the interpretation of old texts with regard to a widening of his or her outlook on the world.28)

In another instance it is the readers themselves who are called upon to become philologists: like many other songs in The Lord of the Rings, the song sung by Frodo at the Prancing Pony inn (no. 4.2) is reputed to have been written by Bilbo; its genre is given as “ridiculous song” (154). It is composed using a five–line stanza, which may remind us of nineteenth–century comic verse.29) Before the poem is quoted, the narrator gives the reader a subtle hint as to the poem's intertextual connections, saying: “Only a few words of it are now, as a rule, remembered” (154). It is only in the course of reading the poem that we become aware of the words we remember.30)

At the beginning, the poem records a rather idyllic scene at a country inn, so that it could serve as a song which accompanies drinking. The only nonsensical elements are the Man in the Moon who patronizes that inn, a tipsy cat who provides entertainment as a fiddler, and a dog who can understand jokes.

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five–stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle
. (155)

The cow who begins to dance when listening to music could even be considered to come from real life (stanza 4):

They also keep a hornéd cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green
. (155)

It is when the Man in the Moon has drunk a lot that the dish and the spoon begin to dance, too, which is possibly a quirk of the man's drunken imagination (6th stanza):

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased his tail
. (155)

The mad prancing of the cow in the garden and the little dog chasing his tail, however, appear to belong to real life. So do the man rolling beneath his chair, the innkeeper's appeal to his assistant (the cat) to look after the Man in the Moon's horses, the fiddler's attempts to wake the man by fiddling hard, and the transferral of the man outside. At this point, things get out of hand. The man is bundled back into the moon, the dish runs up with the spoon, the cow and horses stand on their head, and finally (penultimate stanza):

With a ping and a pong the fiddle–strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon
. (186)

It is then, at the latest, that we recognize the few words of this song which are still remembered. They consist of the famous nursery rhyme:

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
(The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, no. 213 [240])

Like many nonsensical nursery rhymes, this one might originally have carried some meaning which, however, has not been found.31)

As Thomas Honegger notes, Frodo's song had originally been published by Tolkien in 1923, entitled “The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked” (see 43). Through Frodo's song, Tolkien obviously offers a playful theory on how to account for this nursery rhyme. While Honegger in his article concentrates on the literary antecedents of the Man in the Moon motif, I should like to make some remarks on the impact of Frodo's song on the reader: he or she is playfully given a source text and invited to deal with it philologically, i.e. to engage in tracing the further developments of this text until it reaches its present mutilated form. We are also invited to speculate on the plausibility of this comic drinking–song being the origin of the rhyme (cf. Shippey, The Road to Middle–earth 28–30). To add to this philological game, Tolkien appends two footnotes to the text of this poem. One of them refers the reader to another footnote in one of the appendices, where Tolkien, as author, explains that the hobbits observe Fridays as holidays rather than Sundays, and that he substituted the original references to Thursday and Friday in the poem by Saturday and Sunday (1084). The other footnote provides an explanation of the personal pronoun given to the sun: “Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She” (156). Readers with some philological training will realize that this gendering follows Germanic conventions, as in the German language, rather than the English poetic convention of referring to the sun as “he,” as in Latin.

4. Conclusion

Poetic insertions in The Lord of the Rings invariably serve to introduce the notion of a world beyond that of ordinary experience. They do so by turning the readers' attention to the element of language—of language change and language history—and they induce the readers to become philologists in order to enter the intricacies of the plot. These metalinguistic elements thus create an awareness of the historical dimension of human experience and invite comparison with the scholarly endeavour of historical philologists like Tolkien himself. The Lord of the Rings is to a considerable extent a comment not just on language and literature, but on philological scholarship, with a glance not just at the academic study of Old and Middle English, but also at the research of folklorists not infrequently undertaken by amateur scholars.

The position of Tolkien in literary scholarship is a precarious one. His reputation as an author has been damaged on the one hand by the excessive sales of his books (nothing but trash could possibly be so popular), and on the other hand by well–meant but rather incompetent attempts at criticism by members of the community of Tolkien fans.32) These fans (who usually appear to know Tolkien by heart, but have read little else) tend to lose themselves in the intricacies of the genealogy of Tolkien's elves and wizards but fail to take account of the central tangible property of his writing: language.39) While some Tolkien aficionados have devoted a lot of time and energy to deciphering the Elvish languages invented by Tolkien, his interest in the poetic, rhythmic, and musical qualities of English has largely gone unnoticed.33) Tolkien, as far as I am aware, is not mentioned in any general account of twentieth–century English poetry. I hope that this contribution may help establish Tolkien's language as an object of scholarship and provide some answers to the question asked by American critic Edmund Wilson:

Why was this “balderdash” so popular, Edmund Wilson asked himself, in The Nation (14 April 1956). Well, he concluded, it was because “certain people—especially, perhaps, in Britain—have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.” (Shippey, The Road to Middle–earth 1)

The Lord of the Rings, I should like to contend, does indeed appeal to a childlike or juvenile interest in sounds, in mechanisms and functions of language, in the creation of meaning, in the potential of stories to structure experience. As a philologist, Tolkien retained this juvenile interest and curiosity in adult life; and in his novel, he appeals to the hidden philologist in his young and adult readers, to those who have retained their childish or childlike curiosity about the potential of sounds and language.

University of Osnabrück

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