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July 10, 2013

Essay on Poem All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter

The poem All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter, written by J. R. R. Tolkien, is taken from his fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring). This poem was in the letter given by Gandalf to Frodo, the hobbit, to guide him on his quest to destroy the magical ring. This poem basically refers to an important part of the plot; revealing the true lineage and destiny of Aragon. As he was the true heir to the throne of Gondor even though he was not majestic in his appearance, rather he looked like a common wandering strider.
This poem intrigues me because of the insightful wisdom it perpetuates and since it is a part of my favorite novel, I like the fact how the poet has used such imagery and metaphors to fit into the essential plot of the novel. Additionally the message the poet wants to convey is a very important one that everything that is good does not necessarily have to be attractive in appearance as well, thus the bad and unattractive may be as important as the good and the beautiful.
 Tolkien starts the poem by emphasizing the duality of perception and assumption. So even if something does not glitter does not mean that it is worthless, even if people may seem to be wandering aimlessly does not mean that they may have no agenda, thus reality may not be what it looks like. This duality of reality can be used to describe seemingly happy and strong relationships which are in fact not so strong or reliable as they seem.
 The next lines revolve around the same idea of perception and assumption but takes on a different metaphor for it. These lines talk about the eternal essence of things which remains the same despite the apparent change in them. So old that may seem weak and unreliable will always be as strong as it was in the past. The strong roots will remain alive despite the external damaging effects. Similarly the fire reduced to ashes will have the same inherent essence. So according to the poet the perceptions are deceived by the false stereotyped assumptions. The poet takes care to keep flow to the lines so that the theme of failure of perception to recognize reality moves through a series of images while sustaining its coherence. So the imagery of the poem does not refer only to the superficial meaning but also has deep figurative meaning that adds to the theme of the poem.
            It seems that Tolkien is inverting the traditional accepted concepts and the contradictions and echoes them as a great mythic wisdom delivered as a prophecy. Tolkien makes use of dichotomies to emphasize the unique hidden position of Aragon. The poet uses very poetic imagery and metaphorical conceit to enhance the idea that the apparent reality may not be all that true and the traditional concepts when taken on face value may be deceiving. The poet inverts the traditional idea in the famous line of Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venice and instead states that everything that is valuable does not necessarily glitters. ‘All that is gold does not glitter’. So the physical appearance is not enough to judge the worth of a thing. Similarly Tolkien rejects the idea of old as a withering weak state and instead asserts that ‘The old that is strong does not wither’. This can also be taken as an allusion to the old traditions that have deep roots which do not fade or weaken with the passage of time. According to the poet the strong old foundation of these traditions and beliefs are least prone to any outside damaging influence, ‘Deep roots are not reached by the frost’. Therefore we see that the last lines of the poem explicate the same paradox of hidden unconventional reality in a profound prophetic tone. The unconventional imagery of fire rising from burnt out ashes and light coming from the shadows symbolizes that no specific stereotype can be attributed because of appearances, as Tolkien uses the symbol of white hand for Saruman, the evil character, while shadows and darkness are used to describe Aragorn who is supposedly the character depicting goodness. The last two lines allude to the myth of the return of the king to Minas Tirith and the reforging of the sword of Elendil which gives the poem an air of mythical wisdom and the lines reverberate with ominous note of prediction of the future.
According to Marjorie Burns, author of “J.R.R. Tolkien: The British and the Norse in Tension”, Tolkien has been unfairly criticized for the “moral simplicity” of his works, whose traditional story “slip into a….Goodies vs. Baddies story,”(49). Burns disagrees with such criticism and claims that a close study of Tolkien’s work will reveal that he does not go along with the conventional stereotypes, an umbrella “good vs. bad” category. Burns agrees with Kilby’s clever coinage, “contrasistency,” as a term describing Tolkien’s unusual way of portraying good and evil and making us determine how other dichotomies lie in relation with each other. (Burns 49).
 Similarly two reviewers of The Observer and The Nation, Edmund Wilson and Edwin Muir, suggest that it may seem easy to categorize characters as good and evil at first but a close look at them will prove that there is more to them than their appearance. According to them Tolkien's world is not a clear cut dualistic world but rather a world where the characters and the symbols are complex and equivocal in nature. So this refusal to categorize things into polar opposite shows that Tolkien believed in the notion that things are not always as they seem, and that conventional dichotomies have no place in attempting to differentiate between good and evil. According to Leif Jacobsen (1997) “Tolkien's world is all about: a world with all kinds of people and creatures, ranging from Good to Evil, and where anything can happen without being pre-destined. In other words it is an indefinable shadowland.” Jacobsen(1997)  further asserts that Tolkien follows a familiar theme of fair might not be fair and vice versa followed by Shakespeare in his play MacBeth and so most of the major characters in Lord of the Rings cannot be judged by their physical appearance. So the idea of unconventional dichotomies, according to Megan Abrahamson (2007) in the book The Grey Book, volume 3, found in the poem rarely conform themselves to traditional labels of good or bad. So for him Aragorn’s admission later in the scene that “I look foul and feel fair” is a warning against over-simplifying a subject’s alignment based on prevailing dichotomies (Fellowship 214).

Work cited
Abrahamson, Megan. “Forging Greed,” The Grey Book, volume 3 (2007)

Burns, Marjorie. “J.R.R. Tolkien: The British and the Norse in Tension.”
Pacific Coast Philology.(1990): 49-59. JSTOR. University of New Mexico Library System. 4 Feb 2011.<>.

Jacobsen, Leif. The Undefinable Shadowland: A Study of the Complex Question of Dualism in

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, 1997. Lund University, Sweden

Muir, Edwin.Review in The Observer, (August 1954).  

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings,
Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987)


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