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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
*What* goes ever on and on?


Nov 22 2012, 6:13am

Views: 1937
*What* goes ever on and on? [In reply to] Can't Post

BB. Is this poem (“Roads go ever on and on”) a part of the same set as the three LotR ones – and is this a four-piece or a five-piece set?
The main difference that I notice is that Bilbo’s song in The Hobbit is a clear recapitulation of his recent adventure: each line in the first stanza is a reference to some point in his journey to Erebor, and each line in the second refers to his return while looking back to his adventure. That explains the two-stanza structure: “There” (stanza 1) and “Back Again” (stanza 2).

By contrast, the one-stanza version he sings at the beginning of his new journey in LotR is open-ended. It concludes, “whither then? I cannot say”. More significantly, it celebrates the idea of the Road itself, as a symbol of exploration and growth, where the Hobbit version refers to “roads”, not “the road”, which are a means to an end. It seems clear that Bilbo, after he returned Back Again, internalized the idea of his great adventure and became enamored of the idea of journeying rather than the goal of a journey.

You say that Frodo’s version when he begins his journey in Chapter 3 of FotR is “more gloomy” but there is only one word that is changed: “eager feet” have become “weary feet”. Is that enough for us to project “gloominess” onto Frodo’s mood, compared to Bilbo’s? I get the feeling of resignation instead. The difference is that Frodo is on the Road by compulsion, not free will as Bilbo was when he abandoned Bag End for one more lark to the East. But in both hobbits’ songs the emphasis is on the predetermined nature of the route combined with the uncertainty of the outcome.

Bilbo’s reprise in RotK is clearly the flip side of his (and Frodo’s) verse at the beginning of the epic. The gag is that the elderly Bilbo finally accepts that his journeying days are over. His feet are “weary” now, as Frodo’s always were. But although we might propose that Bilbo’s two verses, beginning and end, are the equivalent of his two-stanza composition in The Hobbit, there are a couple of differences. One, the LotR verse is more thematic. In it, the Road is a metaphor for Life, not just Adventure. After all, in LotR, Bilbo has not been the hero, but simply a long-lived hobbit who initially defies but finally accepts his mortality. Two, and very interestingly, Bilbo in LotR turns away from the Road in favor of an Inn, not his homely Hole and Lands which were his final destination at the end of his Hobbit verse. The image of a “lighted inn” where he will meet his “evening-rest and sleep” suggests to me that the hobbit expects that Death will not be a final fate, but simply a rest on a new journey on a truly distant Road.

CC. Or is it just the seed of the LotR poems?
Well, it is the seed, but it also stands perfectly well on its own.

DD. Or is the connection merely superficial, justifying Shippey's omission?
Of course this is not a superficial connection. Tolkien developed the more ambitious poem from the ideas and themes contained in the more limited and specific earlier one – just as he did with the two books overall.

EE. How does it compare to them?
I defer to the mini-essay recorded above.

FF. 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?
Third stanza?? I think there are two eight-line stanzas, but maybe you are calling out the quatrains instead? In any case, of course the feet in question are the same: the traveler’s feet.

GG. And what of the destinations of turning to the "meadows green" as compared to the "lighted inn" in Bilbo's last version?
Again, I’m already on it. See above.

HH. Do you like it as much as them, less or more?
I like the LotR sequence better. It’s more developed and sophisticated. The Hobbit verse is rather primitive by comparison – primitive in the sense of propounding simple, basic thematic images from the story and from Tolkien’s basic poetic vocabulary.

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.
II. Is it really different, or were these impromptu taunts already a sign that Bilbo is not the hobbit that he was?
It’s not entirely clear that Bilbo is improvising when he crests the rise and sees the Hill in the distance – although I admit it is a valid interpretation. Still, the doggerel that he spouts at the spiders are not in the same class as the well-structured and balanced lines of “Roads go ever on and on”. We might almost assume that Bilbo, as a member of a more oral culture, could come up with the spider verses just from his natural training in composition, but that this poem required more art and craft – enough to be begin qualifying him as a poet and to merit Gandalf’s exclamation.

JJ. Does Bilbo declaim this poem, or does he sing it according to some tune?
Well, the text says he “said” it. Since Tolkien is not averse to saying when something is being “sung”, I assume Bilbo was reciting rather than singing.

KK. If it is not sung, is this different from the other songs in the book?
Ah – “verses”, not “songs”, if your question is to make any sense. But then, yes – good point. Only the Riddles are recited in the sense that this verse is; everything else in verse form is sung in this book, it seems.

LL. Considered with the elvish songs – does the poetry in this chapter mark a return to the mood of the first part of the book?
No. The whole point of the Elves’ more complex songs, and of Bilbo reciting poetry, is to emphasize that the mood of the beginning of the book cannot – and should not – be recovered.

MM. Is it a continuation, or even consummation, of the immediately preceeding chapters?
No, because as you have noted, there is very little verse in the preceding chapters – being at the height of the adventure.

NN. Does it foreshadow in any way The Lord of the Rings?
Quite the opposite. Like all the rest of the ending of The Hobbit, the point is to shut down the adventure and absorb its consequences into a “happy ever after” ending. There is no “foreshadowing” of the LotR at all in The Hobbit, that was not imposed on it after the fact of LotR being written. It’s hard, but it can be done: read The Hobbit, and don’t think of LotR at all. Try it, it’s fun and easier than you may think!

