14 October 2015

Hobbit Verses Versus Verses by Hobbits: Orality, Poetry, and Literacy in Bilbo's Shire


On Saturday 3 October I had the good fortune to attend the The Mythgard Institute's Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium at the University of Maryland. It was as fine a mixture of work and play as you could want, with never a dull boy to be found. Among other subjects, we spoke of Star Wars, Philip Pullman, Prophecy and Predestination, Lovecraft, Tolkien, The Kalevala, film adaptation, On Fairy-Stories, Twin Peaks, Babylon 5, Ted Chiang, Frank Herbert, and Stephen Sondheim. Discussion was lively, and laughter abundant.


But for me the two highlights of the day were a trivia contest focusing on hapax legomena (words that occur only once) in The Lord of the Rings, and Sørina Higgins' interview of Verlyn Flieger about her latest book, a scholarly edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's first prose tale, The Story of Kullervo, which, alas, will not be published in the States until next spring. (If you can't wait -- I couldn't -- you can order it directly from Blackwell's, and doubtless other places as well.)

In all it was a wonderful time. I had the chance to become better acquainted with several people I had only met briefly before, or only on the web, and to chat for the first time with others I had not known at all.  I very much hope that we'll see more meetings like this in the near future. Supporting The Mythgard Institute will help that happen.

I was also fortunate enough to present a brief paper, Hobbit Verses Versus Verses by Hobbits: Orality, Poetry, and Literacy in Bilbo's Shire, which I have added below for all who may be interested. I plan to expand it at some point in the future, to discuss some of the material I had to relegate to the footnotes during my talk, the material I mention in my final paragraph, and other hobbit poems, like Sam's Oliphaunt, and Frodo's spontaneous verse, after the fashion of Tom Bombadil, when he first sees Goldberry. But for now, here it is.


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One summer evening in the Ivy Bush Gaffer Gamgee was denying that Bag End was ‘packed with chests of gold and silver, and jools’ (FR 1.i.23):

… my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters – meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it. 

Elves and Dragons’ I says to him. ‘Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you,’ I says to him.

(FR 1.i.24, emphasis original)

Only a few days later Bilbo sent out so many party invitations that both local Post Offices were overwhelmed, and needed volunteers to handle all the replies: ‘There was a constant stream of them going up the Hill, carrying hundreds of polite variations on Thank you, I shall certainly come’ (1.i.26).

These few brief quotes suggest that basic literacy in the Shire was quite common, but not universal.[1] Moreover, the Gaffer’s defensiveness and his insistence that gardeners like him and Sam – thus  ‘cabbages and potatoes’ – shouldn’t get above themselves, point to a class distinction between those who can read and those who cannot, an impression reinforced by the colloquial illiteracies of his speech – ‘j-oo-ls,’ ‘learned’ as a synonym of ‘taught,’ and ‘says’ as a first person singular.[2]  That Sam, unlike his father, has learned to read is a sign of change, as are the children who witness Gandalf’s arrival and seem able to recognize the letter G in at least one and perhaps two writing systems (FR 1.i.25).

But there’s reading and there’s reading. Hobbits, we’re told in the Prologue, ‘delighted in such things [as genealogical tables], if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions’ (FR 7). Thus, of the many works later composed by Merry, the best remembered in the Shire were his Herblore of the Shire, his Reckoning of the Years, which relates the calendars of Elves and Men to those of hobbits, and his Old Words and Names in the Shire (FR 15).  Among hobbits, The Old Farmer’s Almanac would have been a perennial bestseller.

The kinds of stories that Sam wants to read are of precisely the sort that hobbit literacy has no time for, stories of Elves and Dragons that take place in the ‘queer’ lands beyond the borders of the Shire which hobbit maps mark only with ‘mostly white spaces’ (FR 1.ii.43).[3]  Gil-galad may have been an elven king all right, but his name won’t fetch you a pint at The Ivy Bush.  A proper hobbit poem, however, might do just that.  But what’s a proper hobbit poem?

