Sunday 26 December 2021

"In western lands beneath the sun" - discovery of another true poem in Lord of the Rings

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.


Good, isn't it? The first verse set's up a generic pastoral idyll - yet of a kind we have all experienced. Then, in the second verse, we are suddenly being spoken-to by a specific voice; and from one who is lying mortally sick ('in darkness buried deep'), and who believes he is about to die ('at journey's end'). 

But this voice remembers to us, that in spite of his miserable and terminal situation; there is another world - that same kind of world of sun and stars he described in the first verse; but this world of eternal beauty and joy is 'for ever', eternal!

Therefore, despite his currently dire circumstances - the voice will not believe that his life is truly ending (as it were 'night falling'). He will not 'bid farewell', say goodbye, to 'life'; because he does not expect to die, not finally - but expects to encounter-again the elven stars (symbols of enchanted beauty and joy). 

A short poem with simple language - yet a real poem; which simultaneously suggests a great deal more than the literal and mundane: and what it suggests is lovely, life-enhancing.
Yet, how easy it is to miss this delightsome lyric when reading Lord of the Rings - as did I; because it is depicted as sung by Sam Gamgee in the tower of Cirith Ungol; as (merely!) a way of letting the prisoner Frodo know he has arrived to rescue him, and to attract a verbal response from Frodo, so that Sam can find him. 

So I would add this to my list of Tolkien's best 'anthology' poems: these five poems; The Sea BellImran; and Aotrou and Itroun.

Note: As so often; I owe my 'noticing' of such telling detail to that best of all Tolkien scholars and critics - Tom Shippey; who mentions it in a characteristically insightful (and very funny!) videoed lecture at Arizona State University, in 2002.  


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - it is good! I blush to say I am not sure how many musical settings there are of this, or how they are - or may be - related to each other, but I think Donald Swann set it first in 'The Road Goes Ever On', and I have enjoyed it as sung in the BBC radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings, and by Kristoph Klover on The Starlit Jewel CD - and, for that matter, more recently, in the setting (as 'Sam's Song in the Orc-Tower') by The Tolkien Ensemble, and the Clamavi De Profundis version (all of which can be found on YouTube).

I need to do my History of Middle-earth homework... I wonder if this was (or could have been) fresh in Lewis's mind when he wrote The Silver Chair?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I didn't enjoy the Donald Swann settings, nor have I liked any others that I've come across; but it takes a quite exceptional circumstance for a composer Not to diminish the poetic element in a lyric by adding a tune/ setting. As a rule, I have found it is much easier to appreciate the poetry from the words, purely.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of his discussion of drama and narrative in 'On Fairy-stories', I suspect that Tolkien would largely agree - it was a song - a new song - but it is (in the first instance) left to every reader/hearer of someone reading aloud to imagine what it might have been like (or not to attempt that). Beyond that, I realize I don't know enough about Tolkien and song - or even about his interaction with Donald Swann, though it seemed gracious and friendly enough, as far as I have a sense of it. There is that little bit of chant at the end of 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son' and (presumably) his being amenable to it being chanted in the radio play verse: the antiphon based on Psalm 5:9, and the last part of verse 8 and all of verse 9 (as he would have known it from the Liber Usualis?). But how interested was he in folksong (and the study of folksongs)? Was he patient before the likelihood of his song-texts being taken up and sung?

Since reading this post, 'Bilbo's Last Song' was brought to my attention (in Swann's setting), and looking 'In western lands' up in the LotR index, Legolas's singing 'To the sea, to the sea!' caught my eye - leaving me wanted to ponder these three together...

David Llewellyn Dodds