The Redemptive Voice: Vocal Characterization in Tolkien

“But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

There is an old story that the origins of the now popular ‘football’ chorus “Ole! Ole! Ole!” is a remnant of the Moors invasion of Spain. It is said that the original chant was in fact “Allah, Allah, Allah” and that it was used for a particular set of circumstances. The Moors would chant “Allah, Allah, Allah” out of respect for a performance of some sort which was obviously possessed divine inspiration. For instance, a particular musical performance might so transport the hearers so as to move them to recognize the presence of God in it. So the Spaniards would say, “Ole, Ole, Ole.”

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at his craft, which is to say his artistry was sublime. Tolkien had a particular view of writing which he describes as follows: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”[1]  For him, writing was an organic process which ‘grew’ out of the leaf mould of experience. Tolkien’s experience, like that of his friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, was profoundly Christian. In other words, when one reads Tolkien, he expects to find forms and expressions with a particular Christian hue. This expectation is validated in his most well-known work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Tolkien’s ‘leaf mould’ is Roman Catholic in its essential tone, it has elements in common with Lewis’s more Protestant vision. For instance, both writers were masters at portraying the radical devastation of sin. One thinks of the power of illicit curiosity which nearly wrecks the incipient realms of Perelandra or Narnia. What might have happened in these places is apparent in the glimpses that the reader gets of Charn, in The Magician’s Nephew or even of Earth, in That Hideous Strength. Sin was and was not a mere trifling matter for Lewis. On the one hand, it could manifest itself in a seemingly innocent concern for one’s mother, but on the other, it could affect the destruction of every form of life. On the topic of trifles, Tolkien’s embodiment of illicit desire in the ring leads Boromir to ask, “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!”[2] But as the reader knows well, the ring is not a trifle (not a mathom), but holds in itself the power to destroy everything that has worth, hope and life including.

Yet, for their similarities, Tolkien excels beyond Lewis in many respects. Among them is the development of his characters. In a recent read of The Fellowship of the Ring, my students noticed one feature in particular.* Tolkien very intentionally focuses the reader’s attention on the vocal quality of his characters as an orienting factor for understanding them. The first example of this appears with the arrival of the high elves that Frodo and his companions meet along the road out of the Shire. Tolkien describes their encounter as follows: “But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”[3] The clear voices of the elves come just at the opportune moment, when the “sniffing” black rider was approaching. And the reader knows the voices mean salvation; the black rider vanishes at the sound. But it is not just the elves’ voices that are clear, but also the song itself which rises and falls in autumn air.

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are they eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
 
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
 
O Elbereth Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
They starlight on the Western Seas[4]

For Tolkien, the elves represent what is high and grand, everything that is most like Illuvatar himself. After all, it is these very elves who had gazed on the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion with its silver dew and Laurelin with its golden boughs. It is remarked in The Silmarillion that the high elves who had seen the trees of Valinor were forever sundered from the lingerers who refused to obey the call of the Valar to cross out of Middle-Earth to western lands. It was precisely this vision of pure, clear light which sundered them. So the elves, being most like Illuvatar, embody most purely divine qualities—pure divine light, wisdom, truth, and joy. And when it comes to voice, it is clarity which is divine.

And it is not only the elves that share this remarkable vocal quality. Tom Bombadil is said to enchant the hobbits with his “deep glad voice” which rises up “loud and clear”:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fall all the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo![5]

So it is, for the second time in Tolkien’s narrative, the hobbits are saved at exactly the moment of tribulation, by a clear voice. Yet, Tom Bombadil is a very different sort of character than the elves. He is older but more carelessly happy. Tolkien describes him, “He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”[6] But the reader already has guessed all of this. His “deep glad voice” lets slip the merry old man that he is. He is different than the elves, though in some respects the same. Joy, song, truth, wisdom, and age might be said to characterize them both. But Tom, as the reader would naturally call him, is obliviously gay as though wrinkles of anxiety would never touch his brow. It is only the voice of naked mirth that can make the weeping willow shiver and the cold barrow-wight flee. And it is his voice in song that first we meet.

Contrariwise, the hobbits are immediately alarmed by the voices of the black riders. Frodo has an encounter with the voice of a rider in the Shire, “He turned to go back, and then stopped for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill.”[7] The “strange and somehow unpleasant” voice of the rider is reinforced by the sniffing encounter along the road, but especially by the hobbits’ experience in the wood:

They stopped short suddenly. Frodo sprang to his feet. A long-drawn wail came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature. It rose and fell, and ended on a high piercing note. Even as they sat and stood, as if suddenly frozen, it was answered by another cry, fainter and further off, but no less chilling to the blood. There was then a silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the leaves.

‘And what do you think that was?’ Pippin asked at last, trying to speak lightly, but quavering a little. ‘If it was a bird, it was one that I never heard in the Shire before.’

