A narrative pattern in Tolkien's LOTR: the power of words


When all seems lost in Book 2 of The Return of the King, and Frodo is held a naked captive in the tower of the Orcs, what revives him is the technology of literature, in its capacity to powerfully connect people across time and space, and even–especially–in extremities. Sam’s song in the tower is the most recent instance I’ve noticed of a narrative pattern in these books: after episodes of perilous conflict and resolve, there is a literary reflection, often in song, often just an acknowledgement of the recently-concluded event’s place in lore, the “long tail” of their heroic adventures. Because they know how important the songs of the Shire are to them as entertainment tools, the hobbits like to think about how the songs and tales, their literature, will one day present their current exploits. How will the tale of these halflings be told, ages hence? That’s a question discussed frequently in LOTR.


By the time he gets to the Doorstep of Cirit Ungol, Sam has endured the ponderous responsibility of Ring-Bearer, done several daring deeds to get past many dead Orcs, and has gone as far as he can to find his master. With no escape at the top of the tower, Sam feels “finally defeated” but literature will be his salvation.  Because as “darkness cover[s] him like a tide…softly, to his own surprise, at the vain end of his long journey and his grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam beg[ins] to sing.”


The oldest literature he knows, the “old childish tunes out of the Shire, and snatches of Mr. Bilbo’s rhymes” are what come into Sam’s mind “like fleeting glimpses of his home. And then suddenly new strength ar[ises] in him, and his voice [rings] out, while words of his own [come] unbidden to fit the simple tune:


In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.

Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,

above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.


One of the important functions of literature is to remind humans of otherwise forgotten ideals and nobler ambitions. In so doing, in the long run, human behavior is inspired and improved.  But in this particular moment,  the performance of the literary act has to occur before, is in fact the prime mover behind, Sam’s finding his lost friend.


For locked in a hidden upper chamber, through the mists of an Orc-induced stupor, Frodo has heard Sam’s old-and-yet-new Shire song, and has, unconsciously perhaps, picked up on its defiant message. Frodo tries to “answer back” in his own literature, in song, and thus can justice be done. Once again in this series, literature’s salvific and motivational powers win the day.

Josi Fabri’s mage of Sam responsibly sourced at http://esteljf.deviantart.com/art/Frodo-and-Sam-145772117

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