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The Last Stage, part III - Poetry and Prose


Nov 15 2012, 9:23am

Views: 3057
The Last Stage, part III - Poetry and Prose Can't Post

  • Let's count:
    In An Unexpected Party, we had two songs, both sung by the dwarves: the lighthearted Chip the Glasses and the serious Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold, which probably sparked Tolkien's imagination for the Misty Mountains adventure (yes, I know Shippey thinks otherwise – but I suspect this is more of a poem inspired by the tales of Hithlum, and in its own turn leading to an adventure).
  • In Roast Mutton there were none. However, Thorin's company is said to sing on the way, and the country becomes ominous when "they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo has never met before" (although he apparently has no problem understanding goblins, Gollum, the eagles and the spiders).
  • In A Short Rest – the famous tra-la-lally song! And another one, no less ridiculous, which Tolkien mentioned but mercifully did not transcribe.
  • In Over Hill and Under Hill, there was the wonderful goblin's song. Where there's a whip indeed!
  • In Riddles in the Dark – no song as such, but most of the riddles were poetry. No-legs is arguable, but all of Gollum's five riddles, and three of Bilbo's clearly are.
  • In Out of the Frying-pan Into the Fire, we had the goblins two songs, Fifteen Birds and Burn, Burn, Tree and Fern (Rateliff, on page 726 of HoH, omits Burn, Burn – I do not know if by mistake, or because he considers it a continuation of the previous one). Trivial and silly, perhaps, but I find them real fun.
  • In Queer Lodgings the dwarves sing another serious song – The Wind was on the Withered Heath.
  • In Flies and Spiders Bilbo makes up two songs, to tease the spiders with: Old Fat Spider and Lazy Lob and Crazy Cob. And quite successful he is at it, too!
  • In Barrels Out of Bond the elves sing two songs – unless you don't count Roll-roll-roll-roll. However, Down the Swift Dark Stream You Go is very nice, and (although the wood-elves don't know it) refers to the dwarves returning back to their homeland (note that Bilbo does not mount a barrel until the song is over!).
  • In A Warm Welcome, we hear of several different songs of competing themes; but we actually read only one which supports the dwarves' agenda, The King Beneath the Mountain.
  • After that – nearly silence. In eight chapters, there is only one song, Under the Mountain Dark and Tall in The Gathering of the Clouds. Despite it being similar to both Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold, which Bilbo liked, and The King Beneath the Mountain, which we know of no disapproval of – Bilbo does not like it. Once again, this is mentioned as competing with the songs of the elves, and the songs seem to influence Bilbo more than all. We've actually heard of the wood-elves singing in Flies and Spiders, but know nothing of that song.
  • Finally, in this chapter we have three: two songs by the elves, and Bilbo's poem Roads Go Ever Ever On, which Gandalf sees as reflecting a change he has undergone.

To what extent is the long "silence" a part of the different tone of the Lonely Mountain chapters, with their drama of winning, sharing and defending the treasure – as opposed to the picaresque of the journey from Bag-End to Lake-town?
Do you miss the poetry in the later chapters, or are you thankful for the omission? Is your attitude consistent with your like or dislike of the shift in focus?
I ask because some have commented on how they dislike the disparity in tone, and see the first part as far superior to the other – despite not liking the poetry.
Is Bilbo's shifting attitudes to the dwarves' songs due to a difference between the songs, i.e. a change in the dwarves, or a change in himself? Is it the same change Gandalf remarked upon?
Any other comments on the poetry throughout the book – for instance, on which songs are left unrecorded?

But we have veered away from our topic, which is the poetry and prose in The Last Stage. I will focus on the poetry; my questions regarding prose will not discuss Tolkien's style here, but rather Bilbo's projected book, and the whole thorny issue of metafiction.

