A Kind of Elvish Craft: Quotations from The Lord of the Rings

“To make a Secondary World . . . commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labor and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, storymaking in its primary and most potent mode.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal lecture/essay “On Fairy-Stories” is nothing short of a manifesto of his art, and a spiritedly reasoned elaboration of his Theory of Story — specifically Fairy-Stories, or tales of the Land of Faërie. Such Fairylands of Secondary Creation are realms in which readers can glimpse the miraculous, find fresh eyes with which to see the everyday, and experience the catharsis of Eucatastrophe — that is a ‘positive catastrophe,’ the sudden turn that finds us leaping from the depths of peril and despair into the warm light of a happy ending. Tolkien mentions classic examples of Fairyland tales, of true myths, the stories of the Gods and Heroes, Beowulf and the Norse Sagas, or Gawain and the Green Knight and the Legends of the Round Table, to name a few of his favorites.

But it is to The Lord of the Rings, the ‘sequel’ to The Hobbit that the Good Professor was currently working on, that we can truly see his theory put to the test — and enthusiastically validated by every metric. Absolutely central to Tolkien’s point was the power and necessity of language in first conceiving of, then in actually creating the worlds and peoples of Faërie — the enchanted lands of imagination’s desire. And, while “Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible”, it can of course be evoked by the careful craft of the narrative storyteller operating in the most potent mode of their craft. The following assortment of quotations for The Lord of the Rings serve as a small sampling of Tolkien’s linguistic magic.


“Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to…”

“Yet at the last Beren was slain by the Wolf that came from the gates of Angband, and he died in the arms of Tinúviel. But she chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow him; and it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas, and after a brief time walking alive once more in the green woods, together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world. So it is that Lúthien Tinúviel alone of the Elf-kindred has died indeed and left the world, and they have lost her whom they most loved.”

“Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Eldar Race. He knew now why Beregond spoke his name with love. He was a captain that men would follow, that he would follow, even under the shadow of the black wings.”

“I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.”

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,’ said Aragorn. ‘There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

“The Company of the Ring shall be Nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders that are evil.”

“Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril – to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.”

“I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’ ‘What do you fear, lady?’ he asked. ‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

“Over the field rang his clear voice calling: ‘Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”

“The way is shut. Then they halted and looked at him and saw that he lived still; but he did not look at them. The way is shut, his voice said again. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”


“One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.”

“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken; a slender Elf woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.”

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

“He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter. A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.”

“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”

“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

“Frodo raised his head, and then stood up. Despair had not left him, but the weakness had passed. He even smiled grimly, feeling now as clearly as a moment before he had felt the opposite, that what he had to do, he had to do, if he could, and that whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else ever knew about it was beside the purpose.”

“Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror.”

A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.”

“Songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.”

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.”


“He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and the good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.”

“And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! Then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come, And plink! A silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream. There is chamber after chamber, Legolas; hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains’ heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm’s Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.”

“We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. “Not if I found it on the highway would I take it,” I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.”

“…but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

“Great engines crawled across the field; and in the midst was a huge ram, great as a forest-tree a hundred feet in length, swinging on mighty chains. Long had it been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor, and its hideous head, founded of black steel, was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf; on it spells of ruin lay. Grond they named it, in memory of the Hammer of the Underworld of old. Great beasts drew it, orcs surrounded it, and behind walked mountain-trolls to wield it.”

“’Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.”


“May your beer be laid under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years!”

“I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.”

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

“This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.”

“But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!”

“Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”

“All’s well that ends better.”

Author: billward

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