April is a good month for Tolkien conferences in the U.S.
In a few days, the 16th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference will take place at the University of Vermont in Burlington. This year’s theme is Tolkien and Horror, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Yvette Kisor from Ramapo College, who will be talking about “The horror of the unnarrated: Implications for Tolkien’s reader.”
This is always a small and friendly conference, and this year there’s an extra treat for participants – a private, advance screening of the Tolkien biopic directed by Dome Karukoski.
In addition to Dr. Kisor’s keynote address and the after-movie discussions, there will be sessions on:
Nature, Madness, and Humor
The Perils of Faerie
UVM Undergraduate Voices
Horror of Words
Horrors of Modernity
On the Borders of Horror
You can find the full schedule of speakers and titles for Friday, April 5 to Saturday, April 6 here.
A couple of weeks later, the Popular Culture Association conference will be held in Washington, DC from April 17 to April 20. In contrast to the Vermont meeting, this is a massive event with many different subject areas. The Tolkien sessions, though, organized by Dr. Robin Reid, take place Thursday, April 18 to Friday, April 19 and focus on the following topics:
Adaptations of Tolkien’s Legendarium
Enchantment, Healing, and Despair in The Lord of the Rings
March 25, designated by the Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day, is meant to encourage the reading of Tolkien’s works individually or in group events. A new theme is announced every year, and for 2019 it’s “Tolkien and the mysterious.”
My current reading focuses on Tolkien’s
verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorhthelm’s Son – let’s call it The
Homecoming for short – and a specific moment in the play in which one of
the characters experiences a mysterious vision.
It’s not one of Tolkien’s best-known works, so first a quick summary: The Homecoming is a short drama for two voices based on the events recounted in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes an English defeat at the hands of Viking invaders in the year 991. Beorhtnoth is the English lord who is killed in the battle, but his loyal followers fight on against hopeless odds. Often-quoted lines from the poem are spoken by an old warrior, here in Old English, then followed by Tolkien’s translation:
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, Mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.
“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.” (124)
Tolkien wrote that he thought these Old
English lines weren’t original in this poem but instead “an ancient and
honoured expression of heroic will” (124).
The events of Tolkien’s play The Homecoming occur after the battle is over, when two servants are sent by the local Abbot to find and bring back Beorhtnoth’s body for burial. They are out on a gruesome battlefield in the dark of night, surrounded by mangled corpses, trying to understand what happened in the fighting. They think of ghosts, are startled by a hooting owl, and face sudden danger when they come upon and fight some corpse robbers. After they identify a few of the dead who were closest to Beorhtnoth, they make their way to where they discover what remains of their lord. One of the servants is a young poet who shows several times that he is capable of composing verses in moments when the two men honour their dead lord. Eventually they carry his body to their wagon and start on the way home. That’s where the young poet, lying in their cart, starts nodding off and speaks “drowsily and half dreaming” (140):
There are candles in the dark and cold voices. I hear mass chanted for master’s soul in Ely isle. Thus ages pass, and men after men. Mourning voices of women weeping. So the world passes; day follows day, and the dust gathers, his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it, and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle. So men flicker and in the mirk go out. The world withers and the wind rises; the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.
This young man, whose name is Torhthelm or Totta for short, seems to be seeing into the future – the present or near future in hearing mass chanted for Beorhtnoth among the monks in Ely — but then followed by a sweeping view of ages in the future until the “world withers” and all seems to die out.
This view intensifies in the next few moments. The stage directions state that Totta continues with “the voice of one speaking in a dream,” and he seems to enter into a mysterious vision, recounted in the present tense, as if he is partaking urgently of some other reality:
It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming! Is no light left us? A light kindle, and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens, hearth is burning, house is lighted, men there gather. Out of the mists they come through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth. Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting: stern words they sing with strong voices. (He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more proud the spirit as our power lessens! Mind shall not falter nor mood waver, though doom shall come and dark conquer
At that moment, the cart goes over a bump
and jolts Totta out of his dream, back to the reality of his companion who
disapproves of the young poet’s words. The play ends shortly afterwards.