OO. Any other comments about this poem?
I’m good, thanks.

PP. Is the poetry connected to Bilbo's 'Tookish' side, and the prose to the 'Baggins' side?
I’m not sure you’re contrasting “prosy” and “prosaic” correctly. I think “prosy” in the narrator’s comment about Bilbo’s flight of poeticism about the fireworks is meant to convey the idea of plain speech. So despite his professions of being uninterested in adventures Bilbo is capable of picturesque rhetoric, i.e., romance and poetry even if rendered in prose (unversed speech).
But to say that Bilbo’s father’s sayings are prosaic is simply to say that they are commonplace and well-known. It doesn’t mean they don’t have color and imagery – that’s exactly what they do have, and Bilbo’s fondness for them might suggest solidity and attraction to tradition, but it also might suggest an attraction to metaphor and imagery.

QQ. 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?
I don’t think it’s all such a see-saw matter as you are implying. Through his adventure Bilbo experiences integration, a combining of the Took and Baggins, rather than displacement of one by the other.

[Bilbo’s book] seems to be a prose book [with] the pretty uninspiring title of "There and Back Again, a Hobbit's Holiday".
RR. Has the Baggins side won?

The mundane title is calculated to sell in the hobbit market, you might say. (I believe it is actually a little joke on Tolkien’s part about the typical titles given to memoirs in his day.)

SS. Or have the two achieved a harmony?
Now you’re getting it, boyo.”

TT. Or will they only in the latter book, when apart of being a prose author by his own write, Bilbo also become the translator of the three volumes of Translations from the Elvish?
We’re getting pretty far afield from the Bilbo who returns to his Hole from his adventure with the dwarves and Smaug, aren’t we? Would you like to speculate that, if Translations from the Elvish is the book we know as The Silmarillion, then the earlier parts having to do with the Elves and the Eldar represent Bilbo’s Tookish side, while the later tales of the adventures of the Edain (Men) represent the Baggins side, thus achieving your above-noted “harmony”? Cuz I wouldn’t.

“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.
UU. 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?
Two responses here: One, yes. The Hobbit is clearly suggested at the end as being Bilbo’s memoirs. It’s not as important or meaningful as the Red Book gag in LotR, because The Hobbit is not meant to convey the idea of the passing of an Age of Legend. In fact, its purpose is the opposite of LotR’s in this sense. It tries to convince us that we still live in an Age of Legend, if we just open our eyes and our minds. Two, I don’t think we should confuse memoirs with tales in the sense of fictional compositions. Bilbo’s memoirs are “factual” in the sense of having really happened (in Bilbo’s world, if you want to make that distinction). The point isn’t that Bilbo goes from refusing to listen to (or rather, to believe) apparently fictional adventure tales to “writing them”, as if he had begun writing fiction. The point is that Bilbo refused to believe in adventure tales, and then lived through an adventure and wrote it up truthfully – learning thereby that “tales” are more likely to be factual than we would like to admit.

VV. 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?

It’s not a throwaway, as far as I understand your question. So the oddness isn’t.

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!
WW. But in that case, isn't Tolkien shooting himself in the foot?
Well, he certainly never explains how the two different traditions both made it into print in the 20th century, when both are supposedly based on ancient sources edited by the same “discoverer”. In other words, Tolkien seems to want to differentiate between “There and Back Again” as a manuscript/book, which he found and edited first of all in the late 1930s; and the “Red Book of Westmarch” with Gondorian addenda, which he found and edited in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But in the LotR story (not the Hobbit story), the “Red Book” is “Bilbo’s Book”. As far as we can tell, Bilbo’s “memoirs” as per The Hobbit were never actually published, despite the implication in The Hobbit that they would be. His “book”, as Merry tells us, is hard to get hold of and has really only been read by Frodo and (maybe) Gandalf.

XX. Doesn't it make the whimsical all-knowing narrator a fool, for not knowing that he was re-telling a false story?
I wouldn’t go that far. I prefer to reflect on Gandalf’s folly for not investigating Bilbo’s ring when it was clearly a Ring of Power from the beginning.

YY. And what of all the judgments the narrator has passed on incidents and characters – are they reliable?
Absolutely. I trust the narrator implicitly. He is smart and knowledgeable, and he is not Bilbo. All I don’t do is compare The Hobbit to the accounts of the same events in The Lord of the Rings.

ZZ. Might they not be prejudiced by Bilbo's need to justify himself, as the fifth chapter was?
As I implied above, what you’re saying here just doesn’t make sense. A manuscript tradition that proposes the parallel existence of two manuscripts/books, both by Bilbo, with two differing stories about his encounter with Gollum and the ring, is not credible or suggested by the clues in the writing.

AAA. Why are there only eighty chapters in the Red Book?
Oh, wow. I don’t know. How does the chapter count of the Hobbit and LotR compare to that number?

BBB. Has Tolkien miscounted, or is there an internal explanation?
Still waiting.

CCC. Do you like the Red Book conceit at all?
I “like” it for its cleverness. I don’t hold the author to it, as if he has made a mistake wherever the conceit fails to work.

Thanks for the excellent questions and presentation this week!

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

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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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