Academic journal article Mythlore

Simbelmyne: Mortality and Memory in Middle-Earth

Academic journal article Mythlore

Simbelmyne: Mortality and Memory in Middle-Earth

Article excerpt

IN THE TWO TOWERS, AS GANDALF, ARAGORN, LEGOLAS, AND GIMLI ride to meet Theoden in Edoras, they pass a group of mounds covered with small white flowers. Gandalf comments, "Evermind they are called, simbelmyne in this land of Men, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest" (III.6.507). Later, in The Return of the King, Theoden himself is placed in another such mound, and its surface is covered with turf, from which more simbelmyne grows. His epitaph sums up his last ride as "out of loss, out of life, unto long glory" (VI.6.976).

This passage, and others in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing, embodies a distinctively pagan conception of the fate of the dead. Despite Tolkien's Catholicism, he could not envision the Men of Middle-earth, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, as having any thought or hope of salvation in the Christian sense. His Men have spirits that outlive their bodies--they can, for example, become ghosts, bound to Middle-earth by unfulfilled oaths--but the natural fate of those ghosts is to leave the world, and no one knows what happens to them then. The dying Aragorn, speaking to his wife Arwen, can only tell her, "I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world" (Appendix A.1062).

But Tolkien also gives his Men an answer to this pain, and much the same answer that the pagans of the ancient world found: the worthy dead may live on in glory in the memory of their descendants. Theoden, dying on the Pelennor Fields, says, "I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed" (V.6.842). Eowyn, trapped in Rohan, is driven to despair, even to seeking her own death in battle, by the thought that she will never have the chance to win renown.

This combination of sentiments was familiar in the ancient world, notably among the Greeks and Romans, with their celebration of individual worth and achievement. It gave rise there to a distinctive poetic form, the elegy, devoted to grieving for what was lost and praising its value. And that same elegiac spirit fills Tolkien's Middle-earth, "wringing a moving elegy from his imaginary world" (Rateliff 67). Note, for example, Meriadoc Brandybuck's reply, after Peregrin Took says that hobbits can't live long on the heights:

   But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is
   best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must
   start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is
   deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer
   could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether
   he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a
   little. (V.3.870)

The casting of elegy as poetry is no happenstance. Now that free verse is prevalent in literary poetry, the older functions of poetry are often forgotten; but many of the traditional devices of poetry, from meter and rhyme to repetition to vivid language, act as aids to memory. Before writing was prevalent, a learned man who wanted to pass on his knowledge would compose a poem about it, to make it stick in the memory. And when poems were commonly sung, the effect was even stronger. Even now, it's a nearly universal experience to learn lines of a song without conscious effort, and sometimes even against the learner's wishes (as advertising agencies know!). Tolkien's world is full of poetry, and of people who quote it, or compose it; and much of that poetry is there to convey the memory of what has been lost, from Gimli telling of Moria's lost glory under the reign of Durin to Samwise Gamgee praising Gandalf's fireworks. Tom Shippey notes this of the Rohirrim specifically:

   Nearly all the poetry that is quoted is strongly elegiac, one might
   note: in a culture with no written records that is a major function
   of poetry, at once to express and to resist the sadness of
   oblivion. … 
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