“The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 3: “A Short Rest”

That’s right, everyone.  “The Hobbit” read-along is taking place over at The Warden’s Walk and I’m in charge of explicating/reviewing/pondering chapter 3!  I know I’m late in posting this and I do apologize for those who have been eagerly refreshing their screens in hopes of getting the next installment of the read-along.  If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you may have noticed that I’m not posting much of anything right now–and indeed won’t be for awhile (but that’s okay because Briana’s wonderful posts completely cover my absence).  My life is currently busy and complicated and all manner of crazy.  So, in the interest of fulfilling my obligations to the promotion of all things Tolkien, I’m not really going to explicate my chapter (sorry about that), but rather throw down some thoughts as they occur to me.  Feel free to generate more discussion in the comments (thereby imparting to this post some manner of legitimacy).

I’ve read The Hobbit several times and each time chapter three sticks out to me due to one thing: those Elves singing “tra-la-la-lally”.  I don’t think this is Tolkien’s crowning achievement in poetry, it is true, and I sometimes chuckle to myself over how a place known for its poetry and song could be introduced to readers with this particular song.  Poetic merits aside, however, the song presents much bigger issues to me.  After all, readers familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion know that Elves are these ethereal, other-worldly beings remarkable for their nobility and wisdom.  Certainly no one envisions Hugo Weaving’s Elrond singing “tra-la-la-lally”!

I’m not convinced this moment can be explained away by saying that The Hobbit came before The Lord of the Rings since Tolkien did edit The Hobbit to make it fit more smoothly into his mythos.  Furthermore, we receive hints of the noble Elves we will come to know in Tolkien’s description of Elrond: “He was as noble and as fair in face as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer.”  So, maybe, if we try to fit Tolkien’s Hobbit Elves into our conception of his later Elves, we’re approaching his work from the wrong way.  Maybe we don’t need to perform mental gymnastics to create consistency.  Maybe Tolkien is being consistent, but our modern mindset hasn’t prepared us to recognize that.

Assuming the “tra-la-la-lally” Elves must be different from the Lord of the Rings Elves implies that silly and serious cannot exist together.  But the Elves are remarkable for more than their high poetry or tragic history.  They are remarkable for their connection to Eru and the Undying Lands.  Many of the Elves have seen the light of Valinor.  They have known joy.  Can the joy they have be related to the light-hearted songs and jokes of the Rivendell Elves?  And aren’t light-hearted song- and joke-making actually two of the most serious activities a person can engage in?  Life can be hard and full of sorrow, as the Elves, who have lost Valinor, perhaps know better than anyone else in Middle-earth.  However, they refuse to let sorrow have the last word; they engage in song-making, even silly song-making, because they know that no sorrow lasts forever.

*Note: I can’t recall from memory whether the Rivendell Elves actually were in Valinor (I’m inclining towards no), but I think the point about joy and seriousness still stands.  Plus, I’m sure that the Elves who were not in Valinor know and are affected by the tragic loss their kinsmen suffered.

Continue the read-along this Thursday with Taliesintaleweaver of Lights in the Library!

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24 thoughts on ““The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 3: “A Short Rest”

  1. Rob says:

    I noticed the same difference in Elvin-attitude. I chalked it up to the fact of The Hobbit being a children’s story. I couldn’t come up with anything else. I’m too old for mental gymnastics anymore!

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    • Krysta says:

      I like this a lot: the simple explanation. I admit that Tolkien probably had this in mind when he wrote The Hobbit, but that doesn’t prevent us from drawing other conclusions. And Tolkien fans so often feel the need to draw those conclusions, to make everything make sense, to make everything neat and pretty even when Tolkien was but a flawed man.

      Your comment leads me into much deeper waters, though, because now I have to consider the relation of this children’s book to LotR and how we conceive of children’s books and this children’s book in particular. The Hobbit has a distinct air of fairyland about it, and I think “tra-la-la-lally” may simply be how one translates joy into fairyland. After all, everyone already knows fairyland is joy (even if it is also danger); there’s no need to go on and on about it. In fact, maybe the nonsense words simply reflect the inability of language to talk about the wonder that Rivendell must elicit. But the references to shoeing ponies and other everyday affairs reminds readers that Elrond’s house is also “homely”–one can feel as if he belongs there.

      I could probably get a whole working theory about Fairyland and Rivendell just from this one song now, but, then, I sometimes feel that it’s the business of English majors to perform mental gymnastics just because we can.

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      • Briana says:

        I’ve always thought it was partly because The Hobbit is for children, but Tolkien had The Silmarillion in mind forever, so I can’t abandon the thought that he had a good idea of how “serious” his Elves were even while he was writing this scene.

