Root and Branch: Musical Education and Tolkien the Poet

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Christine Perrin is the director of writing at Messiah College and has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, with Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her children attended. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry and writing, and speaks regularly at the CiRCE Institute as well as the Society for Classical Learning conferences. She is a two-time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals, including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, Christianity and Literature, and The Cresset. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate student and earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has written The Art of Poetry and Bright Mirror as well as recording The Art of Poetry with

Gathering around a text that requires our participation cultivates a joy in being together and often in being that is nearly peerless. The Greeks premeditate this classroom joy by their experience of tragedy and its fear and pity in community. The ancient festival involved the whole society gathered to experience a ritual sacrifice and shared eating alongside the storytelling.  In fact, Pieper insists that celebrating a feast is essential to making art. 

According to Pieper, festival or festive time necessary for art making involves a celebration of life as it is—life with its sad riddles—requiring an attitude of acceptance and some harmony with fundamental realities.  Such a disposition in the midst of the work-eat-sleep cycle can create space that allows us “oblivious of life’s more basic necessities, to do what is meaningful in itself”. 1   Without this outlook, organized relaxation can itself become hectic, idle, busy, or nervous distraction. Pieper isn’t suggesting that leisure of this sort involves no effort but that it resides outside of the world of total work (utility) and of pure entertainment (consumerism).

I remember the first time I encountered a kind of festal leisure in the midst of weariness and fatigue as an adult.  I was a thirty-year-old mother of three going to graduate school, teaching, writing poetry and trying to be present in all that I did.  I had met someone when I was teaching poetry as a writer in residence and she in turn invited me to her husband’s name day celebration.  They were Greek Orthodox (he not really practicing), and for his saint’s feast day (Elias/Elijah) they were roasting a lamb and having a celebration to which my whole family was invited.  This family was not wealthy, he was an immigrant who painted houses she taught preschool; their life was not smooth or ordered but they stopped in its medias res and had a useless feast. 

Even today I can still touch the happiness and abandon of that festal day alien to me.  Sure, I had birthday parties for my kids and went out to dinner on a special occasion, but this was of a different order of merriment—a meadow of time outside of the work-eat-sleep cement tenement.   I became conscious, in their midst, that I had always been waiting to finish my work in order to have leisure, essentially, I lived for work and leisure served for me to work some more.  Entering into their full-bodied celebration replete with wine and roasted meat and timelessness, there was such a stay against the world of total work, there was holiday.  In this I understood a certain acceptance of life as it was—in the untidy middle we stop and forget what isn’t finished and how we might have profitably spent those hours from midday to midnight.  We give it our highest attention, resources, and dismiss what is practical and what can be used for something else.  All of our faculties are focused on the thing in itself. 

That recognition was enough for a decade and by itself changed my inner life, but, on top of this, Elias died a few weeks later unexpectedly and in his thirties.  He had a heart attack while playing soccer.  I was there at his funeral and felt inexorably how crucial it was that he celebrated when he could.  This was not a carpe diem sentiment but precisely the one that Pieper articulates in Only the Lover Sings:  the epigraph of the book declares Augustine’s claim that “love is a song”.  In the heart of what is hard, exhausting, unfinished and pressing we truly stop and feast on what is good and given, though unfinished, what the psalms call the goodness of the lord in the land of the living, still with the understanding that we will die. 

Contemplation, Pieper reasons, is itself an outworking of the feast because we are no longer pressing forward the utilitarian wheels of our lives but stopping to behold, to gaze, to see, to listen, to play, to “make visible and tangible in speech, sound, color, and stone, the archetypical essences of all things as (we) (are) privileged to perceive them”.2  Pieper extends the point saying “the stepping-out into the open under an endless sky, (is) not only for the creative artist herself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble”.3  Such liberation, such foreshadowing of the ultimate and perfect fulfillment, is necessary for man, almost more necessary than his daily bread, which is indeed indispensable and yet insufficient”.4 Ian Marcus Corbin puts it another way, “Here we all are, for a few short minutes – tiny, brittle, ignorant, and unspeakably beautiful”.5  This isn’t only for people of faith but for any human who, in order to capture the fullness of reality, can’t be a nihilist. 

Had I not learned from Pieper and from my friend who had the feast, I would not have understood a similar claim made by Remi Brague: “Culture is the byproduct of praise and what is needed today are words of praise—songs of praise.”6   In this essay, Brague quotes Pope Benedict’s address from September 2008 speaking of the importance of the word Western culture: 

Because in the biblical word God comes towards us and we towards him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language…The God who speaks in the Bible teaches us how to speak with him ourselves.  Particularly in the book of Psalms, he gives us the words with which we can address him, with which we can bring our life, with all its highpoints, and lowpoints, into conversation with him…For prayer that issues from the word of God, speech is not enough:  music is required…the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty.7 

Tolkien and his work is a living testimony and exemplar of this mindset or culture of activity that engages the “whole body and the whole spirit.”8 I’ll echo Benedict underscoring that speech is not enough, music is required.  Looking at what Tolkien does and how it acts upon us will help us to begin to do likewise. In classical education there is a return to sources and a pattern of human learning that we hope might be a birth of culture more appreciative of life and wisdom. We are working not only with content but with pedagogy that orients us to harmony between the interior world of the human soul and the exterior world and universe. This must be true not only in our content lists but in our pedagogy. This next generation of classical education has the chance to push the project further by using muse-pedagogies that engage the body and put value on the education of the poetic imagination.  

