Hobbit Songs and Rhymes: Tolkien and the Folklore of Middle-earth

* This essay was originally published on http://lotrplaza.com/ in March 2009. The website is no longer live, so I am reproducing the text below.

Bilbo’s first meeting with Gandalf, by Stephen Walsh (reproduced by kind permission)

In this paper, I would like to discuss folklore in Middle-earth. During my PhD research I delved into Tolkien’s uses of folklore in the whole body of his Middle-earth legendarium. In my recently published book Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), I examined different aspects of Tolkien’s uses of folklore, by concentrating mainly on the presence of diminutive fairies (rather than tall, lofty Elves) in The Book of Lost Tales, the earliest version of what we know today as The Silmarillion. My research made me realise that in The Book of Lost Tales, there were echoes of Peter Pan, Kipling’s Puck tales, and the whole tradition of Victorian fairylore found in contemporary literature, Victorian paintings, and folklore. I followed up my leads via a field-trip to Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up, and managed to discover which performance of Peter Pan Tolkien had seen aged 18 in 1910, read contemporary reviews, and even found photographs from the performance. The fruit of this research now forms Part I of the book, which looks at the beginnings of Tolkien’s creative vision – his romantic ideas about spirituality and national identity, his project for a “mythology for England”, and the tie-in of his early work with that of other late Victorian and Edwardian writers, painters and poets: with a special focus on the fairies. However, in this paper I would like to take up folklore as it pertains to the second category of creatures in the sub-title of my book: hobbits (and this is something that had to be left out of the book, so you are the first to read my findings!)

Since I am going to discuss the folklore of Middle-earth, and specifically the folklore of the hobbits, I should start with some definitions. First of all, what is folklore? Although I am sure that we all have a pretty good idea of what the word means, it is important to give some background to the term, as it has changed dramatically from Tolkien’s time to ours.

The term “folklore” was coined by the English folklorist William Thoms in 1846, from two existing words: “folk” and “lore”. “Lore” is an archaic word that Tolkien is particularly fond of, as it appears numerous times in The Lord of the Rings. It means knowledge, or learning, but with a particular emphasis on traditional, or orally transmitted knowledge. As for the “folk”, meaning “people”, this is a much more culturally charged word. In its original conception the “folk” of “folklore” were understood as the (often illiterate) peasants of Europe, who were transmitting orally from generation to generation a great wealth of:

  • folktales (or fairy tales)
  • popular ballads and other folk songs
  • riddles and traditional games
  • as well as proverbs and other “wise” sayings.

This “lore”, this body of traditional material transmitted by the “folk”, was the original subject of the newly introduced discipline of folklore. The work of a 19th-century folklorist was to visit rural areas of his nation and collect as many folktales, folk songs and ballads, and other such traditional material. He or she would then describe and classify this “lore” and often publish it in a collection.

I emphasise the fact that the “folk” were initially considered illiterate peasants, because this is a concept that changed with time. For early folklorists, like John L. Mish, a definition of “folklore” would be:

The entire body of ancient popular beliefs, customs, and traditions which have survived among the less educated elements of civilized societies until today. It thus includes fairy tales, myths, and legends, superstitions, festival rites, traditional games, folk songs, popular sayings, arts, crafts, folk dances, and the like.” (Mish quoted in Leach 1949)

Note the phrase I have italicized, which modern folklorists perceive as offensive and patronizing.

On the contrary, today folklore is perceived as “artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos, 1971), and the “folk” can be any group or community, be it social, cultural, regional, or linguistic. As Allan Dundes famously declared: “Who are the folk? Among others, we are!” (Dundes 1980). We all partake in folklore in one way or another, as we all are members of groups which share “lore”. “Lore” in modern folklore does not only refer to traditional stories and songs, but is perceived as encompassing any willed, creative expression of an individual who is a member of a group or community, and the reaction of the group to it. Modern folklore, therefore, focuses on the relationship of individual creativity to the collective order. In this sense we all transmit folklore when we:

  • re-tell a joke we heard (often embellishing it, or slightly modifying it to serve our needs)
  • engage with ritual responses to superstitions (e.g. automatically “touch wood” to exorcise something bad; keep our fingers crossed for luck, or address a single – supposedly unlucky – magpie with “Hello Mr Magpie, how is Mrs Magpie?”)
  • sing a nursery rhyme, or – even better – invent and/or transmit a particularly rude parody of a popular nursery rhyme

The list, of course, is endless.