* * *

Regarding the two songs by the elves – the first one ends with a recap of the "Tra-la-lally" chorus, but it follows each of three more serious stanzas: the first speaks of the transitory nature of wealth and power as opposed to the simple beauties of nature; the second of the superiority of the lights of heaven to the precious things found in the earth; and the third call the travelers back home.
"The dragon is withered / His bones are now crumbled…" Doesn't this indicate that a lot more time has passed, than the mere six-seven months which actually did? Or are dragons so brittle?
"And elves are yet singing" – note that the elves' song is considered to be one of the constants, despite the myth of the elves' "fading" being already in existence. Is this a slip of Tolkien? Or an instant of The Hobbit being independent of the legendarium? Did the elves merely use "yet" as opposed to Bilbo's journey – in which case, is this a stylistic failure, being out of tune with the rest of the stanza? Or does Tolkien hint that the elves might have faded indeed, but their song still is with us, premeating the world?

In the second stanza, two points caught my eye:
"The stars are far brighter / Than gems without measure…" – how does this compare to Gimli's accolade of Galadriel's hair (Farewell to Lórien)?

'… which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine'.

Is there a significance to Gimli speaking of the 'gems of the mine', while the elves speak of 'gems without measure'?
Also – together with the moon and stars, the fire is mentioned, rather than the sun. Any meaning to this?

The third stanza closely echoes the song from A Short Rest - minus the foolish bantering, plus a genuine empathy towards the weary travelers.
What does this shift mean?
Does it in a way "elevate" the song of the earlier chapter, by giving it a wider context, and investing it with a deeper meaning?
Does anything else about this song strike you?

The second song the elves sing is the lullaby "Sing All Ye Joyful". Some short comments:

The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower,
And bright are the windows of Night in her tower

Rateliff suggests that "the moon is in flower" is a hint to Isil's being originally a flower of Telperion.
Is this convincing, or too far-fetched? And if this is supposed to recall the larger mythology, just where is the tower of Night? And why is she female?

Sing we now softly, and dreams let us weave him!
Wind him in slumber and there let us leave him!

Is this a hint at the mythical power of elves to weave dreams for mortals, such as Tolkien enlarged upon in Of Fairy-Stories? Or at the affinity of the Rivendell elves with those of Mirkwood, who did just that?
Considering that this lullaby actually woke Bilbo up – did the elves fail in their stated intention?

And a last thing: I note the archaic language these elves use, which is more pronounced than that of any other speaker in the book: "all ye joyful", the varying places of the word "now" in the song's stiches, the wonderful "The wanderer sleepeth" (which I wanted to use as a discussion title, until I noticed that NEB used it in the previous discussion Frown), the shortened words in "till the wind of the morn", and some others.
What meaning might be attached to this?
Do you like it, or do you find it jarring?
Any other comments about this song?

* * *

Finally, there is Bilbo's first song:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea…

This is quite obviously (at least, to my eye) a precursor of the three "The road goes on and on and on" poems in The Lord of the Rings – the optimistic one Bilbo sings upon leaving Bag-end, the more gloomy version Frodo recites upon his leaving, and Bilbo's last version, towards the end of Many Partings. Oddly enough, in his long and fascinating discussion of those three poems, Shippey does not mention this one; however Anderson (note no. 5 to this chapter), compares them. It follows the same metre, but is twice as long as either of them; but perhaps it could be split in two?

Is this poem a part of the same set as the three LotR ones – and is this a four-piece or a five-piece set? Or is it just the seed of the LotR poems? Or is the connection merely superficial, justifying Shippey's omission?
How does it compare to them? Both thematically and in concrete images – for instance, are the "wandering feet" of the third stanza the same as the feet which are "eager" in A Long-expected Party and become "weary" in the two others? And what of the destinations of turning to the "meadows green" as compared to the "lighted inn" in Bilbo's last version? Do you like it as much as them, less or more?

Regarding the placing of this poem in The Hobbit – strictly speaking, it is not Bilbo's first poetic improvisation; after all, he made the two spider-teasing bits on the spot.
Is it really different, or were these impromptu taunts already a sign that Bilbo is not the hobbit that he was?
Does Bilbo declaim this poem, or does he sing it according to some tune? If it is not sung, is this different from the other songs in the book?
Considered with the elvish songs – does the poetry in this chapter mark a return to the mood of the first part of the book? Is it a continuation, or even consummation, of the immediately preceeding chapters? Does it foreshadow in any way The Lord of the Rings?
Any other comments about this poem?