Poetic knowledge is emotional, sensory, empathetic, and involves the whole person (including the body, heart, mind and soul) in the act of knowing.  In the order of knowledge, it is always prior to technical knowledge and continues to inform the technical and analytical should the learner move toward acquiring that content and mode.  We could also call this poetic knowledge participatory knowledge. To those in the fine arts this is intuitively obvious, but it is pretty obvious to humans when you watch children and how they know or watch yourself learning a new thing.  Why have we lost it?  At a recent conference with mature classical educators, I asked for embodied practices and we had a hard time assembling many.  As children we chant, sketch, sing, memorize but these practices get less and less frequent as we get older.  

When I speak of music in this talk, I am speaking of it in the wider sense which was understood to include song, poetry, story, and dance. These muse-subjects were and are meant to “awaken and refine a sympathetic knowledge of reality by placing the child inside the experience of those transcendentals as they are contained in these arts and sensory experiences.”9 We tend to be truth-first pedagogues because this is what we’ve mostly experienced.  Think for a minute of the learning you have done that engaged your body, mind, and soul at once. This is one of the things we’ve gathered around in this conference—the muse-subjects do not denigrate reason they work in concert with it when they use the senses to widen the imagination as a vehicle to the transcendentals. 

We see this perception about the integrated powers of the soul in Tolkien’s work.  When he tells us a story he breaks into poetry and song. We find him extraordinary and compelling and yet we are slow to do likewise.  Isn’t it interesting that a philologist, a scholar would fill his books with poem-songs.  If you listen to the audible recording, you will find the reader breaking into song at regular intervals. The orality of the tradition is seeded deep in this masterwork.  Note that all the epics—primary and secondary—are made of poetry.  Why, when we wanted to tell lasting stories, have we always we used poems?

Tolkien knows that speech is not enough, music is required, and we are wise to see how he does it and do likewise in our pedagogies.  I am commending to you the use of the body in concert with heart and mind.  My thesis is that we have neglected the musical or poetic dimension to educate the heart and the imagination to feel and to know. 

Vigilantly recognizing with the ears of the heart the inner laws of the music of creation and being is a function of what can happen when we train children or adults in the muse-subjects whether they are conscious of it or not. The divine element in the word and in words cannot be grasped by purely historical methods. The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe.10 And so we begin to understand what Brague after Benedict means when they say that singing teaches us about being and that praise is basis of culture.  Such feasting in the middle of life’s riddle is fundamental. Let’s now turn to Tolkien the poet for examples of this.

I hope that this voyage through Tolkien’s relation to language, history, and cosmos will not be a “vague and wandering quest.”11 This man has such a towering and rooting intellect that we cannot simply look at the way poetry operates in his books. His whole system is built upon poetry, which is built upon words, which are built upon history, which is built upon a relation to the cosmos. I have dimly known this and often sought to understand it better in reading his work. He saw himself as “sing[ing] with the min- strels” of old, the storytellers who made their stories of verse.12 All epic writers have some capacity to be “inside” language, and these are his rank. In the course of this essay, I will try to explain what it might have taken for Tolkien, a modern writer, to be “inside” language. We can hardly imagine it, let alone understand it because we are estranged from our own language—tree, leaf, and root. Gerard Manly Hopkins speaks of our being alienated from the very soil, the dust, of our own being: “nor can foot feel being shod.”13 Like Hopkins, Tolkien saw that we are alienated from nature in all its aspects and this is manifest in our relationship to language. One of the reasons we love Tolkien’s legendarium and especially his stories is because we feel ourselves being reunited with an element of human experience that we didn’t explicitly realize was absent. His characters and their journey possess the nearness that Hans-Georg Gadamer says poetry gives us. Poetry is not simply a reporting of experience, it is an experience; at its best it is an experience with the “soup bones” of language. This is be- cause, as Tolkien describes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” tales have been simmering in the soup of the cauldron of story and their bones have been boiled till the truths of the world are in the broth of soup. 

It is difficult to write on Tolkien and poetry because he is not only an epic poet, but also a philologist, and a theologian. To talk about his poetry, we must also make glancing contact with his depths across these disciplines. I shall begin by examining Tolkien’s various uses of poetry and build toward observing the dis- solution of the barrier between narrative and poetry (or story and song); in his work they are loomed in such tightly woven fabric that we can’t really sort them without destroying the weave. Later, I will try to reconstruct how the capacity to unify these elements was tied to a view of language and mythology. 

Across his oeuvre, we have the poetry of the hobbits, the elves, Tom Bombadil, Aragorn. We have the poetry to tell stories, to calm and comfort, to have real and saving knowledge in peril, to release from danger, to herald and hymn the natural world. We have poetry that demonstrates friendship, that holds history in memo- rable and accessible form, and that makes possible merriment and joy in simple pleasures—as in taking a bath or having a feast, for instance. In one memorable scene between Frodo and Sam in the shadow of Mordor we understand that poetry might also give us the virtue we need to see a quest through even to the edge of doom. 