The fact that Tolkien’s perception of folklore is closer to the 19th-century notion rather than the modern understanding of this term is evident from his creative writings and from his academic essays. First of all, Tolkien understands folklore as slightly inferior to another much-contested and notoriously difficult-to-define term: myth. But, what is myth, and what is its relationship with folklore? For folklorists “myth” is one of the three main genres of “folk narratives”, that is traditional stories in prose form (as opposed, for example, to folk songs or ballads which are in verse or rhyme form). The other two main genres of “folk narratives” are “legends” and “folktales”. As synthesized by William Bascom (1965) the definitions of these three genres could be expressed thus:

  • “Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past.”

Myths often form the basis of the religious beliefs of the society that tells them, since they explain how the world was created, and they include stories about the gods or other divinities. In Middle-earth, a lot of the tales in The Silmarillion would be regarded as myths, as they tell of how Illúvatar created the world, and how the Valar shaped and adorned it.

  • “Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considerably less remote, when the world was much as it is today.”

Legends are rooted in historical fact, describing adventures of people who once actually lived, but whose adventures have been greatly exaggerated through the passage of time. In our world, the stories around the semi-historical figures of King Arthur or Robin Hood are good examples of legends. In Middle-earth, we could potentially count as legends the tales of Túrin Turambar and of Beren and Lúthien.

  • “Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction.”

Folktales are primarily told for entertainment and they often involve talking animals, or clever human beings, but not exceptional or heroic human beings. In our world, all traditional fairy-tales fulfill this role. In the Middle-earth cosmos, stories circulating in the Shire about stupid trolls are examples of folktales.

In the 19th-century, in the same way that folklore was considered as the product of uneducated peasants, myth was elevated to something much loftier and higher. It was a common belief that folklore represented misremembered and decayed “survivals” of ancient pre-Christian myths. Many folklorists believed that one could use folktales to “reconstruct” or “recreate” ancient pagan mythologies. The best known example is that of the Brothers Grimm, who started a grand project of re-creating a German mythology and body of legends by means of their huge collection of fairy-tales (see Shippey 2001). The fruit of their efforts was their colossal work Deutsche Mythologie, translated and published in Britain as Teutonic Mythology.

Tolkien’s similar views on folklore as an instrument – if only a lesser one – of reaching past myths can be well established from his academic writings. Although Tolkien denied any knowledge of folklore as an academic discipline in one of his letters (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 281), he definitely knew enough to be able to comment in his essay On Fairy-Stories on the “methods of Comparative Folklore”. Also, in the same essay Tolkien referred to the Max Müller-Andrew Lang debate on the origins of fairy-tales with in-depth knowledge and awareness of the theoretical frameworks contrasted (see Flieger 2003). However, Tolkien’s reaction to folklore was coloured by the old-fashioned views discussed above, according to which folk-tales were only a debased form of ancient myths. Talking about the use of the name “Éarendel” in the Old English poem Christ Tolkien claims that:

amid the confusions and debasements of late traditions it at least seems certain that it belonged to astronomical-myth, and was the name of a star or star-group’ (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 297, note the italicized phrases).

In his essay on Beowulf, while talking about folk-tales, Tolkien refers to ‘the confusion between myth and folk-tale’ and he goes on to explain that:

The term ‘folk-tale’ is misleading; its very tone of depreciation begs the question. Folk-tales in being, as told … do often contain elements that are thin and cheap, with little even potential virtue; but they also contain much that is far more powerful, and that cannot be sharply separated from myth, being derived from it, or capable in poetic hands of turning into it…. (Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics: 15, my italics)

Finally, in his essay On Fairy-Stories, he refers to myth and folktales as “higher and lower mythologies” respectively (On Fairy-Stories: 122, 123).

