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The Banishing Of Fear Through Poetry: When Knowledge Increases Comfort

Guest post by Jerry Stout

Note: Jerry Stout successfuly defended his thesis before the board and teachers at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Fl. This is his paper.

The greatest stories give the reader a sense of the natural and real. The natural and the real are the bedrock on which a strange and foreign sub-creation is resting. J.R.R. Tolkien did not want to force the realities of his own world into the stories of the Middle Earth so that he could convert the reader to his personal view. Verlyn Flieger says in her book Splintered Light, “In showing us his fantasy world Tolkien has enabled us to recover our own, to know it and ourselves as we were and are so that we may get some glimpse, however dim, of what we yet may be,” (65).  The point of a sub-creation is to praise the creator of the primary world through imitation of the primary world. Tolkien uses his own primary world to create a secondary world of depth. One of the ways this depth is worked into his legendarium[1] is with the poetry in the Fellowship of the Ring. The poem of Beren and Luthien is a break in the flow of ordinary narrative. It is an escape of the primary story of the fellowship into the secondary story of Beren. The characters of the primary story are given a look into another in order to gain an understanding of what their own world can give them if they continue on their path. The forethought put into this double myth shows Tolkien’s genius in the art of sub-creation. The insertion of Beren and Luthien does not explicitly foretell how the Lord of the Rings ends, however the power of the Beren and Luthien story gives hope to the characters, and this hope is also transferred to the reader outside the story. Hope is the driving force of the Fellowship. Even though the poem does not come up again in the story, its song lingers in the memories and feeds the hope of the characters. Likewise, it points the reader toward the hope of a eucatastrophe[2] that is not evident within the story.  Three characters in particular are affected by the poem, and each of these characters also represents three types of reader. I will explain the relationship between characters and readers, and show how the story of Beren and Luthien instills hope in both.

Tolkien created an entirely new world when he brought Middle Earth into being. He not only created the characters and a narrative; but he created detailed and complex languages, beliefs, and histories that are all unique to Middle Earth. Given this creative impulse, one must delve into what Tolkien thought of the nature of a myth or as he names it, fairy-story. Tolkien believed in a complex world that could be unpacked by the reader. But he did not want it to be a simple or easy task to do so. And so he put his story, The Lord of the Rings, within a vast network of history and myths inside the greater myth. In the same way that the New Testament is not able to be fully understood without the backstory of the Old Testament and becomes a book of morals taught by a moral man who gives his life for what he believes, so the Lord of the Rings becomes a simple story of a group of disparate races coming together as one to destroy the evil lord Sauron. It is the nuances that give the story its true depth. It is captured in the life and breath of the world in which the story takes place. Tolkien did not write his books to provide an escape from the world for he modeled his work on the world he saw. To run into his story in order to retreat from what was his inspiration is counterintuitive. You would not look at a painting of a flower in order to forget about flowers, nor would you listen to a song about heartbreak to forget about your own heartbreak. The inspirations, beliefs, and customs that went into the making of Middle Earth necessarily become evident, which is why it is beneficial to understand what kind of man Tolkien was. In the book The Author of the Century, Shippey emphasizes that Tolkien was adamant that his works were not works of allegory. When an allegory is written, the goal of the author is to use imagery to portray a point. The Fairy-Story on the other hand is using the truth found in creation and remolding it, the fairy-story contains the truths that are in creation. If they resembled the world that Tolkien knew it was his action as a sub-creator working under the rules and examples that the creator of the cosmos left him.

The greatest of the tales within Tolkien’s Silmarillion, a history of Middle Earth as told by elves, is the tale of Beren and Luthien. This epic is a combination of history and narrative. This tale is recounted as a narrative so that those reading it could learn the history through a detailed account. It is telling a story of a great man who commits great deeds of courage for the love of his life, but it is also providing a pattern for the later story between Aragorn and Arwen. Chronologically the first time that Beren and Luthien appear is in a lay[3]; however, Tolkien later wrote a shorter account of the narrative published in the Silmarillion.