‘It was not a bird or beast,’ said Frodo. ‘It was a call, or a signal—there were words in that cry, though I could not catch them. But no hobbit has such a voice.’

No more was said about it. They were all thinking of the Riders, but no one spoke of them.[8]

The hobbits do not understand the particulars of the peril, but it is the vocal quality which reveals something of its urgency. The nature of the black riders is vividly disclosed by the chilling wail.

We know a bit about the voices of hobbits as well—though hobbits’ voices perhaps vary somewhat. The old Gaffer’s voice becomes shrill with fear. And so does Frodo’s at the moment he calls to Tom Bombadil for rescue. Yet, hobbits can also exhibit the voice of celebration and simple joy. Their voices rise into the night sky at Bilbo’s party. Or we might remark of Pippin’s high and merry voice as he sings the praises of hot water!

Sing hey! for the bath at the close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing![9]

But the voice of Frodo exhibits a power which is unique to himself, the power to change. There is, of course, the shrill voice of terror. But more significantly, the river daughter notices that Frodo is an elf-friend both by the light in his eyes and the “ring in [his] voice.”[10] Hobbits are not high and grand like elves, but it is their capacity for joy as well as their vulnerability which most characterizes them. On one hand, their spirits are not easily broken, but on the other what could be more improbable than a hobbit facing the power of Mordor? And masterfully, Tolkien captures these qualities, in their voices.

Still, there is one voice which the reader will find mysterious. The voice of Strider is introduced simply, with little editorial comment as a “low voice.” There is ambiguity even in the description. Does he mean tone or volume? If the elves are high and grand, the hobbits are jolly, practical, but frail, Strider is sad and mysterious. Strider is a man. To be more specific Strider is a ranger, a lonely wanderer whose appearance belies his identity. Gandalf admonishes the hobbits, “not all those who wander are lost.”[11] Yet, within the soul of Strider there is perhaps a profound sadness that is uniquely human. When the hobbits desire a tale of Middle earth, Strider says, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”[12] The tale which follows is of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel, a deeply affecting tale of love and loss. Fleming Rutledge, in The Battle for Middle-Earth, says, “This tale is of the greatest importance, not only because it forms the backdrop for much that will happen, but also because it embodies a central motif, that of self-sacrifice.”[13] Yet, what is most striking in light of what has been said already about voice is the way Strider is described in the telling of this story of self-sacrifice. Tolkien writes, “As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.” Even at this point in the story, Strider, the ranger, has disappeared to be swallowed up by Aragorn the king. Yet, this king is a dramatically human king. Whereas elves represent everything high and grand, humans represent redemption. All stories of Middle-earth are sad tales because all human tales are sad. Yet, it is in this sadness and self-sacrifice that Aragorn the king has developed not just a low voice, but a deep and rich one. We know from experience that depth and richness are won with great difficulty. They are only won through tears. The Strider we meet is uniquely equipped to do the very human thing he will do precisely because he had gazed on the faces of the elves and he had stared down the face of great evil.

All of this leads me to aver, Christians ought to live as Strider does. To live as the elves is high and grand; and Strider too feels the pull of western lands. He has long been a friend of the elves. Yet, he knows that this is not his path. His life is inextricably tied to the fate of his people. His life, he knows, will likely be a sad tale full of hardship and perhaps even failure.

Christians likewise, ought to feel the pull of western lands, of feasting, of drink, of song, of dance and of pure goodness. Yet, we ourselves are linked through blood to a people in peril. As Strider’s path led him to Gondor, to the stoop of pure evil, so ours leads us to people who are broken with deceit, destruction, anger, and envy. His manner of life (de modo conversationis) is a redemptive one.

Our path, like Aragorn’s, is a redemptive path, one which involves much sadness, but is rich and deep. It offers the hope of reforging what once was broken. Let the voice of Aragorn act as a guide to our own ethical vision. May we love the elves, but remember our people. Only a writer like Tolkien, a master in his craft, could develop such rich textures of meaning, through so subtle a point as voice.

So as the Spaniards would say, Mr. Tolkien, Ole, Ole, Ole.

de modo conversationis

Transcendent

Redemptive

Earthly

Clear

Rich and Deep

Raspy or Shrill

Clear

True

Light

Wisdom

Creative

Trusting

Joy

Song

Clear Voices

Feasting

Practical

Married

Food

Fire

Sadness

Self-sacrifice

Building

Cunning

Chant

Distorted

Hardened

Shrewd

Angry

Destruction

Darkness

Deceit

Traitorous

Envy


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien (New York, Ballantine Books, 1977), p. 140-41.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 414.

[3] Ibid, 88.

[4] Ibid, 88-89.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 131.

[7] Ibid, 78.

[8] Ibid, 99-100.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Ibid, 135

[11] Ibid, 154.

[12] Ibid, 203.

[13] Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-Earth, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 82.

*Thanks to Felicia Van Dress for noticing this.

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