Taking these views into account, it is very significant – I think – that Tolkien attributes myths and legends (like the stories in The Silmarillion) to the Elves and Men, while folk tales and their related categories (folk songs, riddles, proverbs, etc) come in most cases from the hobbits. The conception of the hobbits is very close indeed to the 19th-century perception of the “folk” as discussed above. They are rustic and naïve, mostly uneducated and simple-minded, and revel in telling amusing stories and singing traditional rhyming songs. In one of his letters Tolkien described the Shire as “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” [i.e. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1896] (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, nos. 178, 181). The hobbits are, therefore, very much conceived as Victorian peasants, capable of “folklore” but not of “myth” or “legend”.

To elaborate this point, I would like to discuss further some of the songs and rhymes of the hobbits. First of all, out of the 60-odd (depending on how you count them) songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings, about fifteen are sung or recited by hobbits. This represents one fourth of the whole corpus. Significantly, the songs and poems of the hobbits are not semi-religious, highly poetical compositions (like the Elvish hymn to Elbereth, or Galadriel’s lament “Namárië”), neither are they ritualised laments for the deaths of noble Men (like the laments for Boromir and Théoden), but are rather lighthearted rhyming folk songs associated with everyday activities. For example, in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Rings, when Frodo, Sam and Pippin are on the way to Buckland, they start singing a drinking song (“Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go/To heal my heart and drown my woe…”, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 4). Later on, while taking a bath after arriving at Crickhollow, Pippin sings “one of Bilbo’s favourite bath-songs” praising the delights of hot water (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 5).

Interestingly, some of the songs the hobbits sing are good examples of how folklore really works: by every singer changing and modifying traditional material for their own purposes. For instance, consider the “walking song” that Frodo, Sam and Pippin sing, again on the way to Buckland (“Upon the hearth the fire is red,/Beneath the roof there is a bed;…”, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 3). We are told that “Bilbo Baggins had made the words, to a tune that was as old as the hills, and taught it to Frodo”. Similarly, when Merry and Pippin have convinced Frodo that they will go with him in his great adventure, they sing a farewell song which “they had apparently got ready for the occasion. It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune: Farewell we call to hearth and hall!/Though wind may blow and rain may fall,…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 5).

Even more impressively, later on in the book Sam seems to create a whole new song on the spot. When the hobbits, accompanied by Strider, have reached the location of the petrified trolls (from Bilbo’s earlier adventures in The Hobbit) Sam is asked to sing them something “out of his memory”. Sam responds:

“…how would this suit? It ain’t what I call proper poetry, if you understand me: just a bit of nonsense. But these old images here brought it to my mind.” Standing up, with his hands behind his back, as if he was at school, he began to sing to an old tune.

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;…

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 12)

Impressed by the funny and metrically intricate troll song, Pippin inquiries:

“Where did you come by that, Sam?” asked Pippin. “I’ve never heard those words before.”

Sam muttered something inaudible. “It’s out of his own head, of course,” said Frodo. “I am learning a lot about Sam Gamgee on this journey. First he was a conspirator, now he’s a jester. He’ll end up by becoming a wizard – or a warrior!”

“I hope not,” said Sam. “I don’t want to be neither!”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 12)

Sam’s grammatically wrong double negative in this response (“don’t want…neither”) mark him as of an inferior education than the more aristocratic Frodo – he is only Frodo’s gardener after all. Still, Sam is what folklorists call an “active transmitter of tradition” as he actively participates in the dissemination and transformation of oral traditional material: even better, he possesses the rare quality of impromptu improvisation modelled upon traditional forms, a quality that many traditional folksingers display. On the contrary, Frodo’s solo performance of an entertaining song at the Prancing Pony in Bree earlier on is a “ridiculous song” by Bilbo. I think that Tolkien there clearly differentiates Frodo’s song from Sam’s and the other hobbits’ folk songs, since any reader of The Lord of the Rings who starts reading the poem soon realises that it is a highly sophisticated and literary derivative of the “real world” nursery rhyme “The Cat and the Fiddle”.