One type would be songs like Frodo’s The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late (FR 1.ix.158-160) or Sam’s The Stone Troll (FR 1.xii.206-208), drinking songs, if you will, that invite their audience to join in a rollicking good time.[4]  Another we would find in the songs which speak of life’s simple pleasures, such as long walks, cold beer, hot baths,  supper and, of course, bed.[5] Songs of this type share in a common meter, iambic tetrameter, which occurs so often in these poems that we may well call it ‘hobbit meter.’[6]  We can even see elvish poems translated by hobbits – like Gil-galad Was an Elven King and the hymns to Elbereth – rendered in this meter.[7]

A particularly noteworthy aspect of this type of hobbit verse is its mutability.  We have four versions of The Road Goes Ever On, each of which differs from its predecessor in its adaptation to the occasion.  Bilbo’s first version at the end of The Hobbit clearly reflects his hopes, fears, and sorrows as he returns home (313). His shorter, simpler version, sixty years later shows the heart’s ease he feels once free of the Ring (FR 1.i.35), just as Frodo’s alteration of a single word reveals the weight of the burden now upon him (FR 1.iii.73).[8]  The final version differs yet again, with more thorough changes in keeping with the end of Bilbo’s Road now being in sight, and Frodo’s just around the bend (RK 6.vi.987).  And in the only other poem that we get two versions of in ‘hobbit meter’ – Upon the Hearth the Fire Is Red – there are likewise changes to suit the occasion (FR 1.iii.77-78; RK 6.ix.1028).

So we have here a form of poetry with an easily remembered four-beat line, with words that are readily changed to suit their context, and simple rhyme schemes, using couplets (AABB) or alternating lines (ABAB).[9]  Even the more rhythmically complex pub songs have mostly four-beat lines, and fairly straightforward rhyme schemes.[10]  Both these types of hobbit verse explicitly reuse old tunes, and seem to rely on oral transmission.[11] 

But there are other verses by hobbits which do not quite fit within these parameters.  More meditative and elegiac, they pursue paths that the other hobbit poems can suggest, but do not treat in detail.[12]  Bilbo’s  I Sit Beside the Fire and Think is the first clear example of this kind of verse (FR 2.iii.278-279).  Not only is its subject more somber, but only the even lines always have rhymes.  Frodo’s When Evening in the Shire Was Grey is even more directly concerned with death, though it remains traditional in rhyme and meter (FR 2.vii.359-60). But the most significant of all, I would argue, is Sam’s In Western Lands beneath the Sun (RK 6.i.908-09).

For through this poem we can see the arc of Sam’s growth as a storyteller and poet in parallel with the growth of hobbit poetry and literacy in a more literary direction.  After the good fun and nonsense of The Stone Troll we get Sam’s attempt to add to Frodo’s elegy for Gandalf, but The Finest Rockets Ever Seen is too full of childlike wonder at the ephemeral to touch the elegiac (FR 2.vii.360).  In Western Lands beneath the Sun, however, Sam not only leaves behind iambic tetrameter for alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, but rises above even the contemplation of death we see in I Sit beside the Fire and Think and When Evening in the Shire Was Grey to meditate upon a beauty forever beyond the reach of the transient evils of this world.[13]  And the very words which introduce this poem describe that arc:

His voice sounded thin and quavering in the cold dark tower: the voice of a forlorn and weary hobbit that no listening orc could possibly mistake for the clear song of an Elven-lord. He murmured old childish tunes out of the Shire, and snatches of Mr. Bilbo's rhymes that came into his mind like fleeting glimpses of the country of his home. And then suddenly new strength rose in him, and his voice rang out, while words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune.
(RK 6.i.908)
Finally let us turn to a poem that in both form and substance reaches beyond such stuff as hobbit poems are made on. All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter, with its three-beat lines of irregular length, its nameless because un-nameable meter – iamb, anapest, anapest – and its simultaneous embrace of history, legend, and prophecy, is also the only poem in The Lord of the Rings that is actually presented to the characters in written form.  ‘It is not a very hobbity song,’  as Corey Olsen put it.[14]  It’s about as far from Sing Hey! For the Bath at Close of Day as we can get.

