Middle-Earth Songs: 50 Years After Tolkien

Sertum Versificatorum

On 2 September 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien died at the age of 81, leaving a monumental body of original English literature in prose and verse, as well as influential scholarship on the languages and literature of the past. To honour his memory and celebrate the legacy of his creative and scholarly works, we have put together a small anthology of new translations of Tolkien’s poems into Latin and Sanskrit verse.

Translating Tolkien into ancient languages and ancient poetic forms seemed a fitting tribute given the profound influence of Classical and Mediaeval literature on his life and work. The influence of the literature of Mediaeval England and Iceland on Tolkien is well known – he was, after all, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. But Tolkien’s first encounter with ‘dead’ languages, and with the alternate realities on which they open a door, came when he began to learn Latin from his mother while he was a small boy. He continued with his study of Latin and Greek at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where, among other things, he debated in Latin.[1] He also later claimed that he had “first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.”[2] He then began his university studies in Classics at Oxford, sitting the ferociously challenging Honour Moderations exams (“Mods”, which covered large quantities of the Greek and Latin languages and literature) in 1913, before transferring to the study of English. These exams marked the end of Tolkien’s formal study of the Classics; but although he found his scholarly home in the Germanic languages, he continued to ruminate on Classical texts and to return to them for some of the themes in his mythological world-building.[3]

Importantly, throughout his school and university studies, Tolkien not only studied poetry in Latin and Greek but was taught to write it. As with many English poets before him, the discipline of composing in the ‘dead’ languages had a lasting impact, helping him to appreciate the interplay of sense, sounds and rhythms in his own language: “I was, for instance, insensitive to poetry, and skipped it if it came in tales [read as a child]. Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse.”[4] 50 years after his death, we want to return the favour.[5]

The endpapers of Tolkien’s copy of Arthur Sidgwick’s Introduction to Greek Prose Composition (1902), sold in 2012 at Bonhams of London for a pretty penny; presumably Tolkien acquired the copy bought by A.G. Cox when he was teaching in the West Midlands (although Cox, a contemporary of A.E. Housman at Bromsgrove School, went on to Hertford College, not “coll[egium] Vig[orniense]”, i.e. Worcester).

The Riddle of Strider

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Aenigma Aragornis

Neque perlucent pariter
omnia nobis aurea,
neque cunctis errantibus
desunt viae vagantibus,
neque senex fortissimus
flaccescit marcidissimus,
neque pervadit glacies
radices sub planities;

resurget a cineribus
flamma vivax sedentibus,
splendebit lux siderea
umbrosa lustrans infera,
fractus et vetus gladius
nunc novabitur validus,
corona carens humilis
regnabit rursus nobilis.

(Literal translation: They do not gleam to us equally, all things that are golden, nor are roads lacking for all wandering wayfarers, nor does a very strong old man grow limp, a very withered one, nor does ice reach roots beneath the plains. A living flame shall rise again from the settled ashes, a starry light shall beam, lighting the shadowy places below, a broken and elderly sword shall be renewed, now strong, a lowly one lacking a crown will reign again, noble.)

These verses are composed in octosyllables in the Anglo-Latin style, loosely inspired by those of St Aldhelm of Malmesbury (AD c.639–709), Bishop of Sherborne and the originator of the Anglo-Latin poetic tradition. Aldhelm seems to have picked up the octosyllable form from Latin poems written in Ireland in the 7th Century, but to have regularised the main stress of the verse on the 6th syllable, as well as increasing the regularity of end-rhyme and use of alliteration to link verses.[6] As Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien would have known Aldhelm’s works well.[7] They included a collection of a hundred riddles (Aenigmata), although Aldhelm composed these in classical quantitative metre rather than in an accentual syllabic metre like his octosyllables.[8] As this poem marks the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, it therefore contains 50 words, including the title.

Frodo’s Song in the Old Forest

O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
Despair not! For though dark they stand,
All woods there be must end at last,
And see the open sun go past:
The setting sun, the rising sun,
The day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail. 

o qui per tenebras caecas erratis et umbras,
nil desperandum! caeco stant limite silvae, 
omnibus at silvis praestanda est denique finis, 
sole ut praetereunte aspectent lumen apertum: 
Eois radiis aut sera luce renidens, 
sol cadit et veniente die candentior exstat,
cunctae ut deficiant silvae tenebraeque minaces.

