The Elvish Bard
A story segment set in Middle Earth
by David J. Finnamore
The sun was sinking to the tops of the Cragmoor Hills, filling The Hall with a warm, orange glow, as Dunn Diggart finally slid his chair back, rattling across the stone floor, to join the other hobbits who had taken the Autumn Feast at his table. A few lit up their pipes, and all asked for another round of ale. All but our strange guest, a tall, thin, elvish fellow who had slipped in just as the festivities had begun, bearing a large pack. He had eaten and drunk alone at the end of a table near the door, from where he was now looking around in calm, silent bemusement. Dunn couldn't imagine why an elf would come to a hobbit celebration. It was alright by him if they wanted to come through the Shire in small groups, at night, and keep to themselves, as they had always done. But for one to show up for the Feast - that was just plain odd.
The Autum Feast was the most special celebration of the year, and this year it had been especially delightful for the hobbits of Long Cleeve, and for the whole Shire, for that matter. The weather had been near perfect all year, and both harvest and hunt yielded a fabulous abundance. The tables were laden with mutton, ham, hart, rabbit, AND quail; with carrots, turnips, onions, potatoes cooked several ways, and greens of every description. They had apples and plums, lots of different breads, butter, and jams. The Marish had had such a bumper crop of mushrooms that they had given away whole wagon loads of them to hobbits from all over the Shire. In Long Cleve mushrooms were a rare treat indeed, but this year even here the tables were loaded with all of them that a hobbit could wish for. And to top it off, the barrels yielded the finest ale anyone remembered being set on this venerable board, and that was saying a lot.
Dunn stretched and took a deep whiff of the aroma that still filled the room: a mix of wood smoke, baked bread, and roasted meats, mostly. Then he leaned back, folded his thick fingers behind his wide, round head, and slowly released his breath in a long, soft "Hhhahhh!" Since he had passed 40 years old, he couldn't pack it away like he could when he was younger, but he was still among the last to leave almost any table. He briefly felt the temptation to have another helping of peas, but, as his father would have said, if he ate one more thing, he would bust. "Well, you can't complain about that!" he said turning his head toward Gus Miller.
Gus, Dunn's cousin and neighbor, two years his junior, was rocking gently back and forth on the back legs of his chair, seeing how far he could push it without tipping over. "That you can't, that you can't," he replied with a contented grin. He rocked back a little farther, lifted his feet and wiggled his toes in the air, then brought them down deftly to cushion the blow as the chair's front legs made contact with the floor. "A marvelous board, to be sure! Now, where's old Claybottom?"
Every year at the end of the feast, a speech was made by the eldest male hobbit present at these sorts of events. For some time, that had been Wade Claybottom, who was past 100, and could actually remember way back before there was a King in Gondor. No sooner had Gus spoken than Claybottom climbed up on one of the low wooden benches that lined the stone walls, waved his arms several times, and then tried to hold what he must have thought was a noble pose, until the crowd noise was low enough for him to start. The sun illuminated him from the neck down, glinting off the big brass buttons on his vest, and obscuring his face so that his lilting voice, washed in the echoes of the large room, seemed to come from nowhere.
"I been dining at Autumn Feasts" - dramatic pause - "since my dear friend the late King Aragorn--may he rest in peace--was a-sitting on the throne." Wade actually had met King Elessar once, the same year he left the throne to his son, Eldarion. The brief introduction had grown in his mind and in the telling over the years, until it seemed, to him anyway, that they had practically been raised together. He went on now slowly and grandly, as if his topic were of the greatest moment. "And this year's celebration has been, I truly believe, the most blessed of which I have ever partaken."
"It still is!" shouted a hobbit in his tweens, through a mouthfull of food. There were guffaws from everyone except Dunn, who wrinkled his brow, disappointed that someone had outlasted him this year. Claybottom was evidently unruffled by the interruption, and as the laughter died away, he continued in the same serious tone.
"I'm so proud that we've the chance to enjoy it today," he said. "We got such marvelous good earth to till, and good water from underneath the earth. Yes, an-and g-good weather from above." He seemed a little choked up, but he swallowed and managed to say, in a shrill, strained sort of shout, "It's all that a hobbit could wish for."