Tolkien’s portrayal of Sam as an authentic active transmitter of tradition is playfully completed by the song and subsequent incident of the Oliphaunt. Much later in the plot of The Lord of the Rings, Sam hears Gollum talking about Men of the South joining the forces of Sauron. He eagerly asks whether they had any Oliphaunts with them. Gollum does not know what an Oliphaunt is and Sam obliges him with a short descriptive poem: “Grey as a mouse,/ Big as a house…”, etc. He then says:

“…that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold;” I said “were there any oliphaunts?” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.”

(The Two Towers, Book IV, chapter 3)

As you all know, Tolkien rewards Sam for his knowledge of popular lore: the Olpihaunts turn out to be real beasts and Sam encounters them only twenty pages later.

Having just mentioned Gollum, I have to add that Gollum’s nature as a hobbit in The Lord of the Rings is underlined by his knowledge of common hobbit-folklore. In the chapter “The Shadow of the Past”, in which Gandalf tells Frodo the story of the Ring and Gollum’s role in it, he explains that Gollum was originally Sméagol, a creature of “hobbit-kind”. Frodo reacts with surprise (if not repulsion) to this suggestion:

‘I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,’ said Frodo with some heat. ‘What an abominable notion!’

‘It is true all the same,’ replied Gandalf. ‘About their origins, at any rate, I know more than hobbits do themselves. And even Bilbo’s story suggests the kinship. There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very similar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even an Elf. Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing.’

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 2).

Indeed, riddles are definitely part of the shared folklore material of a community, and the fact that Bilbo and Gollum have a lot in common “in the background of their minds and memories” is proven by their shared folklore knowledge.

For all the reasons I have discussed hitherto, The Lord of the Rings (especially the first few chapters which take place in the Shire) is a very good text to use when introducing the main ideas and some background history of folklore to students. The Shire is very much a rustic, peasant community which a 19th-century folklorist would have thought of as an ideal place to visit and collect traditional, orally transmitted material. Such a folklorist would have find the stories circulating in The Green Dragon – in-between pints of beer or ale and good-humoured gossip – particularly good to collect. If he visited the old inn – say – a hundred years after the events described in The Lord of the Rings, he would have heard a fairy-tale about a folk-hero called Mad Baggins. We can be sure of this, since Tolkien tells us that after Bilbo’s long-expected party there was talking in the Shire:

The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, chapter 2).

Tolkien here gives us a great example of the process through which a real, historical character becomes the subject of legend, and later, of folktales.

I would like to end this discussion with the curious incident of Tolkien’s poem “Errantry”. The poem was read to a meeting of the Inklings in the early 1930s, and first published in the Oxford Magazine in 1933 (volume 52, no. 5, p. 180). A slightly revised version appeared in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (1962). The poem concerns “a merry passenger,/a messenger, a mariner” who goes on to have nonsensical adventures but at the end remembers the message and errand with which he started out, and departs again.

Tolkien described Errantry as:

a piece of verbal acrobatics and metrical high-jinks… intended for recitation with great variations of speed. It needs a reciter or chanter capable of producing the words with great clarity, but in places with great rapidity… the reciter was supposed at once to begin repeating (at even higher speed) the beginning, unless somebody cried “Once is enough” (The Treason of Isengard: 85)

Incidentally, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is another whole new chapter of hobbit-folklore, since most of its poems are supposedly traditional Shire folk songs and ballads. But I will not go into this here. Suffice to say that in his “Preface” to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil Tolkien tells us that “Errantry” was a poem by Bilbo and he notes that – as I am sure most of you will have noticed – that the style and rhythm of “Errantry” is very similar to Bilbo’s song at Rivendell: “Earendil was a mariner” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, chapter 1).