The story begins with an account of a man, Beren, entering the woods of Doriath where he sees the elf Luthien singing, whom he calls Tinuviel; which means nightingale. He immediately falls in love with her and swears to do anything to win her hand. Her father, Thingol, promises Beren Luthien’s hand in marriage if Beren can return to Thingol with a Silmaril from the iron helm of Morgoth in the pits of Angband. Thinking that it is an impossible task, Thingol is confident that he will not have to give up his daughter. Undaunted, Beren swears that he will not return without the Silmaril in hand. Beren leaves the forest of Doriath and seeks help from the elven king of Nargothrond, Finrod Felagund. On the way to Angband, they are captured and brought before the greatest servant of Morgoth, Sauron. Despite torturing them repeatedly in an attempt to discover what they are doing, but Sauron is not able to get anything from them. They are eventually rescued by Luthien and the greatest of hounds, Huan. They are not able to save Felagund; however, so they continue on to Angband, just the three of them. When in Angband they reach the stronghold of Morgoth dressed as his servants, but are discovered and brought before the throne of Morgoth. Luthien casts a sleeping spell over Morgoth and Beren digs out a Silmaril from the crown on Morgoth’s head. They then flee from the stronghold but at the gates of Angband they are confronted with the wolf Carcharoth, a servant of Morgoth. Huan attacks the beast but he is overpowered and mortally wounded. Carcharoth then bites off the hand of Beren that holds the Silmaril, but the greatness and purity of the Silmaril is too much for the filth and darkness of the beast and the pain drives him mad. Beren and Luthien then return to Thingol and Beren shows him the stump of his arm, the hand of which still holds the Silmaril in the belly of Carcharoth.  Thingol takes pity on Beren and gives him Luthien’s hand in marriage. Beren then hunts Carcharoth to retrieve the Silmaril and is killed by Carcharoth. Luthien too, having taken on the mortality of her husband, dies. In death, they plead with Mandros and return to life for a short while then they again pass away in peace.

The story of Beren and Luthien appears at a time in The Lord of the Rings where the road ahead looks nearly too dark to continue. However there is this moment in the trilogy where Aragorn starts to tell a portion of the story of Beren and Luthien to the Fellowship. Everyone present hears the tale differently based on their knowledge of the tale, but the idea and message of the lay is such that no matter what level of knowledge that each person has, the result is the same: the characters are given hope in the face of this looming catastrophe. This sudden glimpse of hope also transfers to the audience reading the book. However, the level of understanding that the characters have directly corresponds to the potency of the hope that is given.

Three arguments show that the story of Beren and Luthien gives hope to the characters within the story with different levels of potency. There are three different characters that are affected; and these three characters represent three different readers. The first character is Frodo whose small level of knowledge with the poem corresponds to the novice reader who has no knowledge of the background of The Lord of the Rings. The second is Sam who has a basic knowledge of the story. Sam corresponds to the more knowledgeable reader who knows the back story of Beren and Luthien. The last character is Aragorn who has grown up with the story of Beren and Luthien as part of his own history. He corresponds to the scholar of Tolkien who has read and studied Tolkien’s works.

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, one for the Dark Lord on his dark throne in the land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.” These are the opening lines of The Lord of the Rings. This short piece of foreboding poetry is what sets the mood of the whole story. To the reader who has immersed himself in the reading of Tolkien’s legendarium the poem introduces gravity and darkness into the novel. It brings to mind the history of the Dark Lord who befriended the races of Middle Earth and then betrayed them all. This passage also brings a great urgency to the quest. There has been an injustice in the world that needs to be fixed. There does not need to be a great description of the deeds of the Dark Lord in order to set the stage for the book. Tolkien is able to do the same thing with the little bit of poetry. But this is not the only time Tolkien uses the art of poetry to make a point within the narrative. The Lay of Beren and Luthien that is told in brief by Aragorn when he and the hobbits are on Weathertop is another such instance. This too is grave but the effect is not the same as the other poem. By reciting the story of Beren and Luthien, Aragorn intended to bring the hobbits comfort in a time of darkness and uncertainty. Cheer works with different levels of potency upon those within the story. For Aragorn the story has the greatest impact. Because he lived for so long among the elves, he knows the significance of the poem to the elves and so it has similar significance to him as well. In addition to this, he also relates to the story on a personal level. Aragorn sees the relationship between Beren and Luthien played out in his own relationship with Arwen. He is a mortal man who has fallen in love with an immortal elf and she in return has loved him back. Because of this personal note to the story, the hope provided by the story is more personal as well; the hope extends not only to the quest but also to his relationship with Arwen. The similarities between the two stories go further than the relationship between Beren and Aragorn. When Aragorn seeks the hand of Arwen, her father’s answer was that he could only marry Arwen once he became the king of Gondor and of Anor. The reunion of the two kingdoms is the bride price given to Aragorn just like the returning of the Silmaril was the bride price given to Beren. The ending of Beren’s quest gives Aragorn hope for his own.