"Hear, hear!" cried several people, and many clay mugs were heard clinking together, and then much slurping and gulping.
Emboldened by the response, he cried, "Why, it's more than a hobbit deserves." The crowd quieted a bit at that, but Claybottom got louder anyway, and his voice went higher in pitch. "And this magnificent Hall," he cried, spreading his arms and looking all around, "the wonder of the Northfarthing!" This brought cheers from all corners. "The pride of Long Cleeve!" Many an "Aye!" and more "Hear, hear!" from the crowd.
The sun had moved so that Claybottom's wrinkled face was now lit, too, and his eyes squinted and sparkled as he took a deep breath, let the crowd quiet down, and then spoke more softly and slowly, "Our own longfathers found it when they first come to these parts. And, and they do tell -- that the door was standing wide open, like the place was a-being given to us!" He paused to let this thought sink in, which was not necessary since every hobbit in the Northfarthing knew the story well. "Given, I say, though not by any Man, Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit. And right here in The Hall we have rejoiced together and received the bounty of this land from then until this very night!" It was a bit stiff sounding, but he was old, so he could be forgiven for it. In fact, everyone cheered, and drank his health and theirs, and old Claybottom went on in the same vein for several more minutes.
The Hall in which they were gathered, of which Claybottom had spoken, was a sturdy building, of stone and wood without. Inside, the walls were of what appeared to be a light colored, hardened clay, though it never cracked or stained, despite being old beyond reckoning. Above was a vaulted cieling crossed by heavy beams that ran from walltop to walltop more than two hobbits high. There were ten windows on each long side facing east and west, and five big fireplaces - the largest of which was at the North end - and one tall, rectangular door at the South end. Certainly not hobbit make. Legend told that it had been built by Men of Elendil's people, settlers from up by Lake Evendim to the North, many long years before hobbits inhabited these parts. Some said that was just a tall tale, since nearly all the rest of the ancient Mannish halls, holds, keeps, and fortresses in these parts had long since fallen completely into ruin. But this vestige of Arnor, if so it was, stood strong as ever. And it was as perfect a place for gatherings and feasts as you could wish for. Hobbits came from miles around to Long Cleve to feast at The Hall.
When the speech was over, the women began chatting in merry circles while the children played games on the floor, or chased each other around, squeeling with glee. More of the men began adding the sweet smell of pipeweed to the already delighfully thick air, which the last of the sun's rays were now working into a luminous haze above their heads, like a glory cloud filling a sanctuary. As it began to get dark, a few hobbits around a table near the large fireplace began to sing songs together. Shortly, everyone else joined in. Most of the songs were of the simple, jolly old sort that all hobbits know from their cradles. A few were of an equally old but perhaps nobler style, slow and plaintive and achingly beautiful.
Dunn enjoyed the singing, but he couldn't stop wondering why the elf was here. He didn't feel quite comfortable about it. He leaned back in his chair, and turned his eyes, but not his head, toward his left, across to the far end of the room, hoping not to be caught staring. Not that the elf would have noticed Dunn, particularly. Everyone in the place had stared at him all afternoon and evening. Stared and whispered. Some of the children even voiced everyone's thoughts right out loud: "Who's that, Mother?" "Why is that tall man here?" "Why are his clothes like that?" "He should eat some more because he's so skinny!"
Actually, he was a strikingly handsome elf, fair-skinned, with the strong, noble features of his Sindarin kin. His face was grave but not unkind. He wore a rather brightly colored tunic, which should have pleased the hobbits, with sleeves that opened in sudden curves at the ends to long points of fabric, which the hobbits no doubt thought ostentatious, if not comical.
Dunn thought him an elderly minstrel type. Not that he looked old, of course. But he carried himself as if the whole world were in his pack. Dunn had caught a glimpse of what looked like the corner of a harp sticking from the pack when the elf had set carefully on a low wooden bench against the wall, none too close to the Southwestern fireplace. Elvish harp music is wondrous and rare, and Dunn had always wished he could hear some. "Maybe tonight!" he thought.
