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  • Gilraen’s Linnod:Function, Genre, Prototypes
  • Sandra Ballif Straubhaar (bio)

Hidden away in Appendix A, I, v of The Return of the King can be found all that we know of Gilraen, a Númenorean-descended woman of the Dúnedain, the mother of Aragorn Elessar. If we combine this information with selected chronological data from Appendix B, The Tale of Years, The Third Age, a bleak picture emerges of the shape of Gilraen's life. She is married at twenty-two to a man of fifty-six; loses her father-in-law one year later (to hill-trolls); bears a son (Aragorn) one year later; and loses her husband two years after that (to orcs). She spends the next fifty-odd years in Rivendell in exile with her son. After he is grown, she returns to the wilds of Eriador, where the Dúnedain remain,1 and where she spends the next twenty-odd years receiving occasional visits from him (when he is not a-questing). In TA 3006 they have a poignant farewell conversation. She dies in despair in the year following, aged approximately one hundred. Twelve years later, Aragorn ascends to the thrones of Gondor and Arnor (RK, Appendix A, 337-42; Appendix B, 370-71).

Their farewell exchange is certainly unusual when compared with the conventions of conversation in mainstream twentieth-century novels. It runs as follows:

"This is our last parting, Estel,2 my son. I am aged by care, even as one of lesser Men; and now that it draws near I cannot face the darkness of our time that gathers upon Middle-earth. I shall leave it soon.". . .

[I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself.]

(RK, Appendix A, 342).3

Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers have found this scene affecting, even though it does not fit common contemporary patterns of discourse in fiction, nor does it resemble natural speech. After all, people do not communicate in poetry or song in everyday life in the world we know.4 But we contemporary readers can certainly sense the dramatic irony in Gilraen's and Aragorn's last conversation, especially [End Page 235] when we consider the greater story of which it forms only a small part. And even if we (as readers) do not know why Gilraen suddenly breaks into poetry, we can still observe the heightened dramatic tension when Tolkien has her at last abandon ordinary speech for high speech, for formalized patterns, for what Icelanders even today call bundidh mál, "bound language."5

In the paragraphs to follow I intend to explore some of the reasons why we can sense that ironic tension. Principal among those reasons, I would argue, is that effective prototypes and precedents for the use of poetry in conversation can be found in human narratives out of the past. Tolkien had read many of these narratives, and he adopted and adapted their storytelling conventions to produce dramatic results we can experience even today whether we are acquainted with the prototypes or not.

Before the publication of the Lord of the Rings in the nineteen-fifties, few mainstream published fiction narratives in the twentieth-century Western world consisted of both prose and poetry, appearing together on the page throughout the book, intended and constructed to flow complementarily as an integrated whole.6 The verse in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is more than simply occasional. It is an indispensable part of the narrative itself, and not mere flavoring, or wallpaper, in the manner of (say) Miles Hendon singing the ballad of "Eggs and Marrowbone" in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.7 Sometimes the poetry and songs in Lord of the Rings provide backstory, as in the case of Aragorn's Lay of Lúthien or Bilbo's song of Eärendil; but equally often, it seems, they advance the plot, or at least add nuance to it8 —as is certainly true of Sam's spontaneous prayer to Elbereth in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, as it also is of the fragment that motivated this essay, namely, Gilraen's poignant farewell to Aragorn (see above).