And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.14

Here, in the midst of great evil, tales and songs are spoken of as practically the same thing (song and poem also are interchangeable references for Tolkien) and we see that it isn’t just entertainment or beauty or abstracted and universal inspiration that we give and receive from such telling. A simple hobbit, Sam, has been lifted to nearly the highest office and has been elevated in spirit and tongue by dint of his profound and humble trust of stories, poems, and lore. At this moment, in the heart of Mordor, at the cusp of his own death, he is able to go on and to not turn back, to carry the heavy burden laid upon him, or upon his beloved, with the aid of poetry. This is a creature who began the expedition by eavesdropping and then excitedly exclaiming, “Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!” His education in stories and poems (also described as songs) have shown him patterns (that he loved) and now his experience fits in the grooves that that poetry made in his imagination and affections. Sam’s simple faithful instinct to serve Frodo, whom he loves (he was a serving man, literally), combined with his ability to contextualize his deeds in greater arcs (story and song) helps him to see this quest to its end. Early on, he and Frodo begin to realize the end likely meant their deaths. The act of knowing the tales of others through stories and poems is a dose of fortitude that helps him to see himself in their light and himself as taking that path (faithful questers), and thus he derives fortification to complete a great deed. We would call it a heroic deed except that Tolkien has taught us to be careful in our use of such a word. In fact, the deed might better be called beatitudinal or beato (Latin for blessed). From his life-poem “Mythopoeia” he writes about such: 

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate, that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate; that seek no parley, and in guarded room, though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom wave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.15 

This poem reiterates Sam’s bit about not turning back, though it was written in response to C.S. Lewis’ pre-conversion skeptical denouncement of “myths as lies though breathed through silver” and purposed to ravel myth and truth for Lewis. Like the “blessed” in the poem, Sam is a timid heart who hates evil and literally walks under “Shadow’s sway.” Under that shadow he thinks of his own story-song and imagines that others might be nourished by their story of burden bearing. Like Sam, Tolkien relies on poetry and stories to be brave, to endure, and to communicate the most vital truths. “Mythopoeia” was instrumental in Lewis’ understanding and nourishment of hope. 

There are so many slices of poetry in The Lord of the Rings that unveil layers of Tolkien’s method and meanings. One such moment is Bilbo’s poem as he begins his journey out of the Shire after his birthday party (“The Old Walking Song” that be- gins, “The Road goes ever on and on”16). This eight-lined rhymed iambic tetrameter stanza is spoken to mark a beginning but is also an image of Bilbo’s habit of mind that works from the particular and local to the abstract and universal (this road / the Road). Bilbo recites it after the struggle with himself to give up the ring. The poem has the sweet taste of his freedom from possession, the memory of his journey there and back again with the dwarves, and the yearning to leave his settled life again. It curiously hearkens Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” about our inability to see what the implication and unintended consequences of a decision would be (written around the same time). I raise this comparison only because it helps us to see the effect of putting a poem in a story and in the mouth of a character in a certain moment. The lyric poem expresses the experience of the “I,” the speaker or persona, and hopes to represent it in such a way that breaks into a reality beyond the individual, into some kind of universal experience. When you put the lyric poem in a story, as Tolkien did the Walking poem, and in the context of a character, the poem can make very similar observations as its stand-alone lyric version17 but it is painted on a larger canvas—as we see in the case of Bilbo reciting this early in The Fellowship of the Ring. Writing a letter to his son, Michael, Tolkien remarks on the subject: 

My “poetry” has received little praise—comment even by some admirers being as often as not contemptuous. Perhaps largely because in the contemporary atmosphere—in which “poetry” must only reflect one’s personal agonies of mind and soul, and exterior things are only valued by one’s own “reactions”—it seems hardly ever recognized that the verses in L.R. (The Lord of the Rings) are all dramatic: they do not express the poor old professor’s soul-searchings, but are fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them, and to the situations in it.18 

As in the parallel between “The Road Not Taken” and “The Old Walking Song” we see how putting a poem in the context of character and in the sequence of a story expands the significance of the poem differently, and perhaps with more facets, than in the lyric. Then also, in the case of Tolkien, we have a story, The Lord of the Rings, set in a larger story, the legendarium, of a whole cosmos that Tolkien made. In Tolkien’s mind, however, “made” is not exactly the word but rather “sub-created,” discovered, mined from words and languages, borrowed from the oral tradition, and crafted into something original. 

Indeed, thirty-eight pages and seventeen years later when Frodo is finally leaving the Shire, rather reluctantly, he recites the poem again changing only one word, “pursuing it (the Road) with weary feet,” whereas Bilbo had used “eager” feet. Pippin remarks that it seems like Bilbo’s rhyming, but asks “or is it one of your imitations?” Frodo’s answer is curious: 

It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places? He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk.”19 

There is so much interest in this exchange: first, there’s the notion of tradition and its mix of imitation, recitation, and memory all mixed up and nearly impossible to diagram. Second, we see that our individual experience of the Road gathers a collection of roads we’ve traveled, and we might yet travel, and even “road-ness,” or the essence of walking the Road. Especially wonderful is Frodo’s memory of Bilbo, returning after a long walk and warning Frodo, “If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” and at the spot where exactly that had happened to him, Bilbo. Wisdom, memory, backward and forward vision—all inhabit the moments that call for poems and the places where “poetry” shows up in our lives. Poetry gathers human experience and makes it something we can pass to each other so as to fellowship with those in the past but also to understand what is possible for ourselves in the present and future. 