What we see here is Tolkien, with his uncanny heed of the smallest detail, suggesting a slow process across generations and classes, a shift from oral to written and a growth of the literary to extend beyond mere literacy. In this Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam all play their parts.  Had we the time, we might also examine Errantry and Eärendil and the poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.[15] And finally we might inquire how Sam’s ‘seed of courage’ had been nourished by poetry and tales of Elves and Dragons while it ‘wait[ed] for some final and desperate danger to make it grow’ (FR 1.viii.140).[16] But that is for another day.





[1] In addition, we may see Bilbo’s written notes to those to whom he gave gifts upon his departure.  He expects the recipients to be able to read them, and in two cases – Milo Burrows and Dora Baggins – he makes specific references to their literacy: FR 1.i.37.

[2] To be fair to the Gaffer, with ‘jools’ he is repeating what another has said, but that tends to reinforce the point about class since it shows more than one hobbit speaking so. Note also his description of Frodo as a ‘gentlehobbit’  and his concern to know whether ‘my Sam had behaved hisself and given satisfaction’ (RK 6.viii.1014).

[3] Though the Gaffer says that Sam is keen to listen to tales of Elves and Dragons, his words also clearly establish a link between such tales and Sam’s being taught to read by Bilbo. Sam’s later (mistaken) insistence that Bilbo ‘wrote’ The Fall of Gil-galad also suggests a connection with reading and writing (FR 1.xi.186).

[4] In At the Sign of the Prancing Pony Frodo sings his song a second time, ‘while many of [those in the room] joined in; for the tune was well known, and they were quick at picking up words’ (FR 1.ix.160). Note ‘words,’ not ‘the words,’ suggesting that they were good at this in general, as those who rely more on their memory than on writing would be.

If there should be any doubt that these two are in fact drinking songs, see HoME VI 142 n. 11, where Christopher Tolkien quotes his father’s outline, referring to the song in The Prancing Pony as precisely that.  It is also the case that Bingo (>Frodo) was originally meant to sing The Root of the Boot, an older troll song that evolved into The Stone Troll.  All versions of the troll song are sung to the tune of The Fox Went out on a Winter’s Night.  Subsequently  Bingo was given The Cat and the Fiddle to sing, which again evolved into The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late, and the troll song was made over to Sam and moved to its present location. See HoME VII.142-47.
Interestingly, Tolkien’s famous recording of the troll song deviates from the printed text of both The Root of the Boot and The Stone Troll, which lends indirect support to my suggestion below, p 4, that hobbit poetry of this kind was oral rather than written.  See the links below for recordings:

·         Tolkien sings The Stone Troll
·         The Root of the Boot

[5]They began to hum softly, as hobbits have a way of doing as they walk along, especially when they are drawing near to home at night. With most hobbits it is a supper-song or a bed-song; but these hobbits hummed a walking-song (though not, of course, without any mention of supper and bed). Bilbo Baggins had made the words, to a tune that was as old as the hills, and taught it to Frodo as they walked in the lanes of the Water-valley and talked about Adventure.’  This passage both identifies what ‘most hobbits’ are like and in what ways “our” hobbits are like and unlike them.  Consider Pippin’s statement to Denethor (RK 5.iv.807): ‘[I can sing] well enough for my own people.  But we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord.  We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind and rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.’  Does ‘my’ imply that Pippin makes songs, or only refer to the songs he knows?  Note ‘of course’ in both passages, as if this should be obvious to everyone. Cf. Sam whistling on his way home to bed in The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.45).

[6] I am indebted here to the discussions in classes 15 and 16 of Corey Olsen’s Mythgard course in Tolkien’s Poetry in the summer of 2015.

