The Proverbs of Middle-Earth: The wise speak only of what they know

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth by David RoweThe Proverbs of Middle-Earth by David Rowe

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth is a smart, readable literary analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of proverbs in his worlds of Middle-Earth, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and (less so) The Silmarillion. If you’re a passionate fan of Tolkien, you’ll absolutely adore this book. Period. If you love the Peter Jackson films, this book will provide an enjoyable layer of depth to your understanding of the story and the meaning behind the memorable phrases.

Tolkien’s use of this often-poetic linguistic form sheds light on the characterizations of the different cultures and races within Middle-Earth. The cross-pollination of perspectives of the characters, representing very genuine cultures that are easy to find represented in the real world outside of Middle-Earth, adds to the believability and realism amongst events that are sometimes relatable and sometimes rather fantastical.

The definition of ‘proverb’ is broad. Rowe quotes that “a proverb is a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.” That’s more than a little squishy. Some of Tolkien’s proverbs more blandly fit this definition, but most add more depth and poetry.

Some examples: 

“All that is gold does not glitter”

“Oft in lies truth is hidden”

“Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt”

“The wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears”

Tolkien’s world has a depth and genuineness of history that’s rarely seen in speculative literature. This historical legitimacy is, in part, what’s landed the author legendary status even among literary giants. Rowe writes that Tolkien’s uses of proverbs are:

… beautiful and intricate, if rarely necessary as far as the plot is concerned. They also constitute one of the most widely-occurring streams of credibility-building detail in Tolkien’s work … 

During the summer of 2016 my unhealthy preoccupation with the horrifically stressful and negative U.S. Presidential campaign manifested itself through an almost obsessive need to stay up on the latest news via Twitter. After actualizing my self-fulfilling depressive spiral, I wasn’t able to tear myself away completely from Twitter, however, I was able to intersperse the constant ‘presidential’ chatter with some things that made me happy.

Yes, I followed more than my share of cute animals doing cute things. But the most unique find were a small handful of twitter accounts dedicated to publishing the many proverbs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe.

Whereas some people find these nuggets of wisdom a bit hokey, and more than some (including my children) find them a bit nerdy, to me the bite-sized chunks of foresight, knowledge and understanding represent a peaceful transference of knowledge that resonates across time, location, and culture. To me, in a period of extreme internal turmoil, these quotes, even being 75 years old, were simply … grounding.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one who connected in this way to Tolkien’s words. Much to my joy and surprise, one of these twitter ‘wonks’ was actually publishing a book on these same proverbs. What I thought might be a cute coffee-table tome to be read once and left for posterity turned out to be so very much more.

Author David Rowe adds his The Proverbs of Middle-Earth to the growing compendium of Tolkien literary interpretation and criticisms. He uses the proverbs as a lens to sharpen focus on the cultures, character, and messages Tolkien strove to portray. While a simple quote from the hobbit Gaffer like “live and learn” may lack any inherent depth, it says volumes about Gaffer’s kind of character. Furthermore, it’s a clue as to the kind of a rustic hobbit he is within the broader scope of the multi-layered hobbit society. Different hobbits speak in different ways, representing their worldview, their own perspective, grown over time from their own past and heritage.

Rowe writes that the use of proverbs is an establishment of tradition; tradition that passed on from generation to generation:

… (proverbs) are not museum pieces to be brought out mechanically, looked at, and then put away. Rather, inherited sayings are emblems of a living tradition, through which multiple experiences and multiple wisdoms are fitted to the present moment and the immediate need.

While there are proverbs-a-plenty throughout the book, Rowe’s real focus is on interpreting personality and cultural themes through certain proverbial usage.