But what I find endlessly fascinating about “Errantry” is that it took off after Tolkien’s first reading and publication of it in the 1930s and it acquired a life of its own. In 1952, long before the poem became part of hobbit-lore in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien received two letters with inquiries about it. The one was from his publisher, Rayner Unwin. A reader had written to the firm asking about the poem. Tolkien wrote back to Unwin slightly bewildered:

As for ‘Errantry’: it is a most odd coincidence that you should ask about that. For only a few weeks ago I had a letter from a lady unknown to me making a similar enquiry. She said that a friend had recently written out for her from memory some verses that had so taken her fancy that she was determined to discover their origin. He had picked them up from his son-in-law who had learned them in Washington D.C.  (!); but nothing was known about their source save a vague idea that they were connected with English universities. Being a determined person she apparently applied to various Vice-Chancellors, and Bowra [Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College and, at this time, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University] directed her to my door.

(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 133)

Nearly fifteen years after that letter, in November 1966, Donald Swann, who was then setting Errantry to music (eventually published in The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle), informed Tolkien that he had been given a copy of the poem around 1949, taken from a school magazine where it had been published anonymously, and Swann himself had caused it to be reprinted in a law students’ magazine called Glim. He, therefore, knew the poem long before he found out who its author was.

The strange and wonderful voyage of “Errantry” from Oxford to the USA and back to Britain is another great example of how folklore works: the poem was transmitted partly from a printed form and partly orally from memory, and changed during its transmission. In the letter quoted above Tolkien also noted:

I must say that I was interested in becoming ‘folk-lore’. Also it was intriguing to get an oral version – which bore out my views on oral tradition (at any rate in early stages): sc. that the ‘hard words’ are well preserved, and the more common words altered, but the metre is often disturbed.

(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 133)

Indeed, this is often how rhyming folk songs and poems are transmitted: the most unusual and original words and rhyming patterns are preserved (since they tend to stick to memory as unusual), while the common words and combinations are easily forgotten and subsequently modified.

I hope that the discussion hitherto has shown that folklore is an important part of the cultural history of the hobbits. Folk tales and folk songs, together with “wise” sayings, riddles and even folk dances are an integral part of the everyday lives of hobbits, and the most rustic they are (like Sam, or the Gaffer, or Farmer Maggot) the more folk wisdom they possess. Tolkien also seems to be making the point that folklore is not always tall tales or old wives stories: in the same way that Sam finds out that the Oliphaunts really exist, the Rohirrim and the people of Gondor also find out that hobbits (of whom they know only from stories) also exist, and indeed are the ones who finally save Middle-earth. Moreover, Tolkien’s own poem “Errantry” passing into folklore is one more sign of the all encompassing, dynamic nature of folklore even in today’s global, technologically developed world. Folklore is still very much alive and well and will continue to be so as long as people are members of communities and react artistically to their environment.

 

Bibliography

 

  • Works by J.R.R. Tolkien

 The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937).

The Lord of the Rings in three volumes:

I, The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954).

II, The Two Towers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954).

III, The Return of the King (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955).

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962).

The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle, Poems by J.R.R. Tolkien, music by Donald Swann (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968).

The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977).

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).

The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).

The Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Two, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

 

  • Other Works Cited

Bascom, William (1965): “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives”, Journal of American Folklore, 78: 307, 3-20.

Ben-Amos, Dan (1971): “Towards a Definition of Folklore in Context”, Journal of American Folklore, 84, 3-15.

Dundes, Alan (1980), Interpreting Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

Fimi, Dimitra (2008), Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan)

Flieger, Verlyn (2003): “‘There Would Always be a Fairy-tale’: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Folklore Controversy”, pp. 26-35, in Chance, Jane (ed.), Tolkien the Medievalist (London; New York: Routledge).

Leach, Maria (ed.) (1949), Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co)

Shippey, T.A. (2001), J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins)