A little Elvish love story in The Lord of the Rings

Stuck in trains for hours yesterday, I was revisiting favourite passages from The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost a cliche to say that every re-reading rewards you with new details of Tolkien’s invented world that you hadn’t quite noticed or paid much attention to before, but I think it reflects the experience of most Tolkien fans I’ve ever met. Apart from cultures, languages and histories, Middle-earth is rich with allusions to stories untold, or half-told, or just about glimpsed, like tiny shiny threads in an enormous canvas. And – perhaps because it’s Valentine’s day today – I was suddenly struck by the word “lover” in Book II, Chapter 6 in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not a word Tolkien uses a lot. So I paid special attention to the story it comes in, the story of Nimrodel and Amroth, as told and sang by Legolas. In the 1960s Tolkien developed this story, which was posthumously published in Unfinished Tales, but in The Lord of the Rings, we only get glimpses of a legend of two lovers who became inadvertently separated and united only in spirit. Or perhaps in sound and in water?

The occasion on which Legolas comes to partly-tell, partly-sing the story of Nimrodel is when the members of the fellowship reach and cross the stream that bears the same name. By a waterfall, “Frodo fancied that he could hear  a  voice  singing,  mingled  with  the  sound  of  the  water”.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked  Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel, who bore the same name as the stream beside which she lived long ago.’

Legolas then sings of a Elven-maid fair and free, who gets lost on her way to the west shores of Middle-earth. Her lover, Amroth, waits for her in an elven-ship in “havens grey” but a storm sets the ship loose and on its way to Valinor. Of Nimrodel we only hear that she was never seen before, though there is a stream that bears her name. As for Amroth, he dived into the sea in a attempt to swim back to his beloved, and his fate is also unknown. But Legolas concludes:

But in the spring when the wind is in the  new leaves the echo of her voice may still be heard by the falls that bear her name. And  when  the wind is in the  South the voice of Amroth comes up from the  sea;  for Nimrodel flows into Silverlode, that Elves call Celebrant, and Celebrant into Anduin the Great, and Anduin flows into the Bay of Belfalas whence  the  Elves of  Lórien  set  sail. But neither  Nimrodel nor Amroth came ever back.

Arethusa and Alpheus, Ortygia, Sicily

Now this part of the story echoes a number of other mythical tales, mostly from the classical world. I must have read this story in The Lord of the Rings more than twenty times in the past, but I was only now suddenly struck by its similarity to the story of the nymph Arethusa and the river-God Alpheus. The story is alluded to or told more fully many times in Greek and Latin texts by Pindar, Strabo, Pausanias, Virgil and Ovid. It is one of numerous stories of an amorous God pursuing an unwilling nymph in classical literature (e.g. Apollo and Daphne). Arethusa was a Naiad (a river nymph) who was pursued by Alpheus, the God of the eponymous river (which still flows in the Peloponnese in Greece). She fled to Sicily were she was turned into a steam to escape him, but he directed his water across the sea towards the west to reach her and mingle his waters with hers. Now clearly this isn’t quite the romantic love story – indeed, most art that depicts this story shows clearly Arethusa’s distress as she tries to flee Alpheus, but the story was often told in more romantic terms in numerous retellings of Greek myths in the Victorian period. The part I think Tolkien may be (consciously or unconsciously) echoing is how the lovers are united after having gone through a sort of transformation (metamorphosis). We are never told that Nimrodel was transformed into a stream, but she is identified with one, while it’s unclear whether Amroth was drowned in the sea, or somehow found his way back to his lover in a transformed state. Their voices, though, united in those rare times in the spring “when the wind is in the new leaves”, are carried by the waters, as Nimrodel’s waters head towards the Bay of Belfalas and to the sea in which Amroth dived to get back to her.

I wonder how many other little love stories and allusions to mythological tales I am still to find in Tolkien’s legendarium?

Tolkien, Fantasy and Medievalism at IMC Leeds 2015

IMC Leeds 1During the last few years I have been attending the Tolkien sessions at Kalamazoo semi-regularly (once every two years, on average). The International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, hosted by Western Michigan University, has been running for over 50 years, and the “Tolkien at Kalamazoo” sessions have been taking place since 2001. But another equally important congress on medieval studies has been taking place on this side of the Atlantic for a shorter, but equally respectable, number of years: the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds has been organised by Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds since 1994, and has been attracting over 2,000 medievalists from all over the world annually. There have been some Tolkien sessions at Leeds every now and then. I actually gave a paper in a session on Texts and Images: Aspects of Tolkien’s Medievalism in 2007, alongside Carl Phelpstead and Ármann Jakobsson, moderated by Alaric Hall. It was a very well-attended session with many follow-up questions and lively discussion. In fact, all papers from that session have been published in one form or another. Carl Phelpstead’s paper was published in Tolkien Studies, vol. 5, Ármann Jakobsson’s paper in Tolkien Studies, vol. 6, while my paper was incorporated into my monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits.