You’ll notice that in this intense
visionary experience, Totta hears men chanting the lines that will become part
of “The Battle of Maldon” – “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, / more
proud the spirit as our power lessens!” – although he adds two further lines
that don’t appear in the Old English poem.
Who are these ghostly men that Totta sees
gathering in the hall “out of the mists” and that he hears chanting? Where is
Totta in this dream-vision? He seems to
be participating in the experience in the present moment, but is he
imaginatively partaking of a past event or a future one? The mystery of where
this dream comes from and what kind of experience Totta is having as he speaks
it out loud in a dream-like voice contributes to the significance of this climactic
moment in the play.
I’ve written about this mysterious event (and other aspects of the play) in a forthcoming essay on The Homecoming,* where I conclude that Totta is “penetrating to the heart of heroic tradition,” accessing what Tolkien called that ancient expression of heroic will, which lives in poetic tradition. I also think that Totta’s experience is similar to other mysterious instances in Tolkien’s fiction where the power of a story or poem leads people into a dream-like state in which they experience other times and places — for example, the hobbits listening to Tom Bombadil’s stories, or Frodo enchanted by poetry in Rivendell, or the Notion Club members following Lowdham and Jeremy’s adventures in an Anglo-Saxon hall.
These visionary experiences are mysterious
in the sense that they are puzzling, obscure, hard to understand. They may also
resonate with the sense of “mystery” as denoting something mystical or beyond
What’s your interpretation of these mysterious
*My essay is forthcoming in a new book from Walking Tree Press, “Something has gone crack”: New Perspectives on Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Annika Röttinger and Janet Brennan Croft. I’ll post more when I have information about a definite publication date!
The image used above is “Before” by Tolkien, one of his early drawings estimated to have been made around 1911-1912 (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, page 65, footnote 12. The drawing is fig. 30 in their book.)
My quotations from Tolkien’s Homecoming are taken from the play published
in Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins,
2001. The play was originally published in the scholarly journal Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1953, pp.
I was very pleased to have an essay recently published in A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff and published by Gabbro Head Press, not only because I’m in fabulous company – take a look at the table of contents! – but mainly because I’m a great admirer of Verlyn Flieger.
My essay, “Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators” discusses three of Tolkien’s works, “The Notion Club Papers,” “Leaf by Niggle,” and Smith of Wootton Major. I talked about some of my ideas when I gave a paper at the 2017 Tolkien Society Seminar, but this essay goes into much more detail and is part of a larger project I’m working on about Tolkien’s typological imagination.
I’ll quote from my introduction and give a
summary of my main points in the hopes that you might be interested in buying A Wilderness of Dragons and reading
The Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into potential existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the vision of creatures. As Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation” (Splintered 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien …. The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 258)
The Sub-creative Process
The three stories that I picked for
commentary deal with the sub-creative powers of light and music or image and
word by describing how different characters create art, whether it be through
language, storytelling, vision, painting, blacksmithing, singing, and even baking.
These activities always occur in collaboration with someone else; Tolkien does
not subscribe to an image of a lone, heroic artist. Tolkien’s essay “On
Fairy-Stories” reinforces much of what we see in these three stories. I also include in a discussion of Smith of Wootton Major how Tolkien used
the cooking metaphor in some of his unpublished essays and how it might apply
to this story.
Faërian / Elvish Drama
All three stories take us into faërian or elvish dramas so that we can examine their characteristics. I discuss the faërian drama as a palimpsest, allowing the participant a kind of double vision. All three stories also suggest that participants are guided in their experiences by an often unseen force.
Genealogy / Tradition
All three stories establish what I call a “genealogy of sympathy,” ensuring that the subcreative inspiration is passed on, thus creating a tradition. The inheritance is not always within a family, and the inspiration and valuing of sub-creative powers is not often appreciated by others.
Tolkien loved repeated patterns. In discussing typology, I’m discussing the narrative patterns that Tolkien establishes in his work. In this essay, I’m focusing on the seers and singers who are sub-creative collaborators. As I state in my conclusion:
Because of its recurrence in various texts, a type accumulates significance. Each seer and singer is a distinct character in a unique narrative, but each also partakes of a repeated pattern of meaning in Tolkien’s fiction. The appearance of a type brings into the narrative its associated meanings.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 277).
