“Do You Hear the Voice of Nimrodel?” The Fellowship Enter an Enchanted Land.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 328-332

A reading of The Lord of the Rings is a journey that runs between enchantment and disenchantment. It begins with Gaffer Gamgee discoursing on how cabbages and potatoes are better for his son than Elves and Dragons and how Sam would be wise to keep out of the affairs of his betters in case he lands in trouble too big for him. These are prophetic words indeed although the Gaffer will never see all that his son will see precisely by getting into trouble. And the Gaffer, for all his homespun wisdom and hobbit good sense, has no notion that one day he and his kind will be as much regarded as a kind of fairy folk as the Elves are in his own time.

Like the Gaffer, Boromir is easily disturbed by anything that is redolent of the uncanny. Although he names Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, his knowledge of it is more closely formed by the name that the Rohirrim have for the land the Company are about to enter, Dwimordene, or the Land of Phantoms. So it is already true that many who live in Tolkien’s world are disenchanted themselves and already fear anything that might exist outside an experience of cabbages, potatoes and things of that are of an easily accessible nature.

Anna Kulisz is enchanted by light shining through trees in Lothlórien

Understandably Aragorn is disappointed with Boromir because for him Lothlórien is the place of ultimate enchantment, for it was here that he first met Arwen. Even in our times the experience of falling in love transforms everything. Oscar Hammerstein may not have been making an intentionally philosophical point when he wrote the lyrics of “Some Enchanted Evening” but anyone who has truly fallen in love knows what he means. But Aragorn’s disappointment goes further. “Lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien.” The heirs of Númenor really ought to know better.

It is Frodo, one whose name, Elf-friend, means much more than a simple disposition to like Elves, who first becomes aware of the nature of the land that the Company have come to. First, in the crossing of Nimrodel, he feels “the stain of travel and all weariness” wash from his limbs. Did all his companions have the same experience? Tolkien does not answer the question but if Boromir had then surely his inclination to fear Lothlórien might have altered even just a little. And I doubt whether the orcs who followed some time later had any experience of healing in crossing the stream.

Stephen Graham Walsh evokes the healing power of Nimrodel

Legolas speaks to his companions about Nimrodel and as he does so they hear “the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows”. But it is Frodo who hears “a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water”.

“Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?” asks Legolas and he tells them the story of the Silvan princess who once dwelt here long ago and whose memory lingers still in the land that was her home. As with so many songs of the Elves it is a tale of sadness about that which has been lost but it is beautiful yet. And as he sings his hearers are drawn further into Faerie just as Frodo, Sam and Pippin were when they were guests of Gildor Inglorien at the very beginning of their journey in their own familiar land.

Liga Klavina imagines Nimrodel whose memory enchants the stream that bears her name..

And that, of course, is what Tolkien is trying to convey to his readers. That it is possible, even in a place that we think we know so well that nothing about it could ever surprise us, to be suddenly drawn into an enchanted land. We have already spoken of how falling in love can do this. We might add moments like the birth of a child or when a ray of the sun suddenly bursts through the clouds illuminating all that lies around us. We might quickly get a hold of ourselves and reduce all experience to the atomic particles that make it up or we might follow the path of wonder and delight and see where it leads us. Frodo and Boromir will experience Lothlórien in very different ways because of the way in which they have nourished their inner lives.

9 thoughts on ““Do You Hear the Voice of Nimrodel?” The Fellowship Enter an Enchanted Land.

  1. “The heirs of Númenor really ought to know better”, as you said; reminds me of Treebeard, after he learns of the senseless hewing and hacking of trees that Saruman has ordered to be done in Fangorn: “Wizards ought to know better”.

    Great theme here, enchantment vs. disenchantment, and a nice post — always it’s interesting to be reminded of these little moments in LOTR; I had long forgotten this particular dialogue.

  2. It’s funny — if we push that last paragraph a bit further down, everything reverses. A sense of wonder is useful when one is trying to look at the sub-atomic world. (And on the rare occasions I got something right, a sense of delight followed.) Tolkien is extremely popular among quantum physicists, and this may be why.

    • I am intrigued by what it is about Tolkien that fascinates physicists. Do let me know if you decide to write about it on your blog, and in what way everything reverses in my last paragraph.
      I guess that it is the reductionist way of perception that I seek to address here. Disenchantment as an emptying an experience of something of wonder and delight.

      • It’s funny. Before The Nature of Middle-earth came out, I would have said the affection of physicists for Tolkien was a complicated thing that took a lot of explaining. Now, after I’ve seen his laboriously-computed tables of exponential growth processes I think it’s simple: psychologically, he was one of us. He delighted in making the numbers work out, exactly as we do. His marginal comments when he found a formula that matched the needs of his stories sound just like the satisfaction of a modeler who’s just gotten the curve to go through all the points.

  3. I’ve also had the experience of being in a half-asleep state and hearing a voice in the sound of running water. I was puzzled, since I was at home in bed, but it turned out it was the cistern.

    More poetically the Duke in ‘As You Like It’ finds “tongues in trees, books in the running brook, sermons in stones and good in everything” (Act 2, Scene 1 16-17). Then there is the Lorelei, whose song is heard in the Rhine as it flows around her rock. (A rejected name of Nimrodel was “Linglorel”)

    It is a lovely passage. However Frodo only “fancies” that he hears the singing, implying it’s been added by his mind. “Fancy” was an important word for Tolkien, the starting point of the art of fantasy. As a mathematical physicist myself (sort of) I like the reminder that Fancy, and the good things it brings, can be invoked by direct experience of Nature.

    • It is good to hear from you again, Patrick. I am grateful for the quotation from Shakespeare. I know I have heard it before but would not been able to ascribe it. I am struck by the way in which you juxtapose the goodness of which the Duke speaks with the danger of the Lorelei luring travellers to their death.
      Thank you too for your thoughts on Fancy. The only difference that I might offer is to ponder the word, only. Surely the fact that Tolkien uses the word as a “starting point of the art of fantasy” implies that such experiences are never “only” but always point to something beyond?

  4. Thank you for your reply Stephen. By “only fancies” I meant that Frodo isn’t literally hearing Nimrodel’s singing; he knows at one level that it is only the waterfall. In fact the text says ‘almost Frodo fancied…’.

    In ‘On Fairy-stories’ Tolkien makes some definitions, built on those of Coleridge according to the recent (2008) edition. He implicitly agrees with Coleridge that Fancy is involuntary, but (to Tolkien) it provides materials for the consciously creative Art which he names Fantasy. (The Coleridge definition is called the “Famous Fancy-Imagination Distinction”; it’s practically the foundation stone for criticism of the English Romantics.) Anyway that is what I was trying to say.

    • Frodo’s experience is involuntary just as yours was in your involuntary experience of the water cistern. The word “almost” is full of potential. Doesn’t Treebeard say to Merry and Pippin that he almost thinks that he dislikes them but he chooses not to “be hasty” (I don’t have the text in front of me)? A quite terrifying moment. Is it the same as George Herbert’s “A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; but if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then the heaven espy”? Is Frodo “pleasing” (verb transitive) here? Certainly in his conversation with Legolas after the received fancy content is given. Frodo shares the experience with a community, that of the elves who love this place.
      Do forgive what must feel pedantic in me here. Your thoughts are taking me further into this part of the story and especially Frodo in it and I am deeply grateful to you for that.

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