December 15, 2001
'Meditations on Middle Earth'
Rhythmic Patterning in The Lord of the Rings
Since I had three children, I've read Tolkien's trilogy aloud three times. It's a wonderful book to read aloud or (consensus by the children) listen to. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable. Like Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Tolkien must have heard what he wrote. The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality.
Woolf's vigorous, highly characteristic sentence-rhythms are purely and exclusively prose: I don't think she ever uses a regular beat. Dickens and Tolkien both occasionally drop into metrics. Dickens's prose in moments of high emotional intensity tends to become iambic, and can even be scanned: "It is a far, far better thing that I do/than I have ever done . . ." The hoity-toity may sneer, but this iambic beat is tremendously effective-particularly when the metric regularity goes unnoticed as such. If Dickens recognized it, it didn't bother him. Like most really great artists, he'd use any trick that worked.
Woolf and Dickens wrote no poetry. Tolkien wrote a great deal, mostly narratives and "lays," often in forms taken from the subjects of his scholarly interest. His verse often shows extraordinary intricacy of meter, alliteration, and rhyme, yet is easy and fluent, sometimes excessively so. His prose narratives are frequently interspersed with poems, and once at least in the trilogy he quietly slips from prose into verse without signaling it typographically. Tom Bombadil, in The Fellowship of the Ring, speaks metrically. His name is a drumbeat, and his meter is made up of free, galloping dactyls and trochees, with tremendous forward impetus: Tum tata Tum tata, Tum ta Tum ta . . . . "You let them out again, Old Man Willow! What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!" Usually Tom's speech is printed without line breaks, so unwary or careless silent readers may miss the beat until they see it as verse--as song, actually, for when his speech is printed as verse Tom is singing.
As Tom is a cheerfully archetypal fellow, profoundly in touch with, indeed representing, the great, natural rhythms of day and night, season, growth and death, it's appropriate that he should talk in rhythm, that his speech should sing itself. And, rather charmingly, it's an infectious beat; it echoes in Goldberry's speech, and Frodo picks it up. "Goldberry!" he cries as they are leaving, "My fair lady, clad all in silver green! We have never said farewell to her, nor seen her since that evening!"
If there are other metric passages in the trilogy, I've missed them. The speech of the elves and noble folk such as Aragorn has a dignified, often stately gait, but not a regular stress beat. I suspected King Theoden of iambics, but he only drops into them occasionally, as all measured English speech does. The narrative moves in balanced cadences in passages of epic action, with a majestic sweep reminiscent of epic poetry, but it remains pure prose. Tolkien's ear was too good and too highly trained in prosody to let him drop into meter unknowingly.
Stress units-metric feet-are the smallest elements of rhythm in literature, and in prose probably the only quantifiable ones. A while ago I got interested in the ratio of stresses to syllables in prose, and did some counting.
In poetry, the normal ratio is about 50 percent: that is, by and large, in poetry, one syllable out of two has a beat on it: Tum ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum ta, etc .... In narrative, that ratio goes down to one beat in two to four: to Tum tatty Tum ta Tum tatatty, etc .... In discursive and technical writing, only every fourth or fifth syllable may get a beat; textbook prose tends to hobble along clogged by a superfluity of egregiously unnecessary and understressed polysyllables.
Tolkien's prose runs to the normal narrative ratio of one stress every two to four syllables. In passages of intense action and feeling the ratio gets pretty close to 50 percent, like poetry; but only Tom's speech can be scanned.
Stress beat in prose is fairly easy to identify and count, though I doubt any two readers of a prose passage would mark the stresses in exactly the same places. Other elements of rhythm in narrative are less physical and far more difficult to quantify, having to do not with an audible repetition, but with the pattern of the narrative itself. These elements are longer, larger, and very much more elusive.
Rhythm is repetition. Poetry can repeat anything-a stress-pattern, a phoneme, a rhyme, a word, a line, a stanza. Its formality gives it endless liberty to establish rhythmic structure.
What is repeatable in narrative prose? In oral narrative, which generally maintains many formal elements, rhythmic structure may be established by the repetition of certain key words, and by grouping events into similar, accumulative semi-repetitions: think of "The Three Bears" or the "Three Little Pigs." European story uses triads; Native American story is more likely to do things in fours. Each repetition both builds the foundation of the climatic event, and advances the story.