Anyone who has read Verlyn Flieger’s work will recognize the immense influence she has had on my views. This volume compiled in her honour by John Rateliff proves that she is the inspiration for a long and wide-ranging genealogy of students and scholars following in her footsteps.
Image sources: Most of the pictures above by Tolkien appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins: “The Hills of the Morning,” fig. 1; “The Tree of Amalion,” fig. 62; details from “Untitled (Three Friezes),” fig. 59. “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river” appears in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, also by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins, fig. 50.
The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition has moved to New York’s Morgan Library where a series of talks and events has been planned. The programs for both children and adults have been so successful that they are pretty well sold out.
Here is the Morgan program, which started in January with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s talk on “Tolkien and the Visual Image” on January 31. The New York Tolkien Conference and Fellowship is organizing a symposium on “Tolkien and Inspiration” on March 16-17 with some great speakers — unfortunately, also sold out. The only available tickets seem to be VIP passes to the Shire-themed “Long Expected Party.” Let’s hope that some videos or reports emerge from all these activities!
The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition in Oxford last summer and now at the Morgan Library in New York turns a spotlight on Tolkien as an artist. Being able to see a range of his work, from his patterned doodles on newspaper crossword pages to his Hobbit illustrations, demonstrates how visual art was integral to his creative imagination. There’s something special about seeing the art in person, as if you can move one step closer to the actual hand that produced the work. And sometimes a visit can give you a chance to see the artwork in a new light.
One exhibit that surprised me was Tolkien’s sketchbook opened to the picture, “Alder by a stream.” I had seen the reproduction in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (fig. 7) and it’s in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (page 129). Seeing it in real life, though, revealed a smaller notebook than I had imagined, which made the actual watercolour a lovely little pastoral image. (It measures 90 x 130 mm / 3.5 x 5.2 inches). And it was only then that I realized that it was painted around 1906, when Tolkien was still in his early teens.
And here’s another image that I wish I could go back to re-view, Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell.
Those of you who can go to the Morgan Library in New York to see it in person, or even those of us who will make do with a reproduction now have another fact to incorporate into our viewing. Recently in brief comments by Christopher Tolkien on the occasion of his visit to the Aubusson tapestries illustrating some of Tolkien’s artwork – another event that recognizes Tolkien as an illustrator – he told a story of how one night when he was a child he came to his father while he was painting the image of Rivendell and what happened then. You can hear the story at 3:45 in the video below (in French, with English and Spanish subtitles).
How can we look at “Rivendell” without thinking of the child’s tear and the father’s patient kindness that are forever part of the image now, for me anyway. I wonder if some people visiting the Morgan Library will think of this late-night scene between Christopher and his father when looking at “Rivendell.”
Edit, Feb. 18: I have heard from some people that they are finding it difficult or impossible to read the English subtitles in the above video. For a transcript of the subtitles as they appear in the video, click here.
The Morgan Library along with the New York Tolkien Fellowship are sponsoring a series of talks to accompany the exhibition, and I’ll post details of these along with a few other commentaries on the exhibit in a day or two. For now, though, I’ll take one more look back at the Bodleian version of the exhibition, where a series of talks also took place. One of these featured myth specialist Marina Warner and Tolkien scholars Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger. Their discussion was wide-ranging: language and mythology and the history of fantasy and so many other things. But at one moment in the Q & A, the talk turned to Tolkien’s artwork and its influence on his writing.
At around 1:07:10 in the video linked below, the speakers discuss the importance of maps and other images to Tolkien’s creative process, and then in a response to a question about the role of images, Verlyn Flieger (at around 1:09:45) gives a brief example to explain how Tolkien “is writing to the image.”
I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but Professor Flieger’s example of the sketch of Cirith Ungol drawn in the margins of a manuscript draft is exactly the image that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I discussed in our Tolkien Studies article, “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer” (vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-31). As Professor Flieger is one of the editors who oversaw the publication of our article, I’m hoping she was channelling our argument! You can read more about our essay here.
It’s finally time to wake this blog up. Last semester’s heavy teaching load, some eldercare responsibilities, and research commitments meant that I had to focus on other things, but I foresee a more reasonable schedule now. I have so many hoarded items I’ve been meaning to write about, so let’s start pretty much where I left off last summer – with the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition at the Bodleian, now recently opened at the Morgan Library in New York.
