Study Guide

The Return of the King Language and Communication

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Language and Communication

Merry looked out in wonder upon this strange country, of which he had heard many tales upon their long road. It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half-dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. (5.3.4)

At the end of this evocative description of mountain landscapes, Merry observes that he "had loved the thought of [mountains] marching on the edge of stories," but the reality of this rough landscape is not so much fun. It's odd to find a description of something that is not as much fun as it appears in stories—in a story. But perhaps The Return of the King is a bit about these stories, which have passed down history and lore through the ages of Middle-earth. Plus, by claiming that mountains are not what Merry thought they would be, Tolkien makes his fiction seem curiously more realistic. Fancy that. Merry is waking up to the reality of the (fictional) White Mountains. Even if we believe that the White Mountains do not exist (in Middle-earth that is; the ones in New Hampshire seem pretty real), we can believe in Merry's disappointment and loneliness having to travel through them.

On down the grey road they went beside the Snowbourn rushing on its stones; through the hamlets of Underharrow and Upbourn, where many sad faces of women looked out from dark doors; and so without horn or harp or music of men's voices the great ride into the East began with which the songs of Rohan were busy for many long lives of men hereafter. (5.3.95)

Since there will be songs about this trip out of Dunharrow, this passage lets slip that there will be a Rohan for "many long lives of men hereafter." Um, thanks for the spoiler alert, J.R.R. In any case, we now know that Sauron will be defeated by the end of The Return of the King, or else Rohan (along with the rest of Middle-earth) would not survive. But why does Tolkien communicate this information in the first place? Why ruin the suspense?

"And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless."

Pippin's heart sank. He did not relish the idea of singing any song of the Shire to the Lord of Minas Tirith, certainly not the comic ones that he knew best; they were too, well, rustic for such an occasion. (5.4.15-6)

Songs are yet another form of communicating stories down through the ages. We're thinking the songs of Gondor are probably heroic, grand, and full of romance. But the songs from the Shire are probably about drinking and carousing. These two forms of communication don't mix, and they reflect their respective cultures. This makes us wonder if Denethor might not be mocking Pippin a little bit, here. Does he really want to hear the songs of the Shire, or is he just trying to throw the hobbit off his game? Based on his language alone, we can't tell.

More than one road he knows. He will lead you by road where no pits are, no gorgûn walk, only Wild Men and beasts. […] Road is forgotten, but not by Wild Men. Over hill and behind hill it lies still under grass and tree, there behind Rimmon and down to Dîn, and back at the end to Horse-men's road. Wild Men will show you that road. Then you will kill gorgûn and drive away bad dark with bright iron, and Wild Men can go back to sleep in the wild woods. (5.5.20)

By the time we've reached The Return of the King, the quality of the dialogue has generally achieved full on fancy-pants status. Aragorn and Éowyn call each other "thee" and "thou," for Pete's sake. That makes Ghân-buri-Ghân's mode of speaking all the more striking. He talks like a stereotype of someone who doesn't speak English (or "Common Speech"), with his missing words, and his use of the third person when he's talking about himself. Sure, he makes sense, but his way of communicating that sense shows him to be very different from the high falutin' men of Rohan.

"But I can't use my right arm, Pippin, not since I stabbed him. And my sword burned all away like a piece of wood."

[…]

"It's not always a misfortune being overlooked," said Merry. "I was overlooked just now by—no, no, I can't speak of it. Help me, Pippin! It's all going dark again, and my arm is so cold." (5.8.9,11)

We have already noted that names have a lot of power in The Lord of the Rings. The Ents, in particular, warn Merry and Pippin not to share their true names too quickly with unknown folk (see The Two Towers Book 3, Chapter 4). But the difficulty with assigning true names so much power is that it means you have to be careful about talking about anything evil, for fear that you give it more power than you intend. This means that it's hard to communicate the evil things that have happened to you, even when doing so would probably be cathartic. Similarly, Sam warns Frodo not to talk too much about his orc capture: "You won't [forget], if you talk about them, Mr. Frodo" (6.1.83). Even though his advice runs contrary to our modern day pop psychology, there's a good reason for it. If you look up the word "unspeakable" in a thesaurus, you get "awful," "fearful," "abominable," "repulsive," and "loathsome." Anything you can't talk about has a dark, negative connotation all its own.