The Walking poem appears again at the end of the epic, when Frodo and Sam have mercifully finished their journey and returned to Rivendell. Bilbo is losing his memory, nearing his final sleep, and he repeats the poem, this time using Frodo’s word “weary.” We see that he is weary unto death, and the road is his life in Middle- earth. He dozes and hears them worrying he won’t be able to finish the chronicle of their tale and wakes to say that “when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry.”20 In this short narration of a single simple Shire poem, spoken three times over the span of a thousand pages, the complexity of discussing poetry and Tolkien is illuminated for us. We begin to see how the diverse contexts in which the poem arises help to interpret its local meaning. This final saying of it suggests that Bilbo’s road out of the realm of life and into another realm converges with the other roads of his experience; in it we see that poetry lingers long in memory, even after other things are forgotten. This small and modest poem has been available for three key moments in the tale, it has served to speak across a large tapestry of experience, and it embodies the flexibility of the oral tradition to serve when there is need—both by being memorable and by the verse’s ability to fit the situation and be passed around. This Walking poem of the central figure (Frodo) of the Nine Walkers and his father figure (Bilbo) tells us something about the nature of our lives, how we come again and again to central themes, changed and yet with some aspects of former experience (and personhood) abiding. If we have a poem to mark and link them, we are in better stead. 

A few other uses of poetry that bear mentioning, not as a catalogue, but as an- other layer in our deep archeological dig, include Tom Bombadil’s. We meet Tom early in the trilogy’s first book, and, looking at his use of language, we see that he and Goldberry (his wife, the River Daughter) nearly always “sing,” and whether it is verse or speech, who can say? Sometimes when they frame answers or make conversation, they sound like they are quoting other modes of high speech such as when Goldberry answers the question “Who is Tom Bombadil?” with the words, “He is” (hearkening the Scriptures). And later, it is Tom’s song mouthed by Frodo in the Barrow Wight’s cave that brings Frodo courage and summons Tom. Tom’s poems are usually in rhymed couplets (about twelve syllable lines). They tell stories (I had an er- rand there: gathering water lilies), they express and hymn what is good and delight- ful (O reed by the living pool! Fair River-daughter!), and they make things happen by their harmony (Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the Sunlight!).21 

To peer closer at the stratigraphy of Tolkien’s deposits in poetry let us look at another central poem in his mythology, “The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star.” Tolkien wrote this poem in 1914 after meditating on the Old English poem Crist (Christ) by a poet named Cynewulf. It was only a fragment translated in two lines “Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, / above the middle-earth sent unto men!”,22 but it got him ruminating and following the language clues. One of Tolkien’s characters (from The Notion Club Papers) describes the source of such pondering this way: “as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very re- mote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it . . . from some older world.”23 The sound of the words in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon and written before 1100 CE—“Eala Earendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended!”) made a contribution but so did the world that those words were born of and the traces of human thought and life embedded in them. Tolkien went in search of that domain, but, in the meantime, he also simply loved the words, loved their sound, and probably kept them by heart. His own poem that emerged on his holiday, just after his undergraduate years, came unbidden but found itself at the core of his mythology. Stratford Caldecott calls this world “both ancient and interior” and by that means that old worlds populate our blood, our dreams, and our ancestral memory—something Jung might have called the collective unconscious. The poem (iambic tetrameter again) begins, 

Eärendil was a mariner
that arrived in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made, her prow was fashioned like a swan, and light upon her banners laid.24 

The poem is narrative and describes how the mariner (Eärendil is the father of Elros, the first king of Númenor and the brother of Elrond) goes to the dying lands and can’t return to Middle-earth so travels in a winged ship and shines as a star above Middle-earth (Venus). Here it bears our attention to notice what happens to a story in verse—it pays exquisite attention to the sounds, especially l, s, and r, and to the sensation of the boat’s crafted beauty; the way of unfurling it is as important as the content. This poem shows up in The Book of Lost Tales (Part II) and later it finds its way into The Fellowship of the Ring when after Frodo’s journey Bilbo is composing aloud in the house of Elrond with Aragorn, and Frodo hears him in the Hall of Fire. Frodo’s coming to the poem is out of sleep in the hall and his rising to conscious- ness is described delightfully (in prose). This description partakes of Tolkien’s own dreamy relationship to this sliver of language (containing a world past): “There he wandered long in a dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice. It seemed to be the voice of Bilbo chanting verses. Faint at first and then clearer ran the words.”25 The poem goes on for pages. In this scene Frodo and Bilbo pass out of the hall and as they do Frodo hears the elves singing a song about Elbereth Gilthoniel in elvish. This is the name that saved his life at Weathertop (in danger he reached for it instinctively after having heard it recited in a poem earlier), and the beauty of the song is piercing. The song is described as “sweet syllables (that) fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody,” and Bilbo tells Frodo that they will sing this song and others of the Blessed Realm many times in the course of the night.26 They go back to Bilbo’s room and speak of the “fair things they had seen in the world together,” including the stars. As Frodo leaves Bilbo’s room, he decides to “take a walk and look at the stars of Elbereth in the garden.”27 Sedimented stratum upon stratum we have here. The events just described are illumined in a few pages in the story, but it would take a writer like myself many more pages to extricate it! 