Story moves, and normally it moves forward. Silent reading doesn't need repetitive cues to keep the teller and the hearers oriented, and people can read much faster than they speak. So people accustomed to silent reading generally expect narrative to move along pretty steadily, without formalities and repetitions. Increasingly during the twentieth century readers have been encouraged to look at a story as a road we're driving, well paved and graded and without detours, on which we go as fast as we possibly can, with no changes of pace and certainly no stops, till we get to-well-to the end, and stop.
"There and Back Again": in Bilbo's title for The Hobbit, Tolkien has already told us the larger shape of his narrative, the direction of his road.
The rhythm that shapes and directs his narrative is noticeable, was noticeable to me, because it is very strong and very simple, as simple as a rhythm can be: two beats. Stress, release. Inbreath, outbreath. A heartbeat. A walking gait. But on so vast a scale, so capable of endlessly complex and subtle variation, that it carries the whole enormous narrative straight through from beginning to end, from There to Back Again, without faltering. The fact is, we walk from the Shire to the Mountain of Doom with Frodo and Sam. One, two, left, right, on foot, all the way. And back.
What are the elements that establish this long-distance walking pace? Which elements recur, are repeated with variations, to form the rhythms of prose? Those that I am aware of are: Words and phrases. Images. Actions. Moods. Themes.
Words and phrases, repeated, are easy to identify. But Tolkien is not, after all, telling his story aloud; writing prose for silent, and sophisticated, readers, he doesn't use key words and stock phrases as storytellers do. Such repetitions would be tedious and faux-naive. I have not located any "refrains" in the trilogy.
As for imagery, actions, moods, and themes, I find myself unable to separate them usefully. In a profoundly conceived, craftily written novel such as The Lord of the Rings, all these elements work together indissolubly, simultaneously. When I tried to analyze them out, I just unraveled the tapestry and was left with a lot of threads, but no picture. So I settled for bunching them all together. I noted every repetition of any image, action, mood, or theme, without trying to identify it as anything other than a repetition.
I was working from my impression that a dark event in the story was likely to be followed by a brighter one (or vice versa); that when the characters had exerted terrible effort, they then got to have a rest; that each action brought a reaction, never predictable in nature, because Tolkien's imagination is inexhaustible, but more or less predictable in kind, like day following night, and winter after fall.
This "trochaie" alternation of stress and relief is of course a basic device of narrative, from folk tales to War and Peace; but Tolkien's reliance on it is striking. It is one of the things that makes his narrative technique unusual for the mid-twentieth century. Unrelieved psychological or emotional stress or tension, and a narrative pace racing without a break from start to climax, characterize much of the fiction of the time. To readers with such expectations, Tolkien's plodding stress/relief pattern seemed, and seems, simplistic, primitive. To others, it may seem a remarkably simple, subtle technique of keeping the reader going on a long and ceaselessly rewarding journey.
I wanted to see if I could locate the devices by which Tolkien establishes this master rhythm in the trilogy; but the idea of working with the whole immense saga was terrifying. Perhaps some day I or a braver reader can identify the larger patterns of repetition and alternation throughout the narrative. I narrowed my scope to one chapter, the eighth of Volume I, "Fog on the Barrow Downs": some fourteen pages, chosen almost arbitrarily. I did want there to be some traveling in the selection, journey being such a large component of the story. I went through the chapter noting every major image, event, and feeling-tone, in particular noting recurrences or strong similarity of words, phrases, scenes, actions, feelings, and images. Very soon, sooner than I expected, repetitions began to emerge, including a positive/negative binary pattern of alternation or reversal.
These are the chief recurrent elements I listed (page references are to the George Allen & Unwin edition of 1954):
A vision or vista of a great expanse (three times: in
the first paragraph; in the fifth paragraph; and on p. 157, when the vision is back into
What I call reversal is a pulsation back and forth between polarities of feeling, mood, image, emotion, action-examples of the stress/release pulse that I think is fundamental to the structure of the book. I listed some of these binaries or polarities, putting the negative before the positive, though that is not by any means always the order of occurrence. Each such reversal or pulsation occurs more than once in the chapter, some three or four times.