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      • Krysta says:

        Yes, that is one of the considerations that made me feel justified in seeking an explanation for the silliness of the Elves. I can’t imagine Tolkien would throw away his whole concept of them just to work them into the context of a children’s book.

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  2. taliesintaleweaver says:

    I think you have a good point. The Elven songs in The Hobbit always remind me of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Bilbo has the Elves trying to guess which which verses in his Earendil song were written by him and which by Aragorn. The Elves laugh and one makes a comment to the effect (which I’m not quoting verbatim because I’m too lazy to grab my copy) that expecting Elves to discern the difference between mortals is like expecting people to recognize sheep’s faces. The light-hearted, almost goofy scene makes me feel that yes, these are the same Elves that sang tra-la-la-la.

    And oh, quite probably the Elves in Rivendell were in Valinor (at least, it was their ancestors who rebelled and returned to Middle-Earth, and since they are Elves it seems probable that not a few of the original rebels were still alive).

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s an excellent comparison! If Elves can enjoy the same sorts of pastimes as Hobbits, perhaps they are not so far removed from ordinary pleasures as one might initially suspect. I’d forgotten about that scene, but I think I shall now count it among my favorites. It’s a light-hearted moment at a time when the Elves must know that the world is on the brink of great change, and it’s a moment of peace–different cultures coming together to celebrate their love of poetry and creativity. They’re comfortable enough with each other and with their differences to make jokes and laugh at each other. Comparing Hobbits to sheep would normally be insulting, yes? But Bilbo can take the joke because he knows he has one over the Elves–he’s improved at poetry enough that his writing is indistinguishable from a future king’s.

      Some of the rebels were definitely alive at the time of the War of the Ring–Galadriel, for one. I just wasn’t sure which of the Elves never went to Valinor in the first place. The Elves of Mirkwood, maybe? And Elrond is only half-Elven, right, so that’s what made me question whether his people had come from Valinor or not. Some of them, probably, if not Elrond himself. Oh, the intricacies of Tolkien–but that’s why we love him, no?

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  3. jubilare says:

    “Those Elves singing “tra-la-la-lally”. You had me laughing here. That song always bothered me, mostly because Tolkien has so many songs that I really love.

    You make some great points, here. Personally, I always felt that The Hobbit, while somewhat inconsistent with its elves (especially its “wood elves”) picked up on the dual nature Tolkien intended them to have better than any of his other works. I think he meant for them to be both “terrible and splendid” and “merry as children” (Sam said that, I think, and there are threads of this duality running through LotR). If anything, it makes them more otherworldly and inexplicable.

    That said, the “tra-la-la-lally” still bugs me from a poetry standpoint. They could make better merry and silly songs than that!

    As for Rivendell elves, I think that they may be something of a mix between the Eldar and Avari rather than one or the other, but I am not sure of that. Elrond is descended from Eldar, Maiar and Men.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad I’m not alone in finding this song ridiculous! We have some options here, though. The first is that we simply don’t have the sense of humor to appreciate this and the Elves singing it would think we were being silly for not being light-hearted enough. The other is that, even among Elves, you have lesser poets. And these Elves, well, they’re not the John Donnes of Rivendell, that’s all. But, hey, at least they enjoy what they do!

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  4. Mary says:

    “Tra la la lally” is something I cringe at every time I read The Hobbit. But if set to the right music, perhaps it would not sound so bad? How many songs do we love despite, or perhaps because of, simple lyrics?

    I still tend to dismiss it as part of the fact that The Hobbit is definitely a children’s book. But even in LotR, Sam (I think?) describes Galadriel as merry as a lass after meeting her in Lothlorien. So if Galadriel, the wise elf queen, can be described as a merry lass, I suppose “tra la la lally” might not be so strange for the Rivendell elves.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point! I was kind of hoping this would be inserted in the upcoming movie because the version of the Dwarves’ dragon song simply blew me away. It was so powerful and moving, and I definitely never came up with a tune like that in my head. I bet someone could pull off this song and make it seem like the most heart-wrenching and beautiful song ever.

      That is an excellent quote! And I think we do get glimpses of Galadriel’s inner happiness at key moments in Peter Jackson’s movies.

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    • Terpsichore says:

      Ditto – I’m currently imagining “tra la la lally” set in a madrigal arrangement: still merry, but allowing for a bit more songcraft!

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      • Krysta says:

        That sounds amazing and completely appropriate! Unfortunately, I am not remotely musically gifted, so unless someone plays a song for me, I can’t hear any such amazing arrangements in my head. 😦

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  5. Steve Morrison says:

    Elrond was born in Middle-earth; he and Elros were the children of Eärendil and Elwing. But some of the Rivendell elves were from Valinor, since Gandalf says “And here in Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.”

