Monday, June 05, 2006

Lament for Eorl the Young

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

-- J. R. R. Tolkien

Although these lines are purported as a Lament for Eorl the Young, the first king of Rohan, clearly, this is not simply a paean for one man or his heroic deeds. It is a lament for all who have passed away; the horseman and the minstrel, the tiller of fields and the harvester of crops, the woodsman, the woodcutter and the tender of household fires and affairs. The Rohirrim (Eorl's people) were a tribe of nomadic horsemen and pasturers, who settled down a few hundred years before the events in The Lord of the Rings. This song is a lament for the last of the nomadic chieftains (the aforementioned Eorl), who was also the first of the Kings of the Golden Hall (as his seat of power was called).

The stanza recited by Aragorn evokes vivid scenes of a vibrant society and though it is mournful in tone, it voices no regret. It is constructed as a series of queries regarding the whereabouts of horse, rider, horn, helm, hauberk, etc. and are answered by allusions to the natural order of things – death being integral to that order.

The final question that you ask "Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?" deviates from the preceding litany by asking for an identity. It is, pointedly left unanswered, however. As it regards the ceaseless flow of time and the unending cycles of the tides, a continuation of natural events is implied.

And even though all these are rhetorical questions, they are nevertheless addressed to the characters listening in the story – Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli - as well as to the reader. One might assume that the answer to the last question, the one who is left unidentified in the verse, at one level are these listeners, and yet at an other level the reader him/herself, the audience to these lines of collective memory.

Either way, the survivors of Middle-earth, are the ones who will hold and treasure these memories, pass them along to their inheritors and behold the flowing of years.

A few comments on the form, from Martin of the minstrels site: the poem is consciously modelled on Old English verse - specifically, in the rhyming-couplet scheme and the heavy alliteration. Indeed, Tolkien based the Rohirric language on Anglo-Saxon at a sort of meta-linguistic level - it (i.e., true Rohirric) bears the same relation to the Common Speech of the characters in the book as does Old English to our modern language. As you've probably realized by now, a large part of the seeming 'authenticity' of The Lord of the Rings stems from the author's attention to detail and his linguistic skills; Tolkien himself commented (on more than one occasion) that the languages of Middle Earth were the most important component of his 'sub-creation'.

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