* * *

As a matter of fact, as far back as the first pages of An Unexpected Party, the narrator commented that Bilbo "was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe"; and this is specifically connected to his memories of Gandalf's fireworks in in the birthdays of the Old Took. Later, it turns out that he also remembers quite a few sayings of his father – all of which seem of a very prosaic, folk-wisdom quality.
Is the poetry connected to Bilbo's 'Tookish' side, and the prose to the 'Baggins' side? If so, is the 'Tookish' side reasserting itself in the poem he recites before the return home, which the 'Baggins' side wished for at the end of the previous chapter?

But upon coming home, Bilbo starts writing a book – and it seems to be a prose book (as Elrond will mention in the sequel his not yet re-casting it in verse); what's more, it has the pretty uninspiring title of "There and Back Again, a Hobbit's Holiday".
Has the Baggins side won? Or have the two achieved a harmony? Or will they only in the latter book, when apart of being a prose author by his own write, Biblo also become the translator of the three volumes of Translations from the Elvish?

The Grey Havens indicates that Bilbo's book was the beginning of the Red Book, and that The Hobbit is based upon, or derived from, that source. (see also the Note on the Shire Records at the end of the Prologue).
Is there any indication in The Hobbit at this kind of meta-fiction frame, or is the statement here just a throwaway, meant to show Bilbo's progress from one who refuses to listen to adventure tales to one who writes them?
If it is a throwaway, isn't this odd, based on Tolkien's other work – in which he attempted so often to establish the "chain of tradition" through which the stories came to him?

In a way, Tolkien used the Red Book conceit to brilliant effect, when the sequel forced him to reconsider the Gollum episode, and to rewrite Riddles in the Dark – and then wiggle out of the difference between the two versions by asserting that the first version was the one in the Red Book, which however was a false one!
But in that case, isn't Tolkien shooting himself in the foot? Doesn't it make the whimsical all-knowing narrator a fool, for not knowing that he was re-telling a false story?
And what of all the judgments the narrator has passed on incidents and characters – are they reliable? Might they not be prejudiced by Bilbo's need to justify himself, as the fifth chapter was?

And if we take the Red Book conceit seriously just a bit more –
Why are there only eighty chapters in the Red Book? Has Tolkien miscounted, or is there an internal explanation?

Do you like the Red Book conceit at all?

That's all. I'll learn from experience, and not promise the next thread will be a short one. It will be about the politics of Middle-earth, according to the glimpse of them we get in this chapter; I hoped to post in tomorrow, but it might be postponed to Sunday.

"As all things come to an end, even this story..."

Here we read of Bilbo, who is “quiet and drowsy”, that “every now and again he would open one eye” and listen to Gandalf’s tale. Is Tolkien deliberately echoing this passage in LOTR when he writes, “At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard … ‘You see, I am getting so sleepy’, he said.”?
- N.E. Brigand

The weekly discussion of The Hobbit is back. Join us in the Reading Room for The Return Journey!

Subject User Time
The Last Stage, part III - Poetry and Prose sador Send a private message to sador Nov 15 2012, 9:23am
    “Picaresque” – nice! squire Send a private message to squire Nov 18 2012, 1:25am
        I'm glad you like it. sador Send a private message to sador Nov 19 2012, 8:57am
    Songs and tales FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Nov 19 2012, 11:26am
        Thanks for the links! sador Send a private message to sador Nov 21 2012, 10:50am
    Tour de force CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Nov 20 2012, 7:48am
        Good point FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Nov 21 2012, 10:20am
        Thank you! sador Send a private message to sador Nov 22 2012, 1:17pm
    *What* goes ever on and on? squire Send a private message to squire Nov 22 2012, 6:13am
        Nice analysis! sador Send a private message to sador Nov 22 2012, 6:21pm
        Truth and fiction FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Nov 23 2012, 11:36am


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