On the Passing of Time

The Great River

The Great River flows swiftly through the Argonath (Source)

The Great River flows swiftly through the Argonath (Source)

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew.
Beyond the Sun, beyond the Moon, the foam was on the Sea,
And by the strand of Imarin there grew a golden Tree.
Beneath the stars of Ever-eve in Eldamar it shone,
In Eldamar beside the walls of Elven Tirion.
There long the gold leaves have grown upon the branching years,
While here beyond the Sundering Seas now fall the Elven-tears.

When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a boy, I naturally elided through the sections of poetry interspersed throughout Tolkien’s pages. They were as academic block-quotes to me: unnecessarily long and story-slowing passages that were for all intents and purposes to be summarized later in the text. Yet as I have grown older, and have returned to Middle earth time and time again, the verses of song and chant have become more resonant and meaningful: the songs of loss and of sorrow, of passing and of time.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
The years have passed like swift draughts
of the sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West,
beneath the blue vaults of Varda,
wherein the stars tremble in the song of her voice,
holy and queenly. Who now shall refill the cup for me?

The passing of time is one of the most essential themes of Tolkien’s lore. In Lothlórien, time has flowed by the Fellowship strangely: for the Elves, the passing is both swift and slow. The passing of the years are but ripples in the long river, yet often do the golden leaves fall upon the forest floor to the grief of those who must linger on these shores. The branching and numberless years one may attempt to slow, but one can never stop.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.

Yet the ashen-cold darkness is not time’s end. For there are virtues that weave their way through all of time’s tapestry, and there is One who is not bound by the context of the ages. We await the fulfillment of time: we await the renewal of the world. Our stream flows only briefly through the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings, yet long have they endured, and long shall they remain.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

So let us not rush through the lines of song and poetry of Elves, Dwarves and Men. In them we find a natural response to the sorrows of the passing of time, for they are the only true responses to the flowing span of the year. Time is not ours to control: and those that seek to break it have, as Gandalf noted, left the path to wisdom. In beautiful and sad verse we tap into the timeless well-spring of longing that makes its home in every being, and lift up our voices in hope that which lies beyond the Sundering Seas.

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