‘In the Western Lands’ features in the third book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is sung by the character Sam Gamgee while he climbs the Tower of Cirith Ungol in search of his companion, and the protagonist of the novel, Frodo Baggins. The search appeared to be progressing in vain, and he starts to sink into a depression.
‘In the Western Lands’ came to him and he sang briefly before being interrupted by an approaching orc, one of the distasteful and villainous creatures that plague Tolkien’s world. The poem was later set to music by Donald Swann. The music can be found in the book The Road Goes Ever On.
In this poem, Tolkien explores themes of hope, loss, and natural beauty. The tone and mood shift between being mournful and hopefully as Sam Gamgee contemplates the journey he has been on, the love he has for his friend and his home, and everything that still lies ahead of them.
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Summary of In the Western Lands
The poem paints a hopeful picture of the world, even at its darkest moments. The speaker acknowledges the darkness, but also remembers that the shadows can’t touch the sun or the stars. No matter how dark it seems on the ground, the light still exists.
Structure and Poetic Techniques of In the Western Lands
‘In the Western lands’ by J.R.R. Tolkien is a two stanza poem that’s divided into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. The lines follow the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, changing end sounds in the second stanza.
Tolkien makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘In the Western Lands’. These include anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “the” which starts four of the eight lines in the first stanza. Another example appears in the second stanza with “beyond all” starting two lines.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “strong” and “steep” in lines three and four of the second stanza, as well as “Day” and “done” in line seven of the second stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the first stanza, Tolkien uses the phrase “Elven-stars as jewels white / amid their branching hair”. This alludes to the magic of the elves that the speaker, Sam, is so entranced by. It would for him symbolize hope in the darkness, and a power stronger than the shadows that currently surround him.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Analysis of In the Western Lands
In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.
In the first lines of ‘In the Western Lands’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. Sam states that in the western lands one might find the flowers rising in “Spring” while underneath the “Sun”. Additionally, there might be happy finches singing and running waters.
The speaker transitions in the fourth line to stay that there might instead be “cloudless night” and “Elven-stars as jewels white / amid their branching hair”. This last line is an allusion back to the deeper cannon of the Lord of the Rings novels and the beauty and the power of Elvish magic.
Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
In the second stanza of ‘In the Western Lands’ Sam’s hopeful tone fads somewhat as he considers his dark and dangerous surroundings and the entire journey that he has been on. He is in “darkness buried deep”. He has passed far beyond all that which he knew before and is at risk from the shadows around him.
But, there is another transition halfway through this stanza that shifts the tone and mood back to more hopeful ground. With a hope befitting his character’s overall attitude throughout the novels, he reminds himself that the sun and stars are dwelling above the shadow. They are untouchable.
The day, he adds at the end of the poem, is not done. The light has not vanished nor will he have to say goodbye to the stars. Light and goodness still exist in the world, even at this very dark moment.