Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) 21-43
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The Text Tale of Frodo Nine-fingered:
Residual Oral Patterning in The Lord of the Rings
The world of Middle-earth first opened to public view in 1937 when The Hobbit appeared, with its famous first line, echoing its title: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.…" This line brings readers immediately into the presence of a member of one of the most famous invented races in all of English literature, who is about to be swept into a vast and fantastic adventure, carrying readers with him. This particular hobbit, Bilbo, is characterized as a rather quaint, bookish Edwardian Englishman of retiring habits who is fond of good food and good tobacco, of beer and comfortable slippers. He also has literary tendencies; in The Hobbit he is said to be fond of "runes and letters and cunning handwriting, through when he [writes] himself it [is] a bit thin and spidery" (H, III, 95), and by the end of The Lord of the Rings he has developed into a historian and scholar, responsible for large sections of the Red Book of Westmarch (FR, Prologue, 23-24). In this he is like the other inhabitants of the Shire, who are described as inveterate letter-writers (FR, Prologue, 19).Yet the wider world Bilbo is hurried into (without a pocket-handkerchief) is peopled by cultures much more oral in their traditions. Though many references are made to written records, and many characters, including Gandalf, Aragorn and Faramir are undoubtedly scholars of these records, most of the lore and literature mentioned in the story is presented in oral form, as tales or songs. If the hobbits are like country-loving Edwardian Englishmen, then the Rohirrim and the men of Gondor have more about them reminiscent of the Achaean civilization of Homeric Greece, or the Germanic hoards described by Tacitus. This familiar comparison suggests a slightly unusual avenue of enquiry into The Lord of the Rings: tracing in Tolkien's text linguistic and stylistic patterns characteristic of the ancient tales he drew on in creating Middle-earth, tales like the Iliad and the Elder Edda, produced byancient heavily oral cultures like those of Homeric Greece or Viking Scandinavia. Just as the epic genre gives his story scope and grandeur, the echo of oral patterns from these ancient tales, this essay will suggest, contributes to the tale's mythic power.
The text, story and characters of The Lord of the Rings reflect respect for oral tradition, and references to living traditions within the world of Middle-earth are common. Sméagol's grandmother, for example, is described as a matriarch learned in the lore of her people (FR, I, ii, 62). [End Page 21] Aragorn declares his faith in the minstrel's song that the Deep has never been taken if men defend it (TT, III, vii, 142). Treebeard runs over a series of gnomic verses (just like the Anglo-Saxon mnemonic Maxims) (TT, III, iv, 67; Shippey "Creation from Philology" 295). Tolkien repeatedly shows the myth-making process in action, for example Sam and Frodo being turned into myth while they listen on the field of Cormallen (RK, VI, iv, 232; Flieger 136), and Boromir's final voyage to the sea entering the legend of Gondor (TT, III, i, 19). The Lord of the Rings itself can be seen as a written version of the Song of Nine-Fingered Frodo sung by the bard at Cormallen. Tolkien also weights oral tradition with approval through his use of admired or despised characters. As mentioned above, Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond, among the most heroic figures in the tale, are shown repeatedly recalling old tales and songs to guide their decisions. Conversely, in the Shire Ted Sandyman, who later allies with Saruman, discounts the value of old stories (FR, I, ii, 53-54), and in Minas Tirith the herbmaster who mocks what he calls "old wives' tales" is rebuked by Aragorn (Shippey, "Creation from Philology" 316).
Overall, then, the old...