So how does the reader who is familiar with the legendarium of Tolkien react to the telling of Beren and Luthien’s story in a way similar to Aragon? In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien describes the reaction to reading a fairy-story as that of pleasure. As he says, “Far more important is the Consolation of the happy ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have them,” (153). If the end of the Fairy-story is a happy ending then when the reader sees this story of Beren and Luthien, which he knows well, he will recall the happy ending in their story and parallel that happy ending with the possible happy ending of Aragorn. The knowledge that the reader has enables him to appreciate both Aragorn’s story and the eucatastrophy of his own story. He knows that the story of Beren and Luthien will be carried out in a much greater victory.

The moments of greatest peace and contentment come after an event that causes terror within the company of the Fellowship. When the hobbits reach Rivendell, it is after they are attacked upon Weathertop. When the Fellowship seeks sanctuary in Lothorien, it is after the battle in the Mines of Moria. The Lay of Beren and Luthien is one of the moments of peace for the hobbits. Aragorn tells them of his ancestors after they have fled the town of Bree where the black riders almost caught them. In this example, unlike the others, it is not the place they are in that gives them peace; however it is the act of singing that gives them the comfort. Sam knew enough from his time with Bilbo, who like Aragorn was well learned in the histories of the elves, that this comfort was clearly known to Sam for he was the one who requested a story: “Then tell us some other tale of the old days,’ begged Sam, ‘a tale about the Elves before the fading time. I would dearly like to hear more about elves; the dark seems to press so close,’” (Fellowship of the Ring 187). So what is the response to the dark pressing in close? It is to tell, or in this case, sing a song of a time when the dark did not overcome, though it drew close, even unto death. It is not that the darkness has been banished. It is more that the light provided by the song overcomes and becomes more real than the darkness. This is the greatest quality that Tolkien attributes to the eucatastrophe,


It is a mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher of more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lift of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of art, and having a peculiar quality (On Fairy Stories,144-5).

Here Tolkien’s views on the consolation of fairy-stories come into play with the reader who, like Sam, only has a diminished understanding of Beren and Luthien. Sam has experience with the fairy-stories of his own world and would be able to see the pattern of danger or death and the redemption that is the happy ending. So too the reader understands at least on a subconscious level. Knowing this pattern and hearing this story will combine together to bring hope to the reader just as it has done for Sam.

The final character I will talk of is Frodo, the character who knows the least about the history of the elves. He is the least knowledgeable and so the least affected by the lay. He is the only character who is described as feeling chilled after the story was told. While the story was being told Frodo was not affected by fear. Tolkien writes, “All seemed quiet and still, but Frodo felt a cold dread creeping over his heart, now that Strider was no longer speaking,” (Fellowship of the Ring 190). For Frodo the power of the Lay extended only so far as the words being spoken. But while the story was being told, he was being transported out of the darkness into the light of fairy. The poetry used by Tolkien is described this way by Carle Phelpstead: “Verse is similarly used to extend the emotional range of the narrative in The Lord of the Rings,” (32). Frodo has this emotional extension that is felt by all who hear Aragorn’s words. He joins with the all who have heard the tale of Tinuviel and draws strength from the pure light given to him by Aragorn and by extension the elves, just as the men around Éomer share not only Éomer’s grief and love for their fallen king, but the courage that Éomer pours into them through his verse. “Éomer turns to measured and archaic alliterative verse to mark the passing of Theoden King while rousing his men to continued valor: ‘Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending. When his mound is raised, women then shall weep. War now calls us!’ Yet he himself wept as he spoke,” (32). Poetry drives out grief and replaces it with valor.

“It is the mark of a good Fairy-Story, of the Higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible that adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ’turn’ comes, a catch of the breathe, a beat and lifting of the heart,” (On Fairy-Stories 154-5). The novice Lord of the Rings reader, when he hears the “turn” that is the story of Beren and Luthien can, like Frodo, feel the power and light of the song and be transported out of darkness into hope, even hope that defies articulation.

