Elf Song

I’m reading The Last Ring Bearer. I’ll have a few things to say about it. Probably a couple of posts worth; you know, mid-way, and when I’m finished with it. But before I do, I want to discuss elf song.

I played D&D and AD&D (and several over games off-and-on) in late elementary school through high school and a bit beyond. It’s not that I grew out of it so much as time management made it impossible: to play with those friends, to find who among my new friends were gamers, and then to build the rapport with them to keep things lively.

So, though I had every reason to, I didn’t actually read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings until Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring was just about to get released. I can’t say I regret having waited something like twenty years almost to get around to it. I am glad I’ve read them, and I like them a lot, and I think they are worth revisiting every few years. I’ve even read The Silmarillion. Which, given what I’m about to say next, might be a surprise.

The big reason I didn’t read those books before is the elf song. In those books, elf song is–literally–songs by and about elves. In those books there are extended passages of untranslated poetry sung by and about elves. Usually, of course, the untranslated bits are at least glossed in the text, so you know what you missed. At the time, that is before the recent movies came out in a world where you can’t hardly turn around without some sort of semi-documentary promotional show smacking you in the face, it was more difficult to find out what Tolkien was up to with this than it is now. And, after all, I was a kid, so I probably wouldn’t have cared much anyway.

When I finally read those books, I took some advice from Laurie Anderson (about Moby Dick). If you get bogged down, skip ahead a bit. You’ll pick it up, and you can go back later and really dig in when you’re ready. That’s a paraphrase. So I skipped the elf song in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Now elf song is the term we use in our house for any extended bit of text which gets in the way of reading the book. It’s always going to be there, and if the book is actually worth coming back to, it’ll be enriched by digging into the elf song. If it’s not worth coming back to, the elf song isn’t what’s going to tip the scales.

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