(Literal translation: O you who wander through the blind darkness and shadows, do not despair! The woods stand with a dark outline, but for all woods an end must appear at last, so that as the sun passes they may look on the open light. Shining with dawn rays or evening light the sun sets and, as the day dawns, stands forth more brilliant, so that all woods and threatening darkness fail..)

Sam’s Song at the Tower of Cirith Ungol

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ‘tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done
Nor bid the Stars farewell.

Forsitan Hesperiis ubi sol effulget in oris
    vernet humus, currant flumina, cantet avis;
aut ibi fors nox pura cadat, fagique putentur
    sidera ramosas inter habere comas.
quamvis hic iaceam densis oppressus ab umbris,
    et mihi quaerenti cetera caeca via est,
omnia castra super montesque et opaca locorum
    sol vehitur semper, semper et astra nitent.
ergo ego non dicam, restat dum vita, peractam
    esse diem, nec vos, astra, valere loquar.

(Literal translation: Perhaps in western lands, where the sun pours forth its light, the earth is green, the rivers run, and the birds are singing; or there perhaps a clear night falls, and the beeches seem to wear the stars amid their branching hair. Though I lie here, oppressed with thick shadows, and the rest of the way is impenetrable to my seeking, above all camps, mountains and gloomy places the sun forever rides, and the stars forever shine. Therefore, while yet life remains, I shall not say that the day is over, nor shall I bid you, stars, farewell.)

Bilbo’s Homecoming

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Semper iter porro – quod ad usque viam via ducit –
per nemora alta vagans eduraque saxa peragrat,
iuxta speluncas ubi nunquam lumina fulgent;
propter aquam vadit quae non semel influit altum,
trans alacres currit flores aestateque natas,
perque nives gelidas, acris quas bruma relinquit.
hic lapides pergit duros herbamque virentem,
hic quoque sub montes altas in lumine lunae.
semper iter pergit sub nubila, subter et astra,
sed tamen adverto nunc meque pedemque vagantem
laetificum tandem procul in penetrale domumque.
ante oculos enses timidusque incendia vidi;
horrida saxosis vidi tremefactus in aulis,
ast oculis video nunc prata virentia tandem
atque alacri colles notas mihi notaque ligna.

(Literal Translation: Always onward goes a road – because way leads on to way – through deep groves and across hard stones it wanders, wandering, here near caves where the light never shines (it wanders); it goes near water which does not once flow into the sea, then through the cheerful and summer-born flowers it runs, and through the cold snow, which harsh winter leaves. Here it goes on over hard stones and through green grass, here also under the high mountains in the light of the moon. Always onward goes a road under the clouds and under the stars, but I, however, finally now turn my glad self and my wandering foot to hearth and home. Before my eyes I, fearful, have seen swords and fires; shaken, I have seen horrible things in the stony halls, but now with my eyes I finally see green meadows and known hills and woods, known to cheerful me.)

Frodo’s Song to Goldberry

O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!
O reed by the living pool! Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!

मृणालतन्वङ्ग्यसि नाम कान्ते रूपेण चैवं परिभूतगङ्गा । 
शिरीषपुष्पं तदिवातिरम्यं सरित्सुते त्वं प्रतिभासि सुभ्रूः ॥ १ ॥ 
नूनं वसन्तो ऽपर आर्द्रपूष्पः प्रभाति सोच्चैरिति मे सुबोधम् ।
हासो ऽपि चात्यच्छझरामरुद्वत्तथास्ति ते मर्मरपत्रतुल्यः ॥ २ ॥

mṛṇālatanvaṅgy[9] asi nāma kānte rūpeṇa caivaṃ paribhūtagaṅgā[10]
śirīṣapuṣpaṃ[11] tad ivātiramyaṃ saritsute tvaṃ pratibhāsi subhrūḥ
nūnaṃ vasanto ’para ārdrapuṣpaḥ prabhāti soccair iti me subodham[12]
hāso ’pi cātyacchajharāmarudvat tathāsti te marmarapatratulyaḥ

(Literal translation: O fair lady, you are truly as slender as a lotus-fibre and by your beauty you put the Ganges to shame. You appear like a most beautiful śirīṣa flower, o fair river-daughter. It is clear to me that you are like spring, whose flowers are fresh. Your laughter is like wind on a clear waterfall and similar to rustling leaves.)