I had the good fortune to visit the exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last summer. By all accounts, it was a huge success, running from June to October 2018. Tolkien archivist Catherine McIlwaine organized this exhibition of Tolkien’s paintings, letters, photos, maps, doodles, and other memorabilia. Once in the main exhibition hall in the Weston Library (part of the Bodleian network), you could wander at will or sit and gaze, and linger as long as you liked. Seeing Tolkien’s original paintings was a rare treat – up to now, a sight reserved for very few people. I was impressed by how finely detailed and precise his watercolours were. It was fun to see his desk and colouring pencils – on display was a full case of Polychrome coloured pencils in various shades of green – somehow I would have expected that. On another shelf, we could see his jars of Reeves’ poster colours.
One item that I found intriguing were the pictures that were hanging on the wall by his desk, loaned to the Bodleian by the Tolkien family. According to Catherine McIlwaine’s magnificent book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which catalogues the exhibition, Tolkien bought these prints by William Russell Flint when a student at Oxford and kept them for the rest of his life. They depict the Oxfordshire countryside and originally illustrated Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. According to McIlwaine: “Tolkien continued to look at the paintings for the rest of his life and they hung in his rooms wherever he resided. They were among a select group of personal items which he took to his last residence, a small flat in Merton Street provided by Merton College in 1972” (p. 284).
You can find pictures of the prints on page 285 of McIlwaine’s book. Below, you can view them as illustrations in a 1911 American edition of Arnold’s book, available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. (Note that the colours of the book illustrations look darker than the pictures in McIlwaine’s book).
Images: William Russell Flint watercolour illustrations for Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. Top left: “The stripling Thames at Bob-Lock-Hithe”; Top right: “The Line of Festal Lights in Christ Church Hall”; bottom left: “Its Fir-Topped Hurst, its Farms, its Quiet Fields”; bottom right: “And the Eye Travels Down to Oxford’s Towers.” (Click on individual images to enlarge).
What instantly struck me when looking at the pictures – though I had to peer through glass at a far wall to see them – was that the style could have influenced some of Tolkien’s early watercolour landscapes. As it turns out, the same thought had already occurred to Catherine McIlwaine, who comments in her book that there’s a resemblance to Tolkien’s “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (painted in 1913) and “Lambourn. Berks” (1912). The latter, according to Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, was a sketch Tolkien made on a walking tour (Artist & Illustrator, p. 17) and the former was an outdoor sketch as well. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a young man’s sketches with a professional artist’s published work, but take a look at the two pictures below. What do you think? Is there a distinct influence, or is it a general stylistic resemblance that would have been shared by many watercolour landscape artists of the time?
Images: left: Tolkien, Lambourn, Berks. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig. 11; right: Tolkien, King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig 16. (Click on individual images to enlarge).
I’ll be posting more snippets about the exhibition, both in Oxford and New York, in the days ahead, but if you’re interested in a more extensive account (or if you’re looking forward to the New York version), I don’t think you can find a more thorough description than this post on the Tolkien Collector’s Guide, “Tolkien’s Maker of Middle-earth Exhibition at The Bodleian – A Retrospective.”
For further reading:
Catherine McIlwaine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018.
The standard work on Tolkien’s art is Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. HarperCollins, 2004.
The two largest medieval conferences — in Kalamazoo and in Leeds — have upcoming deadlines for paper proposals. There are plenty of sessions for those involved in Tolkien studies. The International Conference on Medieval Studies has pre-approved sessions looking for participants. The International Medieval Congress in Leeds works differently; the organizer, Dr. Dimitra Fimi, has to submit abstracts for each proposed session and wait for approval.
New Voices and New Topics in Tolkien Scholarship (a roundtable)
The IMC takes place July 1-4, 2019 at the University of Leeds.
Deadline: September 1: ICMS in Kalamazoo
There are a number of options for Tolkien scholars in Kalamazoo. Dr. Chris Vaccaro and Dr. Yvette Kisor have volunteered to take over the organization of the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group, previously led by Dr. Brad Eden for several years. In addition to the three approved sessions sponsored by Tolkien at Kalamazoo, there are several other independent sessions, as well as a couple of sessions sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society.