The story in Tolkien’s poem is close to his poetic vision of the cosmos. Caldecott explains, “What interests him is primarily the ancient world, the mythic history evoked by the fragment from Cynewulf. He sees this as “imbued with a kind of race memory that he wants to spend much of his life recovering or helping to regenerate.”28 From this fragment, removed from its context in the poem as a whole, and combined with other clues and evidence, he senses the possibility of rebuilding the long-lost mythology of pre-Norman England.29 This helps us to see how language, consciousness, and mythology work together. The sense of congruence that subject, object, and word had in the time of the poem is hardly recognizable to us and takes painstaking recreation by a learned scholar and word- lover like Tolkien. This is what Owen Barfield and Tolkien meant by our modern alienation—the relationship to nature and to each other that myth and poetry and metaphor assumed now must be reconstructed like a mosaic. But its past unified reality is still present in words and a poet-philologist-theologian might be able to make his way back to such communion. Tolkien believed that Christ’s presence on the earth and our capacity to commune with Him and in Him (after Pentecost) was a development in this process of recovery. Thus, by the incarnation, myth gives way to history (myth become fact) and the pieces of mythic narrative are unified, as cyclic and linear, symbolic and historical. 

The nostalgia that we feel for this wholeness C.S. Lewis called inconsolable longing or Sehnsucht, and Caldecott, whose bones are buried within sight of Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote, describes Tolkien’s intuition this way: “that feeling (nostalgia/ inconsolable longing) is a sign that we are called back to a light, and a music, and a Word that contain and transcend the pattern and the meaning of the world.”30 With Tolkien, Caldecott finds language to describe humanity as itself a part of a song, a pattern of words. Poetry is the highest form of human language and patterning (as mentioned earlier, Tolkien used the words “song” and “poem” interchangeably as concepts); it holds memory and experience, it holds longing (and emotion generally) and the silver veins of ancient things (even things of which the author is not entirely aware). Our task of mining the silver lode (or mithril) in Tolkien’s work is itself dwarven craft. 

In fact, we can’t properly speak of poetry and Tolkien without touching his theory of language and knowledge and his deepest theological convictions. I have begun with a few glimpses of poems that help us to construe his method, occasions, and regard for poetry, but the bulk of the rest of this discussion will examine the relation- ship between word and poem; this is something which Tolkien often references, but elusively and with a wealth of understory that most readers lack tools to thin. I have been one of those readers and have eagerly sought to understand Tolkien’s view of words as it relates to his office as poet. I offer what I have found in the last pages of this essay. 

Poetry names the world and that naming is, in some degree, a species of saying what a thing fundamentally is, not merely assigning a label to it (though this is the subject of much disagreement among language theorists and literary schol- ars). When I graduated from a Master’s in Fine Arts program in poetry, one of my friends gave me the icon of Adam naming the animals, suggesting that the task of the human in general and the poet in particular is to name the world. Alexander Schmemann in his remarkable book For the Life of the World describes the vital human office as that of adoration as poet and priest: 

God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this “very good.” So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and—in this act of gratitude and adoration—to know, name and possess the world.31 

Naming is part of knowing and possessing. Here is the idea that the world is a good gift and beautiful, given in blessing, and, ideally, received and offered back. The call and response of blessing multiplies into a gift economy and is echoed throughout Tolkien’s work (think of Niggle’s exclamation upon seeing his painting completed in a different realm, “He lifted his arms and opened them wide . . . It’s a gift!”—from Tolkien’s story “Leaf By Niggle.”32 Further, this progression (knowing, naming, and possessing) is imbedded in the true reception of such a gift; each is bound with the other, each extends the other. Tolkien takes this theology further: he believes the capacity of humans to “sub-create” is a privilege that our Creator has bestowed upon us, the privilege of partaking in and contributing to the original creation. Thus, by sub-creation, the creature shares in divine creativity and contributes to the creation, to the available store of ingenuity and beauty. The Middle English word “poet” comes to us from Old French poete, from the Latin poeta, the Greek poètes, “maker,” and from the Greek poiein, “to make.” Making and creating is in the fundament of the word “poet,” but also, according to Tolkien, in the essence of human nature imbued with divine attributes. Tolkien was educated in the tradition of poet-as-maker-of-worlds-with-words, was deeply influenced by it, and while his books are not written solely in verse (as are the great primary and secondary epics of Homer, Virgil, the Beowulf poet, Dante, Milton), in many ways The Lord of the Rings is written for verse with this conception of the poet as weaver of story and song. His legendarium is full of poetry, history, and is not only a literarily consistent world, but also a cosmos that considers origins and relations between all beings and organ- isms. Thus, he follows the pattern of epic in content and in form. The content is high and heroic (though his heroism is particular to his theology); his formal commitments to language are syntactical, etymological, and musical achievements of the utmost. In this essay, I am arguing that poetry is not simply rhymed and metered language (though it is often that). In Tolkien’s world, how each race uses words marks and identifies them; poems of all stripes punctuate the story, characterization, and plot. Indeed, we cannot imagine any aspect of Tolkien’s work without poetry. In our contemporary literary education, most of us have been accustomed to the lyric poem and the novel (as opposed to the epic that tells stories of a culture in verse). Both of these forms are about the individual—the voice and perspective of a single “I” (or cast of “I’s”) and the exploration of a human’s mostly interior world. The education by epic poetry takes place on a greater canvas, as I mentioned earlier in the essay. Think of the scope of the Sistine Chapel or the tapestries that line the walls of the Vatican, hallway after hallway, or the interplay of dome, walls, choir, nave, and sanctuary of a great cathedral such as the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opera del Duomo museum down the street that houses treasures that no longer live within the church. This is closer to the opus of Tolkien’s work as a poet. 