Now all sign of the sun had been chased from the sky, and the hall was lit only by the flickering lights of the fireplaces and a few candles on each table. The noise of the crowd had settled to a hushed murmur. At last the elf got up and walked over to his pack. The hobbits stared at him and a complete silence fell. To Dunn's delight, he produced a small harp, and proceeded to the fireplace. After brushing a few bits of wood from one corner of the hearth, he gingerly sat down there and drew the harp onto his lap with a flourish. It seemed an ordinary instrument, except that its finish had a luster like the surface of a pond on a still, warm day, the kind you can't resist just falling into. He spoke not a word, but only stared silently at the harp, or perhaps through it, for several moments as if he were communing with it. Its strings quivered in anticipation. The hobbits looked on in puzzlement, and some began to whisper coarsely, but the elf seemed no longer aware of them.
A faint breeze came through the western windows, stirring ghosts of lingering smoke and sending them floating through the air; some of them drifted out the eastern windows. The elf looked up again, his deep, dark eyes twinkling at the hobbits like the stars that peered down on the scene from the heavens. Then he began to pluck the strings softly, slowly, one string at a time, a bare melody; a haunting, weaving melody that spread itself out through the room and fell, like a spell, gently on them all. He added a lower drone note, ringing along beneath, a solid ground upon which to stand, to walk, to run, to ride. Soon there were counterpoint lines dancing with the melody, spinning in and out and around.
Dunn noticed that the elf was singing now, too, although he couldn't have said just when the piece had become a song, the voice melded so gracefully with the sound of the harp. The elf had begun to spin a tale: golden words he used for thread, the melody his needle, his harp the very loom. Soon the cloth filled the whole of the room like a giant blanket, beneath which the hobbits slept, as it were, with eyes wide open, entranced as the firelight played upon the subtle patterns he had woven in the glistening fabric, until - lo! themselves they saw therein! - flying on horseback across fields of a kingdom long forgot, shields across their backs ablaze in the sunlight, and a dark storm looming before; or creeping silent as haunts through a wood whose every tree glowered with distrust from beneath dark green furrowed brows; or drawing steel in defense of their lives against a horde of some hideous and merciless race of orcs; then, drearily encamped, sleeping fitfully in dirty bedrolls on the cold, dank ground; and at long last rising to march victorious through the gates of the tall castle of their ancestors!
Then, as the fire died to embers, the final chord was struck on the magical instrument, and with it faded away that glorious tapestry.
Dunn was himself again - a simple hobbit clutching an empty flagon with limp fingers, vaguely longing to be brave and to do mighty deeds. "Mighty deeds, my toenails!" he thought. "My ancestors had no tall castle, and wouldn't have lived in it if they did. I'm mighty glad to be going to a bed of down tonight, is what I am, with warm blankets, and a nice big breakfast to get up to." He was full now, but he knew come morning he'd have a mighty appetite.
He was trying to convince himself of this, but, to his consternation, he wasn't quite succeeding. The song had awakened a new appetite in him. He could feel it in his full stomach, and in his swimming head, and in his bones. But surely, he'd get over that by morning, too. He hoped. He looked sideways in the direction of the elf again, and found that the stranger was looking straight at him. And he found that it did not seem like looking at a stranger, after all, but more like a friend. A strange friend, maybe. Feeling that it was against his better judgment, he nevertheless found his feet changing direction, and he headed toward the elf, who was still perched on the edge of the hearth, his slender knees sticking up almost to the level of his ears.
"This is ridiculous," he thought. "Whatever am I going to say to an elf?!"
He needn't have worried. The elf spoke first.
Copyright 1999 by David J. Finnamore
1) The kernel of this story fragment came to me back in 1996 one night when I couldn't get to sleep. In July 2005, after reading Flannery O'Connor's book Mystery & Manners, I felt inspired to try expanding it a bit. Maybe it will grow up to be a story some day.
2) The Sindarin title, "Lindechil Eledhon," translates "Song-maker of the Elves." Tolkien specified no such word as "lindechil"; I formed it by combining the terms "lin" and "ech-" and adding the ending "(n (d))il." That translation from English to Sindarin is no doubt subject to debate. If you have an opinion on how to translate it, I'd love to hear it.