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    • Krysta says:

      Excellent! We have an answer! I love the debate that went on, though. That’s a really good quote, too, because we don’t even have to go back to The Silmarillion. Thanks so much for looking this up for us!

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  6. David says:

    I’m glad you decided to tackle this straight on, since it’s something everyone familiar with LotR is likely to think upon encountering it. I’m especially grateful to Taliesin for reminding us that the elves’ gaiety isn’t entirely absent from the trilogy, either. They do laugh, and sing, and dance, and are not the po-faced somnolent snobs that the movies usually portrayed them as (though I do like the movies’ elves on the whole, they’re not as fascinating and fully alive as Tolkien’s conception of them). So while I do think that the silly songs — in addition to the bumbling of the dwarves and the anachronistic references — are especially added to delight children, without great thought to how it affects the canon of his mythology, neither do I think they completely undermine it. Some of the anachronistic references admittedly push it, like the ones to golf, matches, and express trains, but can at least partially be explained by the narrator being modern, and thus justified in using modern terms to describe his story.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I loved the responses with quotes from LotR since it’s been some years since I’ve last read it and I don’t think I’m alone in having my perception of Tolkien’s Elves more fully shaped by Peter Jackson’s versions than perhaps I should. It’s sad, but I can’t imagine Jackson’s Elves actually doing anything (i.e. enjoying anything). For some reason I imagine they just spend their time standing around looking ethereal/somber/important. Galadriel does have some beautiful moments when she smiles and I remember she’s flesh and blood after all, but she can still seem above the mundane things the Elves presumably must do: trade, weave, produce food, hold meetings, etc.

      Most of the time I can overlook things like the anachronistic references or the interruption of the narrator in The Hobbit, but something about those Elves. I think it’s because I can’t imagine anyone singing “tra-la-lally” in any manner that isn’t really annoying. And it’s probably only worse when you’ve arrived from a terrible journey over the mountains, having barely saved your life, and these Elves start nonchantly singing nonsense at you like it’s supposed to make sense. 😀

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      • David says:

        Haha, indeed. “Tra-la-la-lally” sounds better to me when I imagine it sung like a Celtic folk song, rather than as a cloying nursery rhyme; I’ve heard many folk songs repeat similar nonsense words to fine effect, when used right. I wish I knew how Tolkien heard it in his mind’s ear, though. His elves are Norse in conception, rather than Celtic, but I am unfamiliar with Scandinavian folk music, and don’t know if he thought of elven music as similar to it or not.

        Tangentially, have you seen Hellboy II: The Golden Army? I ask this because the villain in that movie is an elf straight out of the high Irish tradition; in fact, he is supposed to be Nuada Silverhand himself, though naturally the comic-based movie takes liberties for its own mythology. In many ways the elven culture he represents is similar to those in Peter Jackson’s movies: aloof, formal, beyond humanity. But the portrayal–especially of Nuada himself–is still bursting with blood and life, and not just because of the character’s anger and hatred (he is the baddie, after all), but also because of his devotion to his people (in theory) and his sister. I thought that was an excellent portrayal of a somewhat “traditional” high-minded elf that still was flesh and blood, a real person with joys and frustrations, internal conflicts, devotions, and sin. Closer to Tolkien’s elves, really, than Peter Jackson’s. Interestingly, that movie was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to direct The Hobbit. As excited as I am for PJ’s version, I’d have more confidence about the portrayal of the Wood Elves if del Toro was in control.

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      • Krysta says:

        A Celtic or Norse folk song version would be very interesting! I know Tolkien sings some of his songs on the Tolkien Audio Collection. I don’t think this particular one is included (but the troll song is!), but maybe it would give some indication of the tunes he had in mind while writing. Unfortunately, my copy has been lent out never to return, so I can’t check.

        I’ve never seen either Hellboy, but your description has made me kind of interested! I’m trying to keep in mind the Elves of The Silmarillion, too, as they definitely come across as flesh and blood, with all their nobility and tragedy, and their petty jealousies.

        I was excited for del Toro except that I read he was planning to add more monsters to Middle-earth. While I’m sure more monsters exist than Tolkien wrote about, it seemed like he’d have to add material to a book already decently full of monsters. And then Jackson went and added enough material to make a third movie, so maybe del Toro’s monsters weren’t such a crazy idea, after all. I think I’m mostly glad Jackson’s atmosphere will remain intact, though, since I consider that his crowning achievement in the trilogy. I don’t know what I would’ve done if had Middle-earth ended up feeling like Pan’s Labyrinth or something.

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