[7] While Bilbo seems to have consciously translated The Fall of Gil-galad (FR 1.xi.185-86), Frodo’s rendering of his first encounter with the hymn to Elbereth is described rather differently, as a spontaneous understanding produced by the art of elven minstrelsy (FR 1.iii.79): ‘One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it: Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear….’ See also FR 2.i.233 for a more detailed description of this effect.

[8] Between Bilbo’s version in The Hobbit and the versions in The Lord of the Rings there is one other difference that I believe is quite significant, the shift from ‘roads’ to ‘road,’ which signals a degree of abstraction, and reflects the frequent capitalization of Road in The Lord of the Rings.

[9] In addition to The Road Goes Ever On and Upon the Hearth the Fire Is Red we have FR 1.iv.90: Ho! Ho! Ho! to the Bottle I Go; 1.v.101: Sing Hey! For the Bath at the Close of Day; 1.v.106: Farewell We Call to Hearth and Hall!; 1.vi.112: O! Wanderers in the Shadowed Land; 2.iii.273: When Winter First Begins to Bite; 2.vii.360: The Finest Rockets Ever Seen. Sing Hey! For the Bath at the Close of Day is also introduced as ‘one of Bilbo’s favorite bath songs,’ thus revealing the existence of a number of such songs.

[10] The Stone Troll has an A-A-B-C-C-A-C rhyme scheme, with four-beat lines that are basically iambic with some anapests and the odd trochee.  The fifth line in each stanza is the odd man out.  It has only four syllables, but I am unsure whether to take them as two trochees, or two spondees.  The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late has an A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme, with the first, third, and fourth lines having four beats, and the second and fifth having three (anapest, iamb, iamb).  On these poems see also nn. 5 above and 11 below.

[11] Both The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late and The Stone Troll are said to be set to old tunes, using new words, as is Upon the Hearth the Fire Is Red.  At Bree the tune is familiar to the patrons, who are so ‘good at picking up words’ that they are already singing along the second time through.  Bilbo, moreover, taught Frodo the words he had made up for Upon the Hearth while they were out walking in the Shire. With this we may compare the history of Farewell We Call to Hearth and Hall!  For since Bilbo kept his book away from prying eyes (FR 1.v.105), the only way Merry and Pippin could have learned the dwarf song (Hobbit 22-23) on which they modelled Farewell We Call to Hearth and Hall! (FR 1.v.106), is by hearing it. So in both cases we have evidence of oral transmission.

[12] Both of Bilbo’s road poems open the door to wider reflections, but do not really cross the threshold until their final versions late in The Lord of the Rings (RK 6.vi.987; ix.1028).  I believe that one could argue that Bilbo began weaving more distant horizons and larger perspectives Into the songs celebrating the loveliness of the countryside and the simple life. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Bilbo expanded the “genre” to include these things.

[13] RK 6.ii.922: ‘Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his masters, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.’
[14] In class 16 of his class on Tolkien’s Poetry in the summer of 2015 at 1:22.45.  The recording is proprietary.

[15] The Adventures of Tom Bombadil purports to come from near the time of The Lord of the Rings (29-30).  It clearly identifies Errantry as Bilbo’s work (30), and the hand that scrawled the words ‘Frodo’s Dreme’ at the head of The Sea Bell (33-34) must have been familiar with Frodo’s story in some form.

[16] When [Frodo] came to himself again, for a moment he could recall nothing except a sense of dread. Then suddenly he knew that he was imprisoned, caught hopelessly; he was in a barrow. A Barrow-wight had taken him, and he was probably already under the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke. He dared not move, but lay as he found himself: flat on his back upon a cold stone with his hands on his breast.
‘But though his fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was round him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit,
wailing for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.’ 
(FR 1.viii.140).

With this passage on Frodo compare Sam’s famous discussion of the Great Tales with Frodo on the Stairs (TT 4.viii.711-13), his song in the tower (RK 6.i.908-909), his thoughts on the star and the song (RK 6.ii.922, quoted above n. 13), and the seeming death of hope (RK 6.iii.934).



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