Poesie: Tolkien’s Shadow Bride

‘Tis a perilous realm, indeed, the Realm of Faerie.

Shadow Bride

There was a man who dwelt alone,
as day and night went past
he sat as still as carven stone,
and yet no shadow cast.
The white owls perched upon his head
beneath the winter moon;
they wiped their beaks and thought him dead
under the stars of June.

There came a lady clad in grey
in the twilight shining:
one moment she would stand and stay,
her hair with flowers entwining.
He woke, as had he sprung of stone,
and broke the spell that bound him;
he clasped her fast, both flesh and bone,
and wrapped her shadow round him.

There nevermore she walks her ways
by sun or moon or star;
she dwells below where neither days
nor any nights there are.
But once a year when caverns yawn
and hidden things awake,
they dance together then till dawn
and a single shadow make.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien had a thing about “shadow”, and this poem (here in its newer version from 1962) gives a good example.  Shadow beings are wraiths, identified more by their shape than by their substance.  They are both present and absent, or rather, they tend to be an absence that can become a presence.  In this poem, a man without a shadow who appears to be dead (and hence absent) becomes a presence, to steal both girl and shadow.  Now they both are elsewhere, in a realm on the edge of human experience.

Got to wonder which night it is when the caverns yawn.  All Hallow’s Eve?

J.R.R._Tolkien_-_The_Shores_of_Faery
The Shores of Faerie – J.R.R Tolkien

Our Own Dear John Ronald: The Ultimate Artists

Ars longa, vita brevis? Not for the Elves.

Tolkien believed devoutly that there had once been an Eden on earth, and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so are able to achieve much beyond the powers of men.  They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, creators of works of beauty far surpassing human artefacts.  Most important of all they are, unless slain in battle, immortal.  Old age, disease, and death do not bring their work to an end while it is still unfinished or imperfect.  They are therefore the ideal of every artist.

These, then, are the elves of THE SILMARILLION, and of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Tolkien himself summed up their nature when he wrote of them: ‘They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him.  They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.’

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

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Our Own Dear John Ronald: Gold Galdre Bewunden

The old hoard the Night shall keep, / while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

The Hoard

When the moon was new and the sun young
of silver and gold the gods sung:
in the green grass they silver spilled,
and the white waters they with gold filled.
Ere the pit was dug or Hell yawned,
ere dwarf was bred or dragon spawned,
there were Elves of old, and strong spells
under green hills in hollow dells
they sang as they wrought many fair things,
and the bright crowns of the Elf-kings.
But their doom fell, and their song waned,
by iron hewn and by steel chained.
Greed that sang not, nor with mouth smiled,
in dark holes their wealth piled,
graven silver and carven gold:
over Elvenhome the shadow rolled.

There was an old dwarf in a dark cave,
to silver and gold his fingers clave;
with hammer and tongs and anvil-stone
he worked his hands to the hard bone.
and coins he made, and strings of rings,
and thought to buy the power of kings.
But his eyes grew dim and his ears dull
and the skin yellow on his old skull;
through his bony claw with a pale sheen
the stony jewels slipped unseen.
No feet he heard, though the earth quaked.
when the young dragon his thirst slaked.
and the stream smoked at his dark door.
The flames hissed on the dank floor,
and he died alone in the red fire;
his bones were ashes in the hot mire.

There was an old dragon under grey stone;
his red eyes blinked as he lay alone.
His joy was dead and his youth spent,
he was knobbed and wrinkled, and his limbs bent
in the long years to his gold chained;
in his heart’s furnace the fire waned.
To his belly’s slime gems stuck thick,
silver and gold he would snuff and lick:
he knew the place of the least ring
beneath the shadow of his black wing.
Of thieves he thought on his hard bed,
and dreamed that on their flesh he fed,
their bones crushed, and their blood drank:
his ears drooped and his breath sank.
Mail-rings rang. He heard them not.
A voice echoed in his deep grot:
a young warrior with a bright sword
called him forth to defend his hoard.
His teeth were knives, and of horn his hide,
but iron tore him, and his flame died.

There was an old king on a high throne:
his white beard lay on knees of bone;
his mouth savoured neither meat nor drink,
nor his ears song; he could only think
of his huge chest with carven lid
where pale gems and gold lay hid
in secret treasury in the dark ground;
its strong doors were iron-bound.
The swords of his thanes were dull with rust,
his glory fallen, his rule unjust,
his halls hollow, and his bowers cold,
but king he was of elvish gold.
He heard not the horns in the mountain-pass,
he smelt not the blood on the trodden grass,
but his halls were burned, his kingdom lost;
in a cold pit his bones were tossed.

There is an old hoard in a dark rock,
forgotten behind doors none can unlock;
that grim gate no man can pass.
On the mound grows the green grass;
there sheep feed and the larks soar,
and the wind blows from the sea-shore.
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1970

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In 1923 Tolkien published a poem called IUMONNA GOLD GALDE BEWUNDEN, the first version of what was to become in 1970 THE HOARD.  The first title is better, though, for it means ‘the gold of ancient men, wound round with magic’, it is line 3052 of BEOWULF, and it points to a notorious difficulty in that poem over the hero’s motives.  When he went to fight HIS dragon he appeared to do so for the best of reasons, i.e. to protect his people.  On the other hand he also showed a keen interest in the treasure, which the dragon was only trying to guard, having been provoked by the theft of a cup by a passing runaway (or ‘burglar’).  At one point indeed (…) the poet seems to say that there was a curse on the gold, so that the man who plundered it ‘should be guilty of sin, be shut up in devil’s haunts, bound in hell-bands and tormented grievously.’ (…)  Maybe the dragon-curse is (…) avarice.  So Tolkien suggested in the 1923 poem, tracing in successive stanzas the transmission of a treasure from elf to dwarf to dragon to hero and ending with the picture of an old and miserly king overthrown by his rivals and leaving his gold to oblivion.  All the characters in it are the same: they begin with vitality, mirth and courage, they end in age, wealth and squalor.  Their decline is caused by gold.  Could their progress also be a kind of analogue of human history, beginning in heroic endeavor and ending in ‘commercialism’, ‘materialism’, ‘industrialism’, that whole series of distinctive modern concepts which nevertheless centre if not on gold, on that ‘idolatry of artefacts’, which C.S Lewis called, in evident agreement with Tolkien, the ‘great corporate sin of our own civilization’?

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: The Bewilderment of Smaug.

Our Dear Own John Ronald: Baggins

What’s in a name?

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. (…) This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

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As for Mr. Baggins, one thing he is more partial to than another is his ‘tea’, indeed anything eaten between meals but especially afternoon tea ‘in a substantial form’ as the OED says, is called ‘baggins’. (…)  He likes flowers; he is proud of his ancestor the Bullroarer; if not quite ‘as fierce as a dragon in a pinch’ he is at any rate no coward; and like his name he is ample, generous, substantial, if undeniably plain and old-fashioned.

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle-Earth

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