These reversals are not simple binary flips. The positive causes or grows from the negative state, and the negative from the positive. Each yang contains its yin, each yin contains its yang. (I don't use the Chinese terms lightly; I believe they fit with Tolkien's conception of how the world works.)
Directionality is extremely important all through the book. I believe there is no moment when we don't know, literally, where north is, and in which direction the protagonists are going. Two of the windrose points have a pretty clear and consistent emotional value: east has bad connotations, west is benign. North and south vary more, depending on where we are in time and space; in general I think north is a melancholy direction and south a dangerous one. In a passage early in the chapter, one of the three great "vistas" offers us the whole compass view, point by point: west, the Old Forest and the invisible, beloved Shire; south, the Brandywine River flowing "away out of the knowledge of the hobbits"; north, a "featureless and shadowy distance"; and east, "a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer . . . the high and distant mountains" where their dangerous road will lead them.
The points of the Native American and the airplane compass-up and down-are equally firmly established. Their connotations are complex. Up is usually a bit more fortunate than down, hilltops better than valleys; but the Barrow-downs-hills-are themselves an unlucky place to be. The hilltop where they sleep under the standing stone is a bad place, but there is a hollow on it, as if to contain the badness. Under the barrow is the worst place of all, but Frodo gets there by climbing up a hill. As they wind their way downward, and northward, at the end of the chapter, they are relieved to be leaving the uplands; but they are going back to the danger of the Road.
Similarly, the repeated image of a figure silhouetted against the sky-above seen from below-may be benevolent or menacing.
As the narrative intensifies and concentrates, the number of characters dwindles abruptly to one. Frodo, afoot, goes on ahead of the others, seeing what he thinks is the way out of the Barrow-downs. His experience is increasingly illusory-two standing stones like "the pillars of a headless door," which he has not seen before (and will not see when he looks for them later)-a quickly gathering dark mist; voices calling his name (from the eastward); a hill, which he must climb "up and up," having (ominously) lost all sense of direction. At the top, "It was wholly dark. `Where are you?' he cried out miserably." This cry is unanswered.
When he sees the great barrow loom above him, he repeats the question, "angry and afraid," " `Where are you?'" And this time he is answered, by a deep, cold voice out of the ground.
The key action of the chapter, inside the barrow, involves Frodo alone in extreme distress, horror, cold, confusion, and paralysis of body and will-pure nightmare. The process of reversal-of escape-is not simple or direct. Frodo goes through several steps or stages in undoing the evil spell.
Lying paralyzed in a tomb on cold stone in darkness, he remembers the Shire, Bilbo, his life. Memory is the first key. He thinks he has come to a terrible end, but refuses to accept it. He lies "thinking and getting a hold on himself," and as he does so, light begins to shine.
But what it shows him is horrible: his friends lying as if dead, and "across their three necks lay one long naked sword."
A song begins-a kind of limping, sick reversal of Tom Bombadil's jolly caroling-and he sees, unforgettably, "a long arm groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam . . . and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him."
He stops thinking, loses his hold on himself, forgets. In panic terror, he considers putting on the Ring, which has lain so far, all through the chapter, unmentioned in his pocket. The Ring, of course, is the central image of the whole book. Its influence is utterly baneful. Even to think of putting it on is to imagine himself abandoning his friends and justifying his cowardice-" Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do."
His courage and his love for his friends are stung awake by this imagination: he escapes temptation by immediate, violent (re)action, and he seizes the sword and strikes at the crawling arm. A shriek, darkness, he falls forward over Merry's cold body.
With that touch, his memory, stolen from him by the fog-spell, returns fully: he remembers the house under the Hill-Tom's house. He remembers Tom, who is the Earth's memory. With that he recollects himself.
Now he can remember the spell that Tom gave him in case of need, and he speaks it, calling at first "in a small desperate voice," and then, with Tom's name, loud and clear.
And Tom answers: the immediate, right answer. The spell is broken. "Light streamed in, the plain light of day."
Emprisonment, fear, cold, and solitude reverse to freedom, joy, warmth, and companionship . . . with one final, fine touch of horror: "As Frodo left the barrow for the last time he thought he saw a severed hand wriggling still, like a wounded spider, in a heap of fallen earth." (Yang always has a spot of yin in it. And Tolkien seems to have had no warm spot for spiders.)
