The World Was Young In Durin’s Day: Analysis of the Dwarvish Hymn for Durin the Deathless
The world was young,
The mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.
The world was fair, the mountains tall,
A king he was on carven throne
There hammer on the anvil smote,
Unwearied then were Durin’s folk;
The world is grey, the mountains old,
JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of the Rings, Book II, Chapter IV
Ever since I first read “The Fellowship of the Ring” I have felt particularly drawn to the culture and history of the Dwarves. Like the Rohirrim, they are a rustic and often neglected or misunderstood people. It is – to me – no surprise that the two most prominent hymns of Lord Of the Rings, Eorl’s and Durin’s, would show so many parallels: from the melancholic longing for glorious days past to the implications of lines describing the origin and focal points of the culture in which the poem arose.
Let’s look at the poem in detail.
|No words were laid on stream or stone when Durin woke and walked alone.|
The first verse of the poem, which describes the awakening of the founder of the House of Khazad-dûm (of which Gimli is a descendant), also tells us something very important about the way the Dwarves see nature and the world as a whole: all things are meaningless before Durin arrived.
Language, the shaping of words to name and order the world outside us, takes up a big chunk of Tolkien’s mythological world. Of course, the world was created to house his own imaginary languages, so the emphasis on Quenya and Sindarin especially is perfectly in line with our expectations. But in the case of Khuzdul, for instance, we notice that something else is at work here too.
The language of the Dwarves is kept a secret from all, except – as Tolkien notes in the Appendixes to “The Lord of the Rings” – to a few Elvish loremasters in the days of the friendship between the Elves of Eregion and the Dwarves of Khazâd-dûm. Those few words of Khuzdul we do find (and there’s not so many of them) scattered throughout Tolkien’s works, are often names of places (Khazâd-dûm, Kheled-zâram, Kibil-nâla, Azanulbizar…). The names of Dwarves noted in Tolkien’s works are almost always Mannish, another attempt to keep their language hidden from ‘unfriendly eyes’.
This shows two things: that the Dwarves were a secretive people, and that language plays an important part in their culture. They probably did not use Khuzdul in everyday conversation: it seems a lot more likely that they’d use it as a tongue of lore only. It’s almost as if the words and the things they name (their history, their rituals, perhaps something about their religion or philosophy) are one and the same. In other words: here is a race that cherishes the divinity of words.
From Durin’s Hymn we learn that words shape the world, and perhaps the Dwarves felt that to keep their culture a secret (why they would do that is a completely different question of course) they also had to keep their language to themselves, because to know the words is to know the world.
I find this ‘divinity of words’ as it surfaces from those first lines in Durin’s Hymn extremely interesting, because it also says something about Tolkien and his view of language and its part in the shaping of the world and the constitution of meaning and order.
The world was fair, the mountains tall, in Elder days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond and Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away: the world was fair in Durin’s Day.
It is also very interesting that a poem speaking of the history of the Dwarves of Khazâd-dûm would refer to the history of the Elves to define ‘Durin’s Day’. I have little, if not nothing at all, to say about this, except that it puzzles me. For a work so complete and detailed as Tolkien’s, this seems like an odd mistake to make.
The light of sun and star and moon in shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade or night there shone for ever fair and bright.
The world is grey, the mountains old, the forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
Most readers will think of the Dwarves as a people well-adjusted to darkness, this is in fact something that often recurs in fanfiction and I presume it is based on the assumption that there is no light underground. This is of course not true: not only does Tolkien describe the shafts of light falling into the Chamber of Mazarbul and the Twenty-first Hall, from “The Silmarillion” and “The Hobbit” we also know that Elves tended to have dwellings underground as well – and it’s a lot harder to imagine them going without light.
