Saturday, May 11, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The Fall of Gil-galad

Gil-galad was an Elven-king
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea

His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.

It's possible my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is that seemingly least popular first book. You know, the slow-moving three hundred or so pages of walking, singing, and all-around hobbitry. Critics often carp about whether a story has a satisfying ending, but I love a satisfying beginning, learning names, places, and the laws of the land. A great author creates not only characters but a specific sense of time and place. The intimate opening chapters to Tolkien's romance succeed as a sumptuous introduction both to the characters and Middle Earth. One of the author's beloved poems in these pages, The Fall of Gil-galad, is a prime example of painting characters, time, and place.

Structurally, the poem is quite simple: three stanzas of two end-rhyming couplets, each line consisting of four iambs. At a slow pace, the iambs give the poem a limping, dolorous quality, appropriate to the sad tale, and apace the poem sounds a song of war.

The opening stanza sets up a character ancient and exotic to the hobbits: an elf, and a king at that. In using harpers for the more common harpists, Tolkien avoids excessive sibilance in the already alliterative line. The second couplet paints in some tantalizingly incomplete details about the tale: why was it the last realm? What's the significance of the land between the mountains and the sea? Where is 'between the mountains and the sea?'

Stanza two casts Gil-galad in a hero's relief. It's a subtle touch painting the warrior with the firmament reflecting in his glistening armor, as if Gil-galad himself emanates some pure, astral grandeur. It also foreshadows the hero's end and the metaphor of the last stanza.

Tolkien concludes by drawing Gil-galad's death in two metaphors reflecting the second stanza. The first, long ago he rode away, picks up the martial theme, and the second, into darkness fell his star, draws on the celestial imagery. The first line of this stanza throws us and Galad into ancient history and the last line, in effect, places us in the present day of the story and the dominance of Mordor.

Aside from this nice segue back to the story, the poem is effective in the narrative. First, it's a splash of  history whose gaps and mysteries give Middle Earth a lived-in quality. The fact that the poem is incomplete amplifies both the passage of time and the sense of the present as fallen era after Gil-galad's "silver age." Second, by describing the poem as translated, Tolkien suggests a multifarious Middle Earth of peoples, places, and languages. Finally, giving this little lay to Sam, a hobbit of often humble expression, paints the servant and gardener in the unexpected role of an ancient bard, and giving knowledge of the poem to Strider, whom we have already seen as far too articulate to be a mere ranger, grants him a unique, if presently unclear, claim to the past.

It's more than a narrative device, though. Whether wistful or forceful, the Fall of Gil-galad is an affecting little poem, lovingly crafted and given a happy little home in the sprawling story that completes the tale.

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