This episode is the climax of the chapter, the maximum of stress, Frodo's first real test. Everything before it led towards it with increasing tension. It is followed by a couple of pages of relief and release. That the hobbits feel hungry is an excellent sign. After well-being has been restored, Tom gives the hobbits weapons--knives forged, he tells them rather somberly, by the Men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord in dark years long ago. Frodo and his companions, though they don't know it yet, are of course themselves the foes of that lord in this age of the world. Tom speaks--riddlingly, not by name--of Aragorn, who has not yet entered the story. Aragorn is a bridge-figure between the past and the present time; and as Tom speaks, the hobbits have a momentary, huge, strange vision of the depths of time, and heroic figures, "one with a star on his brow"-a foreshadowing of their saga, and of the whole immense history of Middle-earth. "Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world."
Now the story proceeds with decreased immediate plot-tension or suspense, but undecreased narrative pace and complexity. We are going back toward the rest of the book, as it were. Toward the end of the chapter, the larger plot, the greater suspense, the stress they are all under, begins again to loom in the characters' minds. The hobbits have fallen into a frying pan and managed to get out of it, as they have done before and will do again, but the fire in Mount Doom still burns.
They travel on. They walk, they ride. Step by step. Tom is with them, and the journey is uneventful, comfortable enough. As the sun is setting they reach the Road again at last, "running from South-west to North-east, and on their right it fell quickly down into a wide hollow." The portents are not too good. And Frodo mentions-not by name-the Black Riders, to avoid whom they left the Road in the first place. The chill of fear creeps back. Tom cannot reassure them: "Out east my knowledge fails." His dactyls, even, are subdued.
He rides off into the dusk, singing, and the hobbits go on, just the four of them, conversing a little. Frodo reminds them not to call him by his name. The shadow of menace is inescapable. The chapter that began with a hopeful day- break vision of brightness ends in a tired evening gloom. These are the final sentences:
Darkness came down quickly, as they plodded slowly downhill and up again, until at last they saw lights twinkling some distance ahead.
Before them rose Bree-hill barring the way, a dark mass against misty stars; and under its western flank nestled a large village. Towards it they now hurried, desiring only to find a fire, and a door between them and the night.
These few lines of straightforward narrative description are full of rapid reversals: darkness/lights twinkling-downhill/up again-the rise of Bree-hill/the village under it (west of it)-a dark mass/misty stars-afire/the night. They are like drumbeats. Reading the lines aloud I can't help thinking of a Beethoven finale, as in the Ninth Symphony: the absolute certainty and definition of crashing chord and silence, repeated, repeated again. Yet the tone is quiet, the language simple, and the emotions evoked are quiet, simple, common: a longing to end the day's journey, to be inside by the fire, out of the night.
After all, the whole trilogy ends on much the same note. From darkness into the firelight. "Well," Sam says, "I'm back."
There and back again .... In this single chapter, certain of the great themes of the book, such as the Ring, the Riders, the Kings of the West, the Dark Lord, are struck once only, or only obliquely. Yet this small part of the great journey is integrally part of the whole in event and imagery: the barrow-wight, once a servant of the Dark Lord, appears even as Sauron himself will appear at the climax of the tale, looming, "a tall dark figure against the stars." And Frodo defeats him, through memory, imagination, and unexpected act.
The chapter itself is one "beat" in the immense rhythm of the book. Each of its events and scenes, however vivid, particular, and local, echoes or recollects or foreshadows other events and images, relating all the parts of the book by repeating or suggesting parts of the pattern of the whole.
I think it is a mistake to think of a story as simply moving forward. The rhythmic structure of narrative is both journey-like and architectural. Great novels offer us not only a series of events, but a place, a landscape of the imagination that we can inhabit and to which we can return. This may be particularly clear in the "secondary universe" of fantasy, where not only the action but the setting is avowedly invented by the author. Relying on the irreducible simplicity of the trochaie beat, stress/unstress, Tolkien constructs an inexhaustibly complex, stable rhythmic pattern in imagined space and time. The tremendous landscape of Middle-earth, the psychological and moral universe of The Lord of the Rings, is built up by repetition, semi-repetition, suggestion, foreshadowing, recollection, echo, and reversal. Through it the story goes forward at its steady, human gait. There, and back again.
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