These are two verses in Upajāti, a metre widely employed in Sanskrit poetry. It consists of four quarters (pādas), each of eleven syllables. I tried to preserve the spirit of the poem, while at the same time translating it into the type of language and images that would be familiar to Sanskrit poets.

A Tolkien Acrostic

Jam tibi lustra, Johanne, decem, Tolkiene, creatoR

Rerum mirarum, postquam te Somnus ademiT

Omnivorus, fugere. Cato truce pectore consuL

Karthago est delenda,” ait; urbs tulit ultima fatI.

Ecce: tuum nulli delendum est omne volumeN.

(Literal translation: Fifty years have now passed for you, John Tolkien, inventor of wondrous things, since all-devouring Sleep stole you away. Cato the stern-hearted consul said “Carthage must be obliterated”; the city suffered the end of fate. Yet look: every book of yours will not be oliterated by anyone.)

Tolkien in the 1940s.

For an essay on a lesser-known story of Tolkien, which draws upon Latin and the Classics, see here.

Nicholas Stone studies Law at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Previous Latin poems for Antigone can be found here, here and here.

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford. He has written for Antigone on the music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man here, the Song of Seikilos here, and Catullus and Sappho here; two Latin translations of Larkin appeared here.

Max Hardy is a DPhil student in Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. He has written about textual criticism here, and translated Larkin into Latin here and here.

David Dunn reads Literae Humaniores at Balliol College, Oxford

Althea Sovani is an MPhil student in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at Somerville College, Oxford. She is also Academic Director of the Oxford Latinitas project and President of the Oxford Ancient Languages Society. She has written on some of the challenges of learning Latin as an Italian here, and has written poems in Latin for Antigone here, here and here.

David Butterfield is a Classicist at the University of Cambridge. He has written previously for Antigone on metre, football, accents, Latin nonsense, social mobility, self-loathing in higher education, drinking in antiquity, as well as some other squibs here and there.


1 M. Burns, “John Ronald’s Schooldays,” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society 45 (Spring 2008) 31.
2 See H. Williams’ post “Tolkien and the Classics” on the Classical Reception Studies Network, available here.
3 For a collection of essays exploring this point, see H. Williams (ed.), Tolkien and the Classical World (Walking Tree Press, Zurich/Jena, 2021).
4 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, delivered 8 March 1939.
5 As for Sanskrit, there seems little reason to suppose that Tolkien knew the language well or that its literature had more than a limited impact on his work. For an informative perspective on attempts to posit the connection, see N. Goering’s review “Tolkien and Sanskrit (2016) by Mark T. Hooker”, Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016). But a translation of his verse into Sanskrit is the sort of thing Tolkien would have liked, so why not?
6 See A. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm (Cambridge UP, 1994), in particular Ch.2: “Aldhelm and the Anglo-Latin Octosyllable”. A comparison with Aldhelm’s Carmen Rhythmicum will show how much more skillfully he used alliteration.
7 See K. Powell in M.D.C. Drout (ed.), J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (Routledge, London/New York, 2006), s.v. “Aldhelm”: Tolkien referred to Aldhelm in early drafts (although not the published version) of his 1936 Gollancz Lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, as an example of a contributor to the tradition of Old English poetry. Aldhelm is said to have composed poems in Old English, though none survive.
8 For more detailed information about how Greco-Roman quantitative metre worked, you could read this introductory article and/or have a more targeted look at the lectures and handouts of this course on the many forms of Greek and Latin metre.
9 Although India has its own native variety of willow, this is not an image that Sanskrit poets would normally use. Lotus-fibres, instead, are a typical symbol of slenderness.
10 “Putting something or someone to shame” is such a common way of phrasing comparisons that I chose to use it to translate Tolkien’s comparative.
11 Like willows, so too reeds would be odd in this context. I preferred the śirīṣa flower, a much beloved image in Sanskrit poetry.
12 In India, summer is the season of unbearable heat and blazing sun, which precedes the monsoons. For this reason, I suspect that summer would not be as pleasant an image as it may have been to Tolkien and thus decided to take it away altogether from my translation. With the compound ārdrapuṣpaḥ (“whose flowers are fresh”), I wanted to keep some sense of renewal from Tolkien’s “and spring again after”. vasanto ’para literally means “(looks like) a second spring”. This is a very common way of phrasing comparisons and I wanted to play with the theme of two springs (“O spring-time …, and spring again after!”).