Tolkien at Kalamazoo sponsored sessions: abstracts to Chris Vaccaro <email@example.com> or Yvette Kisor <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Tolkien and Medieval Constructions of Race: Paper session.
The question of Tolkien’s engagement in and use of medieval constructions of race represents a timely question, perhaps unfortunately so. Whether we consider the hierarchical structure of the created races of Middle-earth, the linguistic and cultural similarities between Dwarves and Jews, or his granting of eastern or African features to specific races such as the Easterlings or the Haradrim, we find Tolkien working with medieval constructions of race, such as the notion of the Saracen. This paper session invites considerations of Tolkien and medieval constructions of race.
Tolkien and Temporality: Medieval Constructions of Time: Paper session.
Given the presence of both immortal Elves and mortal Men in Middle-earth, time is experienced and represented in multiple ways. The timeline of history is expressed as consecutive ages tracing the emerging and residual dominance of two peoples, Elves and Men. This timeline of Arda moves from a creation to a final end, and in this teleological conception, medieval notions of time and history, particularly Christian notions, can be seen. This paper session encourages explorations of how medieval constructions of time enter Tolkien’s legendarium.
Misappropriation of Tolkien’s Medievalism: Roundtable/panel session
Many white supremacists love Tolkien. An uncomfortable statement, and certainly not the whole truth, but the reality is that self-identified white nationalists have embraced and appropriated aspects of Tolkien’s medievalism since the late 1930s. In many cases, these are misunderstood aspects, and such individuals are embracing a Middle Ages that never existed, but in the created world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, it is more complicated. It is often the medieval-derived aspects of Tolkien’s creation that are most appealing to such groups and individuals. This roundtable invites participants to consider the misappropriation of Tolkien’s medievalism, from how and why it happens, to what aspects of Tolkien’s work seem to attract this and why, and finally how to respond to it.
More Tolkien sessions:
4. The Medieval Roots of Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin. Organized by Bill Fliss, Marquette University. Proposals to William.Fliss@marquette.edu
The upcoming publication of Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin (August 2018) makes available what Tolkien called “the first real story of this imagined world” (Letter 163), the story of the fall of a great hidden Elven kingdom that occupied Tolkien throughout his life. It forms the basis for much of his early legendarium of Middle-earth and incorporates many aspects of medieval themes and topics. This paper session invites considerations of the medieval roots of Tolkien’s tale.
5. Tolkien’s Legendarium and Medieval Cosmology. Organizer: Judy Ford, Texas A&M Commerce. Abstracts to Judy.Ford@tamuc.edu
6. Medieval Song, Verse and Versification in Tolkien’s Works. Organizer: Annie Brust. Abstracts to email@example.com
All of the presentations in Leeds were given to packed audiences, to the point that people had to sit on the floor in some sessions, and a few of the later panels had to be moved to larger rooms. Lots of interest in Tolkien! We’re hoping that the same number of sessions will be approved for next year’s IMC conference. (The Tolkien Society Seminar, on the other hand, will be suspended for next year, as attention will be focused on the big Tolkien 2019 conference in Birmingham later in the summer.)
From Leeds in the UK, Tolkien conference activity now moves to Mythcon 49 in Atlanta in the US, from July 20 to 23, with the theme “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The keynote speakers are Dr. Robin Anne Reid, the scholar guest of honour, and Donato Giancolo as the artist guest of honour. The Mythcon 49 Schedule page includes a list of speakers and topics. “What do you do with a drunken hobbit?” — you have to be there to find out!
Sometimes it’s hard to tell which comes first: is it the illustration and then the text, or does the text come first and then the illustration?
That’s a question posed by Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist, as she reviews some of Tolkien’s artwork with illustrator Alan Lee. And that’s exactly the question that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I asked in our recent article published in Tolkien Studies (“Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer“), which I’ve written about here.
You can see Catherine McIlwaine and Alan Lee looking at some of Tolkien’s paintings in the video below, celebrating the Bodleian Library’s new exhibit, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. The conversation about Tolkien’s art occurs from around 0:52 to 2:22, but the entire video contains enticing glimpses of what is now on display at the Weston Library (one of the Bodleian Libraries).