Indeed, Tolkien spent a lifetime immersed in language and especially in poetry, our most attentive form of language. Joan Acocella, writing in The New Yorker, de- scribes this immersion in terms of his relationship to the epic Beowulf: 

As an adult, Tolkien could read many languages—and he made up more, including Elvish—but the number is not the point. Even in secondary school, Carpenter says, “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all.” Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, his closest friend, for a time, in adulthood, he had been inside language. Perhaps he couldn’t come back out. By this I don’t mean that he couldn’t talk to his wife or his postman, but that Old English, or at least that of Beowulf, was where he was happiest. He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one.33 

Tolkien lived inside of language, inside of poetry, inside of epic poetry. Living there, poetry became his preferred mode of expression; for instance, as I have said, we know that when he wanted to articulate his Christian faith credibly to a friend, he wrote a poem. The term “mythopoeia” comes from the Greek meaning simply “myth- making” (μυθοποιία). In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes extensively about his bifurcated understanding of meaning and beauty/logic and myth and describes the reunification of these concepts in his imagination as nearly simultaneous with his conversion. This poem was Tolkien’s argument to Lewis, who loved the same poems and myths, and it compelled Lewis to revise and unify his divided thinking about truth and myth. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia,” along with his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” aids us in understanding the role of word, poem, and language in his own life of sub-creating. For Tolkien, a single word functioned as a poem, that is, as a world of meaning, sensation, thought, feeling, history, and culture. He likened the experience of finding a Finnish grammar primer to uncovering a wine cellar; is it any wonder that poetry pervades every nook and cranny of his work? 

Tacit in the notion of a sub-, or secondary, creator is God as the Prime mover, the first Creator. Tolkien’s sensitivity to words and their roots was not only academic and historic but also intuitive and theological. His theory of poetry, or of the poet as world- maker, is also a theory of knowledge. As I have mentioned, he held that myth, language, and humanity’s perception of the world are intertwined and inseparable. In “Mythopoeia,” he demonstrates this in various ways, such as when he speaks of trees and language: “Yet trees are not ‘trees,’ until so named and seen— / and never were so named, till those had been / who speech’s involuted breath unfurled, / faint echo and dim picture of the world.”34 Here he designates those who have “seen” properly in order to “name” or “unfurl” with speech the “dim picture” of the world. This interlocking dance of seeing, knowing, and speaking revolves around the naming act. Calling a thing what it is, by its true name, is an act of knowledge, of showing forth; it is an intimacy. At the dawn of creation this act might have been compressed in a word, and, in fact, we see that children experience the fullness and essence of a single word as they learn language. But in these latter days we need more words to experience the same dose, and poetry has become the equivalent of giving a thing its name. Many contemporary poets understand this at least partially; Richard Wilbur describes the way poetry names inner and outer realities and how the accomplished poem shows a congruence between the two (inner and outer) that satisfies a unified reality.35 

Caldecott says it this way: 

Naming is not merely the attachment of arbitrary labels to things but involves us in the imaginative/intellectual grasping of what they are. To give a name to something is to therefore pick it out from its context, to identify it as a thing-in- itself, and to perceive at least something of its character and purpose in relation to ourselves. Poetry takes this to another level. It discovers the things revealed in experience to be analogies, similes, metaphors, symbols, each in some sense pregnant with inexhaustible meaning. We “know” things more completely by finding the connection between one thing and another, and between myself and all those things, in a way that illuminates both.36 

We name, then, by knowing, and we know partly by experience and by likening, what we might describe as making visible the invisible network of relations in the world. In Walker Percy’s view, metaphor is a way of getting at the real nature of a thing by comparing it to something that it does not resemble on the surface.37 It becomes an instrument for ontological exploration. In Tolkien’s vision, following this path by studying the origin and development of words is to follow emerging human consciousness: how a thought is sowed in words and their changes over time (and across different languages and geographies ) shows how people believed and lived (and likened). Most words began as metaphors that were concrete. I will give further and better instances of this but one quick and simple one is “hippopotamus,” which means “river horse.” Someone saw a hippo and compared it to a known creature and coded the comparison in its name (“horse” from the Greek hippos and river from the Greek potamos). Even the dictionary references Herodotus’ early use of the word as part of its definition. This tidbit helps us to see the slippery element of “consciousness”—an ancient Greek historian saw a hippo and compared it to what he knew in order to grasp what it was. Seeded in the word itself is his experience in 400 BCE Egypt. 

Throughout the poem “Mythopoeia” Tolkien also contrasts those who see names as a form of knowledge (or knowing and naming as coextensive) and those who treat language as mere label or social contract, saying that they think in terms of “record” or “photograph” and use language as “divination” and thus “pan[ning] the vein of spirit out of sense”38 This second approach does not seek to understand the relation between myth, language, and percept and persistently tries to reduce and make scientific, or simply separate, elements such as spirit and sense (e.g., distinguishing its ultimate meaning from its physical and sensory aspect). 

