31 January 2016

Words Which They Only Partly Understood -- The First Hymn to Elbereth (FR 1.iii.79)

‘Listen! They are coming this way,’ said Frodo. ‘We have only to wait.’ 
The singing drew nearer. 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!
         O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
    O Light to us that wander here
        Amid the world of woven trees! 
    Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
        Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
    Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
        In a far land beyond the Sea.  
    O stars that in the Sunless Year
        With shining hand by her were sown,
    In windy fields now bright and clear
        We see your silver blossom blown! 
    O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
        We still remember, we who dwell
    In this far land beneath the trees,
        Thy starlight on the Western Seas. 
(FR 1.iii.79)

Where is the partial understanding here? It cannot be of the sentences as such, since 'the song as Frodo heard it' is quite clear syntactically. So it must be the meaning of the content that eludes the hobbits. This suggests a limit to the power of elvish song. For elvish minstrels, we are told in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, 'can make the things of which they sing appear before the eyes of those that listen' (RK App. A 1058), a statement which is made in the context of The Lay of Leithian. When telling a tale, elvish minstrels can create the impression that the listener is inside it. But this is a hymn of praise, which invokes images without telling their story. 

So, even though elvish minstrelsy can overcome the barrier of language, it cannot overcome that of ignorance through allusions alone. While Frodo recognizes the name of Elbereth, and knows that the High Elves, i.e., the Noldor, have great reverence for her, the rest of the song is obscure to him, presumably because he lacks the knowledge to make sense of the references to the Sunless Year and Elbereth's sowing of the stars.

See how hard life was before Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish?

Frank Wilbert Stokes -- 1902

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