Those who were lucky enough to attend the launch and visit the Library in these first few days have published excited reports that seem to confirm what we’ve been reading in the reviews: that this is, as John Garth put it, “a once-in-a-generation” exhibition of artifacts, documents, and artwork. There’s lots to see, but one part that I am especially looking forward to is the original artwork, something that only very few people are normally allowed to examine in the Tolkien Archive.
Jeff and I have written about one example that demonstrates how Tolkien used his sketching to draft his text and the general interplay between image and text in his work. We only had room to discuss one manuscript example, but there would be many others. We also discussed, among other points, how Tolkien’s prose style and the expression of his theories are shaped by his visual practice. In other words, we argue that image does not necessarily come after text but that both image and text are integrally related in Tolkien’s creative imagination.
I’ll be in Oxford next month when I’ll be fortunate enough to see Tolkien’s original work, from doodles to finished art pieces. In the meantime I’ll be posting occasionally some reviews and information about the exhibit and Tolkien’s art.
How to find our article:
Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol. “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2017.0009.
Tolkien Studies is an annual publication that can be purchased from West Virginia University Press. If your library has a subscription to Project Muse, you can get a copy that way. If you don’t have the means to get a copy of the article, please let me know.
March 25, the downfall of Sauron, is the date chosen by the Tolkien Society to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is “Home and Hearth: the many ways of being a Hobbit.” Around the world different groups will be holding events celebrating Tolkien’s work — see the Tolkien Society page for reports from some of them — or individuals will simply be reading their favorite passages at home. Check out the #TolkienReadingDay hashtag on Twitter or Instagram to see what people are reading today.
One of the ways of being a hobbit is to love songs, often songs celebrating simple homely pleasures: “Sing hey! for the bath at close of day,” “Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go,” “Upon the hearth the fire is red,” or songs that are just meant to be fun, such as the “ridiculous song” Frodo sings at the Prancing Pony, “There is an inn,” or that Sam recites as “just a bit of nonsense,” his song about trolls.
There is one song that Sam sings, however, that is much more serious and that shows another side of being a hobbit: the ability to find hope in the face of overwhelming odds. That song is “In western lands.” I’ve always loved this poem and especially one beautiful image in it.
The song occurs in The Return of the King in “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” chapter. Frodo has been captured by orcs, and Sam is feeling defeated, unable to find him. Suddenly, he starts singing, and gradually his voice rises and the words of the poem come to him “unbidden.” The song calls forth a response from Frodo, allowing Sam to locate him in the Tower.
In the song, the speaker situates himself in the farthest reaches of despair: “Though here at journey’s end I lie/ in darkness buried deep,/ beyond all towers strong and high,/ beyond all mountains steep” — and yet, he can imagine that this is not the entire world. “In western lands, beneath the Sun/ the flowers may rise in Spring…” He imagines a blooming world that “may” be alive, and by the end of the poem, he is certain that there is an eternal world elsewhere that is not affected by his seemingly hopeless situation: “above all shadows rides the Sun/ and Stars for ever dwell….” The final lines express his resolve: “I will not say the Day is done, / nor bid the Stars farewell.”
Detail from Tolkien’s “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river,” fig. 50, The Art of The Hobbit
My favorite lines come in the first stanza: “Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night / and swaying beeches bear / the Elven-stars as jewels white / amid their branching hair.” Tolkien’s landscapes are usually alive and active; here, the trees and stars, two recurring and significant images for Tolkien, are connected in one image of softly dancing trees whose branches seem to be wearing the jewellery of starlight as if in their hair. By the end of that first stanza, the poet’s gaze is already moving from the flowers rising from the ground up to the stars in the sky, as if getting ready for the ideas that conclude the second stanza. I remember one summer night sitting outside, looking up through tree branches at a few stars, when these lines came immediately to mind as the perfect expression of that sight.
Donald Swann set this poem to music, although I think I prefer the Tolkien Ensemble version of it. You can listen to it here:
The hope of hobbits — little people who did not think they could change the world — is a valuable thought to hold on to.