Here is another example from the poem of how Tolkien contrasts these two approaches to language and phenomena: 

he sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.39 

There are those, according to Tolkien, who think of stars as merely gasses, the universe as a void, and earth as simply a planet. These people do not share a cosmic understanding of the world as a complex and orderly entity with a jeweled tent, a firmament, a mother (earth), and stars as “living silver” that “burst” into being in harmony with an ancient song. To call a star a star and mean hot gas is not to see and know the thing and indicates that we have lost a certain attitude of mind and involvement with the world and its inhabitants, long gone, who once believed all being was cosmically connected. Tolkien’s work in philology inquired of this past. Verlyn Fleiger describes this habit of going “inside language” as a seeing of the world; she explains that “words were for Tolkien not simply a window on the past but the key to that lost relationship between humanity and God. She says “… [Words were] one avenue into perception of the super-natural, the super-real. … To break the veil and pass through would be to penetrate beyond normal human perceptions into another reality, one always present but not readily accessible.”40 

Just as a word is the seed of a language, culture, history and way of thinking. So too a fairy story is a seed of human imagination embedded in stories. Fairy story is not the equivalent of make believe but rather a real enchantment that we only dimly perceive. Tolkien describes the dynamics of this in the Christian gospel in “On Fairy-Stories”: 

The gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. They contain many marvels … but this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-cre- ation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. … For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art.41

Here “primary world” and “primary art” refer to the one that God created; secondary is that of the sub-creator following after Creation. Lewis used the phrase “myth become fact” referring to the ways in which the story of Christ’s redemption is both fairy tale (the bone broth of all stories) and historic fact. The word “myth” in this context is “that which describes humankind’s perception of its relationship to the natural and supernatural worlds.”42 Words themselves are “embodiments of mythic concepts” and mythic worldview; “all diction was literally giving direct voice to the perception of phenomena and humanity’s intuitive mythic participation in them.”43 These statements will take the rest of our space to unpack. 

To start from the ground up, Fleiger describes the way that our view of and relationship to the cosmos impacts the unity of meaning contained in a word and our use of that word: 

We now perceive the cosmos as particularized, fragmented, and entirely separate from ourselves. Our consciousness and the language with which we express that consciousness have changed and splintered. In that earlier, primal worldview every word would have had its own unity of meaning embodying what we now can understand only as a multiplicity of separate concepts, concepts for which we (no longer able to participate in the original worldview) must use many different words.44

Barfield details this phenomenon of diminishment and deracination and Tolkien largely agreed with his views on the development of human consciousness. They held that we as humans broke with the unity and wholeness of the world (for Tolkien this happened in the garden with the Fall) and have spent these many centuries striving for reunification. In the poem we have been examining (“Mythopoeia”), Tolkien is describing two basic approaches that we might broadly call the materialist’s and the Christian’s or, more specifically, the scientistic and theistic approaches. 

Let’s continue to unfold this mythic view by exploring the process of word formation and ongoing use. An example that Barfield offers is the Greek word pneuma and the Latin word spiritus. He explains that these words once held the meaning of a single concept, that was also a phenomenon to those who coined them “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit.”45 There was a time when humans saw these words as manifestations of the same reality, our breath as breath of the divine, breathed into us and creating the winds of the earth. We, in translating the Greek or Latin, must find different words to speak of the now fragmented parts of this once whole and complex understanding that was not only intellectual and linguistic, but also a way of seeing the world as both natural and supernatural. “Word,” as both percept (object of perception) and concept, has fragmented such that the original unity no longer exists. This process of division between percept, concept, and name continues almost ad infinitum and generates more words and more perceptions, thereby distancing us further from the original participation of observer with the object, concept, and name.46 Another ex- ample is the word Logos and the Gospel of John, in which Saint John understood word, or Logos (in Greek), to mean a variety of things at once—”speech,” “reason,” “organizing principle,” and “cosmic harmony.” Much has been written about the Greek understanding of Logos as both “word” and “reason” and the Christian absorption and building upon both in the New Testament. For John the theologian and his readers, the concepts and percepts and person of Christ would have been understood as unified reality. Translators much later had to select one meaning for Logos from among many because we no longer understand the wholeness of the original view of the reality held in the word, what Tolkien and Barfield might have labeled “ancient semantic unity.”47 

In addition to litmus-words, such as pneuma and Logos, we see this complex of factors buried in a word like “desire,” which traces its line back to the Latin word desiderare: de (down) sidus, sider (star), meaning “of the stars.” Therefore, “to desire” suggests that human longing is mixed up with the stars themselves. We imagine the ancient act of looking up at the stars as simply to chart their course (think of the centaur in Lewis’ The Last Battle and the magi of the Gospels), but there was also the sense of our destiny being in the stars—some admixture of astrology and astronomy. The word “desire” holds this knowing of ourselves as those whose feet are on the earth, but who also are bound up with the stars, from which we read meaning in their patterns (woven by a creator communicating with us through them), which spoke of not only predictions, but also a nightly dance over the earth bringing light and beauty. This is a small taste of the former unity of relationship between our- selves and the heavens that is still buried in the word “desire,” and, through its etymology, we are able to grope our way back toward an understanding of the whole that language can provide. The word “desire” was created by one who looked at the stars in the ways described and felt his or her life bound with the heavens in large and small ways; one who had the experience of stars nightly in a realm without electricity, without the definition of a star as hot gas from a dictionary or technical science class. The genealogy surrounding this word is a mundane example of Tolkien’s mythic worldview and what he meant when he said that his stories were about language and came from language. Gathered in the words (and their genealogy tree) is the confluence of a view of the creation, a view of nature, and a view of the mysterious invisible and mystical aspect of the human. All of these perceptions and phenomena are happening at once and together with the saying of even one word. Language uniquely holds human experience, history, and imagination, and, as Caldecott explains, Tolkien saw the “division of the imagination and reason as a wound and hazardous to knowing.”48 

Some might call mythmaking and this whole view of humankind “wish fulfillment,” as Freud and other moderns do, but Tolkien challenges this:  

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream…

the heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from, mind to mind.