Many people forget that Moria, as depicted in the book, is an abandoned kingdom. ‘Moria’, the Elvish name that replaced the original ‘Khazâd-dûm’ after the fall of the kingdom, literally translates as ‘the black pit’. Later on in the book, Gimli’s reaction to the Paths of the Dead shows us that Dwarves can be afraid of the dark, so the idea of a natural tendency to darkness amongst Dwarves is not maintainable.
It is very interesting to think of Khazâd-dûm as permanently lit: should we really take this verse literally, and was the light permanent? Or did the Dwarves dim the lights in their halls when night fell?
This small glimpse into the everyday life of the Dwarves of Khazâd-dûm is not the only enigmatic line in the poem: what to think of ‘the shadow’ that lies on Durin’s tomb – who’s shadow is it, what does it stand for? And of the use of the name ‘Moria’ which is, as I wrote before, an Elvish name for the kingdom referring to the days after the fall?
But still the sunken stars appear in dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep till Durin wakes again from sleep.
But the most enigmatic line of all is this last one, because it may reveal something to us of the religious beliefs of the Dwarves. There is little known about the Dwarvish culture, and of Middle-earth religions as a whole. We know that Humans and Elves worshipped the Valar, but the question is whether the Dwarves – who had very little contact with other peoples as far as we can tell, and had a very closed culture – did the same.
Of course, Durin the Deathless is quite a character: he lived for a very long time, surpassing in age all other Dwarves, and was said to be reborn in the shape of his descendants (hence the large number of Durins to be crowned King). The question is whether, like Buddhists for instance, the Dwarves really believed this or if this is just a way of speaking of a possible future where the Dwarves could regain their renown and the former grandeur of their culture. In other words: were they waiting for a real or a symbolic resurrection?
The answer to this question could also confirm (or reject) my personal assumption that the Dwarvish culture was modelled for a large part after that of the Jews: they too have a very closed and fixed culture, which is treated with the greatest respect and not as much shielded as protected against ‘unfriendly eyes’. The messianic doctrine is also rooted deeply in Judaic culture, even more than in Buddhist, and judging from the way Khuzdul is constructed (and even sounds) the professor was acquainted to some degree with Hebrew.
As you will have noticed, this essay is highly speculative. It is difficult to say anything about the Dwarves in general with any sort of certainty, because there is so little material available of Tolkien’s conception of their culture and history. To speak of the details in the text is to interpret, and as happens so often the interpretation says a lot more about the interpreter than about the text itself.
The reason why I wanted this essay published, then, is not to offer readers an explanation of the text, but to point out some interesting questions and analogies, and hopefully create some interest in my readers for these often neglected or overlooked aspects of the professor’s work.
– The Lord of the Rings
– The Silmarillion
– The Hobbit
Written by Figwit
Some additional thoughts from Atalante …
There is something distinctly elvish about this. Its written as if it’s created to appeal to elves – the language, the references, the use of elvish names. There’s only one or two lines that have the “blocky” feeling of dwarven culture:
“There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
The delver mined, the mason built.”
I think there a few more interestingly elvish lines that the ones already mentioned. These are listed below.
“The Western Seas have passed away”
– Do the dwarves know of Aman? Of travelling west? And if so, would they use a very elvish terminology when referring to it?
“The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shone for ever fair and bright.”
– This has been used by a good number of people as a comparison to the Silmarils. That the dwarves had craft skills at least as good as the elves.
“There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
And metal wrought like fishes’ mail,”
– I find this *very* odd. To talk of pearls – which are only found in the sea – and whose main reference through the works is Alqualonde.
“Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in hoard.”
– Well, this is wonderfully Old Nordic. But apart from that – spears? swords? Have the dwarves condensed their fighting style since then?
Do you know what this hymn reminds me of now I’m thinking about it? As if its a song written to convey dwarven might and power to the elves. Everything seems to be written in an elvish way. The description of the hall is something that any elf would be familiar with from Nargothrond or Menegroth.
If the hymn was not written with dissemination outside the dwarven culture in mind, the use of these things simply wouldn’t make sense.