‘All that is gold does not glitter’ features in Tolkien’s 1954 novel The Fellowship of the Ring, it is part one of the three-part The Lord of the Ring series. In the novel, the character Bilbo Baggins is responsible for the poem’s composition. It comes into Frodo Baggins’ possession in the form of a letter. Gandalf includes the poem as evidence to convince Frodo to trust Aragorn who at first glance appears dark and dangerous. The poem is later read aloud by Bilbo at the Council of Elrond in the same novel.
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The poem has Aragorn, the future king of Gondor as its subject. In the first half, Bilbo is speaking vaguely on the nature of strength, the goodness of Aragorn’s heart, and his strength. The second stanza speaks more directly to what his future has in store. There is a reference to his eventually crowning and to the reforging of the sword known as Narsil, an important symbol in the novels.
You can read the full poem here.
‘All that is gold does not glitter’ by J.R.R. Tolkien is a two stanza poem that is made up of two sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD. This simple part, and the brevity of the lines themselves, adds to the drama of the poem. The lines are visually and metrically similar in length.
Tolkien makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘All that is gold does not glitter’. These include, but are not limited to, allusion, alliteration, sibilance, personification, and imagery. The first of these, allusion, is the most important element in the poem. It is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, the second half of the poem alludes to Aragorn’s destiny to be named as the true King of Gondor.
These lines also speak to “the blade that was broken”. Here, Tolkien is connecting Aragorn’s future kingship to the Shards of Narsil, the broken pieces of the sword that belonged to Aragorn’s ancestors, Elendil and Isildur.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “blade” and “broken” in line three of the second stanza. There is also an example of sibilance. It is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “shadows shall spring” in the second line of the second stanza.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In this case, the poet personified the fire which is “woken” in the second stanza.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
In the first stanza of ‘All that is gold does not glitter’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. He is making a point about Aragorn, about his future, and his true nature. His line, and the one that follows, have also become very popular quotes from the novel. Tolkien is speaking about destiny, purpose, and inner goodness that exists without “glitter”. These are all important parts of Aragorn’s character.
The next two lines speak to Aragorn’s heritage, his prolonged life, and his strength. They also work in tandem with the previous lines to make a larger statement about perseverance and the need to stay strong in the face of darkness or strife.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
The crownless again shall be king.
In the next four lines, the speaker turns more directly to Aragorn and his heritage and future. The line of kings, which was supposedly broken when Isildur died, is being re-awoken. Aragorn, as the heir to the throne, is the “light” that spring from the “shadows”.
The third line refers to the sword Narsil, which was destroyed by Sauron and will be remade in order to help Aragorn claim the throne. It is a symbol in the novels of strength, power, and goodness. The “crownless” is a very clear allusion to Aragorn himself who will in the future be made king. These lines were conveyed to Frodo in order to reassure him that Aragorn could be trusted and should be followed. They were written by Bilbo after he learned of Aragorn’s true identity as Isildur’s heir.