Art and Literature News

Tolkien the Overlooked Poet

Some readers who are new to Tolkien complain about the songs and poems in the books, perhaps thinking that they are not important to the story. But Sarah Wesson, author of the Earful of Cider blog, knows better. In a recent blog post, Wesson notes that, while most people know of Tolkien as a novelist, linguist, and influential cultural icon, “what is often overlooked, taken for granted, or glossed over is that he was a fine poet as well.”

Wesson points out that Tolkien, the master world-builder, knew that all cultures have their own distinctive forms of stories, music, and poetry. In light of that idea, the poems of Tolkien’s books become an integral part of the cultures of the peoples of Middle-earth. Wesson illustrates that point by looking in turn at three of the peoples of Middle-earth.

The elves, immortal beings surrounded by a mortal world, produced elegant poetry that Wesson characterizes as “ancient personal memories of things long gone but never forgotten,” such as “Galadriel’s Lament” in The Fellowship of the Ring, read in Elvish by J. R. R. Tolkien himself in the following recording.

The poetry of the dwarves echoes themes of family lore, pride, and grudges. The “Song of Durin,” sung by Gimli to the Fellowship of the Ring on the second night of their journey through Moria, tells the history of Khazad-dûm through the eyes of the dwarves. Dwarves also enjoy a good drink or two and getting into trouble, so songs like “The Washing Song” from The Hobbit (“Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / Blunt the knives and bend the forks! That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates…”) cast those traits into verse.

Bilbo Baggins is the best known (to us, at least) of hobbit poets. Bilbo the poet provides a thoughtful voice on behalf of folk who, as Wesson describes them, “measure their lives in decades, not centuries.” Hobbits also love parties and good company, so Tolkien gave us some hobbit drinking songs as well.

The poems of Tolkien’s books are woven into the story, adding depth to the cultures of Middle-earth, and connecting Tolkien’s world more intimately to our own.  Wesson notes that the poetry fits so seamlessly into Tolkien’s narrative that “it hardly registers as poetry at all.” The poems become lovely, distinctive threads in the intricate tapestry of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

You can read Sarah Wesson’s complete blog post on Earful of Cider.

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  1. How flattering! I’m so tickled you thought enough of my post to mention it on this amazing website. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Poetry Wednesday: All That’s Squishified | Earful of Cider

  3. Hi, Sarah! I really enjoyed reading your blog, and will stop in regularly.