Some may question how much credit I give to the Lay of Beren and Luthien. How much can one short instance affect a story that continues many events and pages without referencing it again? It does seem that it holds a small part of the narrative and as it is quickly overshadowed by the attack of the black riders, the effects seem to fall away from the hobbits. “Then the shapes advanced. Terror overcame Pippin and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground. Sam shrank to Frodo’s side. Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold,” (The Fellowship of the Ring 191). However, it is crucial for the story. In the timeline of the Fellowship, the lay appears right after a moment of terror. The four hobbits and Strider have fled Bree where they were almost killed, and have made camp for the night. They know that they are not safe, and rather than shivering scared in silence, Sam asks for a story to quell the darkness. The poem is what banishes the darkness for the moment. Without this momentary burst of light in the midst of the terror, they may not have been able to make it to through their next encounter with terror.

The Hobbits feel the terror growing closer and huddle together. They see three dark shapes coming over the crest of the hills. The black riders charge the hobbits and terror fills their hearts. The effects of the poetry are not as forgotten as it seems on the surface. Frodo breaks through the terror he feels and calls on the strength and light of the elves. “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel![4] At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy,” (191). As if by instinct, Frodo recalls the elves that he and Sam had seen walking through the forest of the shire and singing to Elbereth; and he finds the strength and valor to attack the black riders. If the song in the shire can give him the strength to drive out the paralyzing darkness, then the Lay of Beren and Luthien can give the Hobbits strength in future times of darkness.

Throughout the journey of the ring, the moments of rest and safety are times when music makes an appearance. For example, when the hobbits reach Rivendell they are surrounded by the elves music and it revives them from their journey. When Merry and Pippin are almost killed by Old man Willow they are saved by the singing of Tom Bombadil. Each of these are necessary to keep the spirts of the company from falling deep into despair. When Frodo and Sam are in Shelob’s lair and Sam has nearly given up he remembers an Elvish poem he heard from back in the shire: “’Galadriel!’ he said faintly, and then he heard voices far off but clear: the crying of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the shire and the music of the Elves as it came through his sleep in the Hall of Fire in the house of Elrond… As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand,” (The Two Towers 713). Others would say that the novice reader would not be affected at all by the Lay. But I would say that their reaction would be much like Frodo’s own after Strider finishes speaking danger, and dread creeps back over the heart. As familiarity with the Legendarium grows the length and strength of comfort produced by the lay also grows.

The thing that Sam hopes for as he drifts into unconsciousness is to have his story told alongside that of Beren one-hand. The hope that he receives from a poem like Beren and Luthien is how he wishes to be remembered. In Sam’s eyes, it is the greatest example of heroism that can be achieved. The immorality that is achieved within a song is the afterlife; the hope of a people, Hobbits, who have no sense of an afterlife. The relief that he feels as he recalls his adventures gives him peace. This peace is also going to be felt by the people who will hear the tale of the Frodo of the Nine Fingers. It will give them comfort to accept death when it seems inevitable. Just as a song created the world of Middle Earth it is song that ushers in the new age of peace and freedom for the races of the earth. Poetry time and time again brings the eucatastrophe of Tolkien before the reader. The hope that Sam sees in “The tale of Frodo of the nine fingers” is a floodgate out of which pours the hope and possibility of a time where the darkness has been banished from the land. The poetry that carries the characters of the secondary world into the future also carries the readers of the primary world into the hope of future eucatastrophes.


Works Cited

Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2002. Print.

Phelpstead, Carl. “”With chunks of poetry in between”: The Lord of the Rings and Saga Poetics.” Phelpstead, Carl. Tolkien Studies. Vol. Volume 5. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2008. 23-38. PDF File.

Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien Author of the Century. New York City: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories”. The Monsters and the Critics. London: Collins Publishers, 2006. 109-161.

—. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Hought Mifflin Harcourt, 1994. 398. Print.

—. “The Return of the King. New York: Hougthon Mifflin Harcourt, 1994. 731-1008. print.

—. The Two Towers. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994. 403-725. Print.


[1] Legendarium is the word that in his letters Tolkien uses to describe his entire works. (See letters 131,153, 154 163)

[2] Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s own term, which he defines in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as, “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”. . .a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” (153).

[3] The Story of Beren and Luthien as it appears in the Lays of Ballerina.

[4] Elbereth Gilthoniel was a Valië, one of the Aratar, the wife of Manwë and Queen of the Valar. Elves love and revere her most of all the Valar, and they call upon her in the hours of deepest darkness.


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