This year, if you want to make your Thanksgiving meal as awkward as can be, stand up from the table in front of your extended family, clear your throat, and recite a nice long poem. Your in-laws will visibly blanch, and the chattering toddlers will grow silent. This will be no mere political argument or tipsy solecism: by daring to lyricize, you will have made the ultimate faux pas.
Poetry holds no importance in the daily lives of most modern people. Apart from assigned class readings as children, most people encounter poetry only in gimmicky Hallmark cards and forgettable pop lyrics. And it’s no surprise—poetry often comes across as an odd jumble of phrases that mystifies rather than inspires. In the modern parlance, which emphasizes plain, direct speaking, poetry seems awkward and out of place.
Similarly, it is rare for a character to recite poetry in the Peter Jackson adaptations of Tolkien’s works, even when his counterpart in the book does. Yet, Tolkien’s poetry is not simply beautiful asides or textures thrown in by a master craftsman to further beautify his work; poetry aids the hobbits as they “arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.”
Poetry charts the hobbit Bilbo’s transformation in his unexpected journey. And the poetic vision of the world that he gains will, in its turn, help his young friends Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry, get out the door and into the wide and frightening world beyond in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s use of poetry in The Hobbit can teach us about the value of having a poetic vision in a wild world.
When we first meet Bilbo, his attitude toward poetry matches that of your average person: poetry is not all that important. Tolkien gently pokes fun at Mr. Baggins: when Bilbo excitedly remembers the wizard Gandalf’s amazing fireworks, Tolkien comments, “You will notice already that Mr. Baggins was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe.” Prose is practical; prose is proper; prose, it seems, is respectable. Bilbo has a natural flare for the poetic that he has attempted to control because it just isn’t a thing to be indulged.
By the end of the novel, however, after Bilbo has found himself doing many things that are highly improper and impractical, we see a curious change in him. He has fought goblins and conversed with dragons, found a magical ring and flown with giant eagles, and, returning to his home, he suddenly bursts into poetry:
. . .Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
Gandalf turns to him and exclaims, “My dear Bilbo! Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.” Gandalf, as usual, is entirely correct. Not only is Bilbo an adventurer; he is now a poet.
Between these two scenes, Tolkien weaves a rich tapestry of poetry for Bilbo to hear and experience. Significantly, these poems come from the other peoples he encounters who are part of the larger, far less tidy and predictable world beyond the borders of the Shire. Even the evil orcs and goblins recite poetry, twisted and mocking as it may be.
The first instance of real poetry in the book—besides some teasing rhymes about chipping Bilbo’s dishes—comes in the form of the wandering dwarves’ mesmerizing chant recounting the fall of the Lonely Mountain and the destruction of their kingdom. Its effect upon Bilbo can tell us a great deal about the power Tolkien invested in poems:
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up—probably somebody lighting a wood-fire—and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames.
In this one passage, Tolkien shows the range of poetry’s power: First, Bilbo is transported momentarily into the heart and soul of a dwarf and can experience the world the way they do. Then, his own nature reveals its out-of-the-ordinary potential (his mother was from the Took family). Finally, the poem allows him to see his everyday surroundings in a new way that draws connections between things, so that stars and dwarven jewels, or a farmer’s fire and dragon flame, are momentarily united. The ordinary reveals the extraordinary, and Bilbo glimpses the deep interconnectedness of the world.
It is not merely Tolkien’s love of poetry that causes Bilbo to encounter poems from the various peoples of Middle Earth. These people have been exposed to the wildness and tragedy of the world in ways that the peaceful hobbits have not, and their response has been poetic. Prose, while it definitely has its value, cannot do what poetry can. Prose is fundamentally logical, requiring arguments, rational explanations between points, to arrive at conclusions.
Poetry, on the other hand, can tap into that other part of reality which is beyond human reason, though not beyond human feeling. Poetry can capture tragedy, mystery, joy, in a way that does not pressure the writer to analyze, understand, or conclude. Poetry allows the writer to gesture toward something bigger than himself, to something real beyond the everyday.
Bilbo’s first poem, created as he caught sight of his beloved home, acknowledges that he is different, and thus, home will forever be different. He could not right then and there explain the full impact of that difference in an essay or speech—prose would fail him. His poem allows him to point to a deep truth about both himself and the larger world he has discovered without having to oversimplify it or render it false in an explanation that he does not have.
So Bilbo, returned from his adventures as a wiser, wealthier hobbit, also returns with a poetic vision of the world. This poetic vision is expressed in his lasting interest in writing and translating poetry and telling tales to young hobbits whose practical, prosaic parents look on disapprovingly, not really seeing the point. They feel that this Mr. Baggins is definitely not normal. Of course, Bilbo is not normal: he sees the deeper reality revealed by a poetic vision of the world.
It is no accident that, setting out on a far more dangerous adventure in the even more chaotic world of The Lord of the Rings, his young friends Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin cheer themselves by singing poems—Bilbo’s poems. Bilbo taught them how to see the world poetically before they ever left the safe, prosaic world of the Shire.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo had to scramble to catch up, exactly like an adult without a classical liberal arts education plunging into the complex world of Western Tradition. However, his young students, formed by his poetic education, are much more prepared spiritually and intellectually for the task ahead. Thus, the gardener Sam surprises the ranger Aragorn with his knowledge of the ancient elf lord Gil-Galad. Later, alone in the orc-infested tower in Mordor, Sam bolsters his faltering heart by recalling Bilbo’s poetry and composing his own poem, combatting the darkness around him by his poetic faith in the light:
. . .above all shadows rides the sun
and stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done
nor bid the Stars farewell.
The young hobbits, fed as they have been by Bilbo’s poetic vision all their lives, have a vital sense of context, of connection, and of a reality deeper and more mysterious beyond the everyday.
Having a sense of the world that lies hidden between the lines of the prosaic world we see is vital. This poetic vision gives us a richer understanding of reality, helping us remember in this age of scientism and nihilism that there are deeper connections that order the cosmos. Bilbo’s poetic vision is also embodied in the psalms, Gregorian Chant, and the musical heritage of our ancient faith. This sort of poetry allows us to express the inexpressible; it grants us the ability to feel the deep relationships between the present and the past, the immediate and the universal, and the material world and the spiritual realm.
You know, if you start now, you might have a poem or two memorized in time for Thanksgiving dinner.