This summer, I am delighted to be returning to Leeds as an organiser of two sessions and to give a paper in a third one. Here are my sessions at Leeds 2015 (6-9 July 2015):

Celtic Literature in Tolkien’s Medievalism

This session will explore some neglected Celtic sources for Tolkien’s extended legendarium. Aurélie Brémont compares the Navigatio Sancti Brendani with Tolkien’s poem Immram and the motif of sailing west looking for Paradise in medieval Irish literature and Tolkien’s mythology. Kris Swank analyses Tolkien’s children’s book Roverandom arguing that its structure, themes and motifs are modelled upon the medieval Irish Otherworld sea-voyage tales (immrama). Andrew Higgins examines Tolkien’s earliest use of the Welsh language and medieval Welsh motifs in the Tale of Tinúviel in The Book of Lost Tales.

Paper titles:

  • Tolkien, Brendan, and the Quest for The Lost Road (Aurélie Brémont, Centre d’Études Médiévales Anglaises (CEMA), Université Paris-Sorbonne – Paris IV)
  • Immram Roverandom (Kris Swank, Pima Community College, Tucson)
  • Welsh Princesses and Cats: Tolkien’s Tale of Tinuviel and The Gnomish Lexicon (Andrew Higgins, Cardiff Metropolitan University)

Further details here.

‘New’ Tolkien: The Fall of Arthur and the Beowulf Translation – A Round Table Discussion

This session will focus on works by J. R. R. Tolkien edited and published recently by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien. Speakers will comment on Tolkien’s unfinished alliterative poem The Fall of Arthur (2013) and his translation of Beowulf (2014) which was published together with Tolkien’s commentary and related Beowulf-inspired literary pieces.

Participants include Mark Atherton (University of Oxford), Dimitra Fimi (Cardiff Metropolitan University), and Nick Groom (University of Exeter).

Further details here.

Genre and Medievalism: From the 19th to the 21st Century (organised by Helen Young and the Tales After Tolkien Society society)

Popular genres of almost every kind, from fantasy to westerns, romance, science fiction, and crime, engage in medievalism, while genre re-imaginings of the past have a substantial impact on ideas which circulate about the Middle Ages. What do the Middle Ages mean in popular culture? The diverse papers offer the chance to compare and contrast across time and place. Does authenticity matter, why, and to whom? What ideologies are filtered through the idea of the medieval past in order to shape a given historical moment? The diverse papers offer the chance to compare and contrast across time and place.


  • The Victorian Joan of Arc: Gender and Genre (Ellie Crookes, University of Wollongong, New South Wales)
  • ‘Celtic’ Myth and Celticity in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain (Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan University)
  • ‘Power is a curious thing…’: Studying of the Mechanisms of Power in Polish Historical Fantasy Novel Cycles (Joanna Szwed-Śliwowska, Uniwersytet Warszawski)

Further details here.

IMC Leeds 2

Apart from these three sessions I will be directly involved in, I am also looking forward to attending a number of others, related to Tolkien, fantasy literature and medievalism. Here are my pickings:

Special Session: J. R. R. Tolkien at Leeds and in the Brotherton Library Special Collections (led by Alaric Hall, University of Leeds)
While more famously associated with Oxford University, J. R. R. Tolkien’s first lectureship was at Leeds where, inter alia, he completed most of the work on his recently published translation of Beowulf. This talk draws on literary work published during Tolkien’s time at Leeds held in Special Collections, along with recently acquired correspondence between Tolkien and Ida Gordon – medievalist, ex-student, and wife of Tolkien’s friend and collaborator E. V. Gordon. It will explore how shaping a medieval syllabus at Leeds helped Tolkien develop his own literary endeavours. Further details here.

Sessions on Medievalism:

Sessions on the Arthurian Tradition:

Sessions on Angl0-Saxon:

Other sessions of interest include those presented or moderated by colleagues and friends. The editors of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature will both be there – Edward James will present in a session on Transformation and Renewal in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Societies and Farah Mendlesohn will moderate a session on Revival and Renewal: New Uses for Old Stories and Patterns in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Finally, good friend and colleague from the times we were both studying at Cardiff University, Emma Cavell, will present in a session on The Anglo-Welsh Frontier in the Middle Ages.

So, who’s coming to Leeds?