Rowe points out that Frodo’s use of proverbs is a tool for decision-making. When captured by Faramir, he thinks (rather than says), “Better mistrust underserved than rash words.” When given a chance to kill Gollum, he reminds himself of Gandalf’s proverbial advice: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in the name of justice.” Additionally, we see Frodo’s wisdom grow more dark and desperate over time. It’s not surprising considering the journey he’s taken and the weight he carries (both literally and figuratively), but we see the proverbs grow and change in parallel with Frodo himself.

Saruman and Gandalf employ some of the best use of proverbs as an expressive form of their nature and character. Rowe writes about the darker Saruman,

His use of proverbs is minimal, and when they are employed they often reflect the most base ‘eye for an eye’ school of rough justice:

“One thief deserves another.”

“One ill turn deserves another.”

“A beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns even a morsel of his own.”

Gandalf, on the other hand, uses a wide range of proverbs and the most of any other single character. Of the 400+ proverbs, Rowe indicates that 15% of them come from Gandalf’s bearded lips.

While Tolkien was known to be a deeply religious person, he chose to more subtly embed his passionate Christianity into THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Gandalf plays a very spiritual role throughout the story and his proverbs echo his, and Tolkien’s, more theistic perspective.

“Be not unjust in your grief.”

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” 

Rowe dedicates a chapter to the peoples of Gondor, including brothers Boromir and Faramir, their father Denethor, and a few other lesser Gondorians. The brothers and father represent different facets of the strengths and frailties of Man.

Boromir is strong, arrogantly proud of Gondor. Denethor is the steward of the great city, but has been horribly twisted by his wont for power and represents the extremity (and a warning) of humanities’ obsessive and power-hunger weaknesses. Denethor’s tone is dark, brooding, and prideful, sharing such wisdom as:

“What was is less dark than what is to come.”

“In desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”

“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes.” 

Rowe indicates that Faramir is an embodiment of goodness and the good that Man can be. Rowe highlights the following line; a warm, thoughtful and reflective proverbial combo-punch from Faramir:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; 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 208-page The Proverbs of Middle-Earth is organized by Middle-Earth race and culture, and Rowe has covered Tolkien’s world thoroughly, including chapters on Hobbits, Peoples of Gondor, Dwarves, Ents, Istari (Wizards), Rohirrim, Elves, and even Half-Elven, Breelanders, Bombadil and Goldberry. Aragorn warrants his own dedicated chapter. Perhaps the most lasting value of The Proverbs of Middle-Earth is the appendix, which includes a full listing of over 400 proverbs organized in chronological order covering The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; and separately by people-group.

Tolkien left a myriad of additional clues, history and background on his characters and culture that spans well beyond the commercially popular works with which most are familiar. Rowe thoroughly footnotes references from the books themselves as well as an abundance of many of these other Tolkien-related analyses.

I could, quite literally, write pages more on Rowe’s engaging analysis into the characters and cultures of Middle-Earth and his insight into the man who created that world. But I recommend you explore it for yourself. Join the over 15,000 followers of David Rowe on twitter @TolkienProverbs and then buy or borrow The Proverbs of Middle-Earth.

Published November 30, 2016. The works of JRR Tolkien are unique in English Literature, as they are filled with hundreds of original proverbs. ‘Not all those who wander are lost, ‘ ‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens, ‘ and ‘Never laugh at live dragons’ are all poetic, wise, and convincingly real-sounding, but they are also a lens, through which more can be seen. These proverbs belong to entirely invented wisdom traditions and reflect the culture, the philosophical worldview, and the history of those who use them. In The Proverbs of Middle-earth, David Rowe discovers and investigates the degree to which the ‘soul’ of each of these fictional civilizations can be understood through the lens of their proverbs. What is revealed enriches the reader’s experience of and delight in Middle-earth, as well as illuminating the astounding depth and detail of creativity behind it. Arrows dipped in honey abound!

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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2 comments

  1. my Tolkien shelves are groaning in anticipation of more weight . . .

    • It’s when the “Tolkien shelves” turn into a “Tolkien bookcase(s)” that you need to worry. Until then, you’re fine!

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