On Odes, Ballads, and Epics

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields


“The last and lingering trobadour to whom the bird has sung…” (Source)

The great struggle before the walls of Minas Tirith is presented to us by Tolkien in two forms. There is the main narrative, the story and style we have read (or listened to) from the very beginning. Yet there is also the words of the poet of Rohan that Tolkien first introduced back as Theoden left Dunharrow for the great ride but that is expanded upon at length here. This addendum to the main tale, written in the conceit of a later storyteller recalling the feats of the battle, is very typical Tolkien, in the same way that he has woven into the tale of The Lord of the Rings fragments, translations, and referencing to the odes, ballads, and epics of the Middle-earth he has sub-created.

Now, in fairness, each of these terms has a proper definition and form: an ode is not a ballad and neither are officially epics. Nevertheless, I speak of them interchangeably as representatives of the broader tradition of oral tales about great deeds once done. It is a form that is mostly lost to us moderns, studied with misaligned media in schools and looked upon as a feature of less-progressive eras. Even those formats that most readily imitated the oral tradition – the radio, for instance – have lost their sway over our culture.

Yet, how incredible it is to read (and even more incredible to listen) to the ode of Theoden, the ballad of the Pelennor Fields, the epic song of the Ride of the Rohirrim! For its beauty lies in part in the differences and excesses that appear only here, not in the narrative as we expected it. We have the poetic imagery, the repetition, the language of awe and wonder, the respect of the past that can only appear in the form of a song of praise and remembrance. But we also have something more. For in this ode about King Theoden, we have not only him in glory but also him in pain, him in doubt, him in passing. In this ballad of the Pelennor Fields, we have not only victory but also loss, also sorrow, also passing. In the epic of the Ride of the Rohirrim we not only have the collective accomplishment but those individuals of renown, a lasting tribute to those who perished for the worthy cause, names that would otherwise be lost to the ages.

These are fundamental characteristics of the great odes, ballads, and epics. Whether written by our ancestors or on their behalf, they always speak with reverence but without deception, of virtue but also of weakness. Theoden and his riders don’t storm into the song as perfection expounded, but instead as people valiant but flawed. And importantly, the history as passed down from generation to generation, the kernel of the oral tradition, is not just the events but the people themselves, in their agony and in their glory.

There is an unexpected and unfamiliar beauty to odes, ballads, and epics. Take up the book again, and read out loud the words of the poet of Rohan; rewind your audio book and with attention listen to the epithet of Snowmane, or the staves of the Marshall on hill of battle. Feel your heart stir within you; feel an up-swell of tears in your eyes. These are emotions we rarely can access anymore, and we should be thankful for such tales as these.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Rush to Judgement
2015’s Reflection: “On Laughing in Defiance of One’s Certain Demise


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