[Sam's] thought turned to the Ring, but there was no comfort there, only dread and danger. No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom, burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnaces where in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring's power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor [...] Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. (6.1.18)

Finally, Sam gets what Frodo could never say. Having never been a Ring-bearer, Sam spends much of the first two novels struggling to understand Frodo's state of mind. But you know what? Poor Frodo just can't put his woes into words. How can you communicate the extreme difficulties of carrying the Ring, the strength it takes to resist its temptations? But Sam loves Frodo so much, he wants to understand. In this scene, he's being let in on the secret that Gollum and Frodo share, but can't speak of: the full agony of being a Ring-bearer. Holding the Ring, even for a brief time, communicates to Sam something of the price Frodo pays to continue on this quest.

They stood now; and Sam still holding his master's hand caressed it. He sighed. "What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven't we?" he said. "I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they'll say: Now comes the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom? And then everyone will hush, like we did, when in Rivendell they told us the tale of Beren One-Hand and the Great Jewel. I wish I could hear it! And I wonder how it will go on after our part." (6.4.21)

There they are again—stories.When Sam says, "What a tale we have been in," this is literally true: he and Frodo are both characters in an amazing tale. As a fictional character wishing to hear his own fictional adventures told back to him in song form, Sam is blurring the distinction between the world in The Lord of the Rings and that of its readers. After all, we are listening to Sam's story just as Sam listened to Beren's tale in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell. But at the end of the day, it's all about the power of stories. The stories Sam heard in Rivendell have a big impact on him, just as the stories of "Nine-fingered Frodo" will make a splash with us.

"Nay, cousin! they are not boys," said Ioreth to her kinswoman from Imloth Melui, who stood beside her. "Those are Periain, out of the far country of the Halflings, where they are princes of great fame, it is said. I should know, for I had one to tend in the Houses. They are small, but they are valiant. Why, cousin, one of them went with only his esquire into the Black Country and fought with the Dark Lord all by himself, and set fire to his Tower, if you can believe it. At least that is the tale in the City. That will be the one that walks with our Elfstone. They are dear friends, I hear." (6.5.71)

Ah, the Gondorian rumor mill. It runs fast and strong. Even Frodo's genuinely heroic feats have become exaggerated. Nine-fingered Frodo certainly didn't set fire to any tower, although there's truth at the heart of Ioreth's version of the tale. We can imagine this story being passed down orally through the ages, with changes and embellishments added here and there. This scene reminds us that even in our world, the stories we hear about the past often have grains of truth.

They put [Butterbur] in a large chair by the wood-fire, […] and exchanged all such news as Mr. Butterbur wished to hear or give. Most of the things which they had to tell were a mere wonder and bewilderment to their host, and far beyond his vision; and they brought forth few comments other than: "You don't say," often repeated in defiance of the evidence of Mr. Butterbur's own ears. "You don't say, Mr. Baggins, or is it Mr. Underhill? I'm getting so mixed up. You don't say, Master Gandalf! Well I never! Who'd have thought it in our times!" (6.7.26)

Butterbur's a good guy, sure, but he is incapable of understanding the grand events of the Lord of the Rings series. He just doesn't have the language, experience, or even imagination for it, so the tales leave him speechless. Contrast him with a guy like Aragorn, who sings beautifully and speaks poetically from the start, and you'll see a subtle class system start to emerge—one based on education and experience, rather than money. Men like Aragorn are high and mighty, while folks like Butterbur are left to wonder at all the grandeur. We suppose it should come as no surprise that Tolkien, as a professor of languages, would give his own love of words and stories to his best characters—like Sam, and unlike Butterbur.

The legends, histories, and lore to be found in the sources are very extensive. Only selections from them, in most places much abridged, are here presented. Their principal purpose is to illustrate the War of the Ring and its origins, and to fill up some of the gaps in the main story. The ancient legends of the First Age, in which Bilbo's chief interest lay, are very briefly referred to, since they concern the ancestry of Elrond and the Númenorean kings and chieftains. Actual extracts from longer annals and tales are placed within quotation marks. Insertions of later date are enclosed in brackets. Notes within quotation marks are found in the sources. Others are editorial. (Appendix A, 2)

In another book series, we might think these appendices were a joke or a parody, they are so formal and academic. Come on—these aren't actual extracts. These stories aren't even real! Middle-earth doesn't exist! But maybe the fact that the entire cycle is in the guise of a factual history is meant to tell us something about the power of stories. We have said before that Tolkien is really superb at world creation, and this is part of it. It's almost as though Tolkien himself has faith that Middle-earth exists, and that he is just editing or recording true stories (rather than writing them). It makes it easier for us to believe in the rich lore of Middle-earth because Tolkien appears to believe it himself.