. . . We make still by the law in which we’re made.”49

Tolkien suggests that the creative act (naming, storytelling, poem making) al- lows us to participate in the creator’s work (the Wise, the Artefact, the White) and is deeply tied to this unity: we were made, the earth was made, we are makers, and our making can be more or less true to that earlier participation and fellowship. He contrasts this view with those who say we have no maker, the world is only what we see, and we alone construct whatever meaning exists: there is no larger meaning or maker with which to participate. In fact, for Tolkien, true making is a bridge back to unity. Tolkien references this reverence for language as the foundation of his work and imagination: 

Languages and names are for me inextricable from the stories. They are and were so to speak an attempt to give a background or a world in which my ex- pressions of linguistic taste could have a function. The stories were comparatively late in coming.50 

For us, language and names are like fossils in the cliff of a past world recorded in language. We find them and study them to make contact with and understand a vanished time. Tolkien lived in this vanished world through the languages he loved. It gave him access to the peoples who inhabited it—their way of life, their relation- ship to the soil and stars and to each other, and the way they talked and thought about it all. The poet, through metaphor and words, recreates the perception that we need to make our way back to original participation. Tolkien shows that poetry more than prose has the capacity to hold the rhythms and texture of language. Poetry re- invests the world with the meaning it actually has and rebuilds our relationship to it. In words, we feel our separation from some former unity and through words we might return. Tolkien, poet, has laid out words and language for us like a bridge we might walk across. On the other side of that bridge is unity and participation and a sense of belonging to the earth we walk upon, is speech and song as kin, is beauty and truth inextricable, is God and human not alienated. We love Tolkien the poet because he held onto this concord with staggering intelligence, tenacity, beauty, and imagination in the face of darkness, in the seeming midnight of this world. In addition to re-membering a mythology for England he understood he was holding a flame for the hope that 

then looking on the Blessed Land ‘twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.”51 

He ends speaking of poets in Paradise, a realm and pursuit he yearned toward: “poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All.”52 We have now traveled farther afield from our subject of muse-education, that is an education in story, song, dance, and poem.  We are less farther afield from the idea that feasting, singing, praise are essential elements of culture.  If this is so, and if the case study of Tolkien’s work has made an impression on you, dear reader, please consider teaching our children by pedagogical embodiment to live with words, stories, poems, and songs as if their good life depended on its beauty.

Editor’s Note: this essay is a composite of two essays combined. It appeared first under the title “Root and Branch: Tolkien the Poet” in the book J.R.R. TOLKIEN AND THE ARTS: A THEOLOGY OF SUBCREATION (published by Square Halo books and Edited by Ned Bustard: 978-1-941106-1-36). It was also delivered as a talk at the Great Hearts Symposium 2022. Shared here by permission.

1 Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 26.
2 Pieper, 24.
3 Pieper, 27.
4 Ibid.
5 Ian Marcus Corbin, “The Abyss of Beauty.” Plough. Accessed May 25, 2022.
6 Remi Brague. “From What is Left Over.” First Things. Accessed May 25, 2022.
7 Benedict XVI. “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI.” Accessed May 25, 2022.
8 Ibid.
9 James Taylor. Poetic Knowledge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 15.
10 Benedict XVI.
11 J.R.R.Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 89.
12 Ibid.
13 Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur and Other Poems (Toronto, Ontario; Dover Publications, Inc., 1918), 7.
14 J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 711.
15 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 88.
16 J.R.R.Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 35.
17 Robert Frost, “The Road NotTaken,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916), 105.
18 J.R.R.Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien (NewYork: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 391.
19 Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 73–74.
20 Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 988.
21 Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 126, 124, 142.
22 Stratford Caldecott, Secret Fire:The SpiritualVision of J.R.R.Tolkien (London:Darton,Longman andTodd, 2003), 15.
23 Ibid.
24 Caldecott, Secret Fire, 16.
25 Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 233.
26 Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 238.
27 Ibid..
28 Caldecott, 17..
29 Tolkien, Letters, 131, 180.
30 Tolkien, Letters, 93..
31 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 15.
32 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 110.
33 Joan Acocella, “Slaying Monster s,” New Yor ker, June 2, 2014, https://www.newyor
34 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 86..
35 Richard Wilbur,“Poetry and Happiness,”Shenandoah,1969 issue, https://shenandoahliterar 12/poetry-and-happiness/.
36 Caldecott, Secret Fire, 18.
37 Walker Percy, “Metaphor as Mirror” in The Message in the Bottle (NewYork: Picador, 1975), 65.
38 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 86..
39 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 87..
40 Verlyn Fleiger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002), 439..
41 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 72.
42 Fleiger, Splintered Light, 926..
43 Ibid..
44 Fleiger, 933.
45 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction:A Study in Meaning (Middleton,VT:Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 81.. 
46 Fleiger, 949.
47 Ibid..
48 Caldecott, 18..
49 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 87..
50 Schmemann, Life of the World, 213..
51 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 90..
52 Ibid..

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