The Shadow Bride

J.R.R. Tolkien

‘The Shadow Bride’ conceptualizes the contrast between light and darkness, as well as stillness and movement through personification.

Cite

J.R.R. Tolkien

Nationality: English

J.R.R. Tolkien is remembered today for his groundbreaking, beloved trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.

His poems, many of which related directly to his stories, are lesser-known but well worth reading on their own.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Opposites often provide balance.

Speaker: A man and a woman.

Emotions Evoked: Depression, Hope, Joyfulness

Poetic Form: Narrative

Time Period: 20th Century

'The Shadow Bride' is an effective and engaging poem about two characters that find balance within each other.

Published in 1962 as a part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, ‘The Shadow Bride‘ by J.R.R. Tolkien is an epic story of two characters that find balance in chaos through unification. The poem switches between speakers to provide a well-rounded narrative and a comprehensive insight into the internal struggle that goes on within the characters. Tolkien’s choice of the separate introductions of the characters and then their unification is effective as it provides a cohesive and easy-to-follow storyline.


Summary

The Shadow Bride‘ by J.R.R. Tolkien is an epic poem with a distinct tension-building period and effective climax wherein two opposing characters are united and are able to find balance not only within nature but within themselves.

The Shadow Bride‘ by J.R.R. Tolkien is a revision of his earlier poem ‘The Shadow Man,’ which was published in 1936. It is a nonsense poem that, apart from being included in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil anthology, is incorporated into the Red Book of the 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit.

The poem features two contrasting characters: a man that sits motionless in the darkness and a woman who is full of movement and surrounded by life. Both characters seem somewhat incomplete throughout the poem and effectively complement each other at the end of the poem, wherein they meet.

Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme

Structure and Form

The Shadow Bride‘ is a twenty-four-line poem split into three stanzas, each an octet. Tolkien chose to divide the poem in that way to showcase a clear development of the story: the first two stanzas introduce the characters and describe their backstories, as well as build tension, the climax of which is reached in the final stanza.

In the third stanza of the poem, the characters meet and unite, creating one whole unit rather than existing in distinctly separate realms. The poet’s choice of stanza separation is significant: by implementing a storytelling format to a non-prose piece of literature, Tolkien effectively makes an addition to the central story through lyrical writing.

Meter and Rhyme Scheme

The Shadow Bride‘ follows a clear rhyme scheme that is maintained throughout the poem and two alternating meters that change every second line. The rhyme displayed in the poem is that of ABABCDCD, whereas the first, third, fifth, and seventh lines of any stanza are written in iambic tetrameter, meaning there are eight syllables, half of which are stressed.

The second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines of the stanzas are written in iambic trimeter, wherein there are six syllables, half of which are stressed. The meter is iambic rather than trochaic due to the stress pattern: the trochaic foot is one wherein an unstressed syllable follows a stressed one, whereas the pattern is reversed in the iambic foot.

Significance of Rhyme & Meter

The Shadow Bride‘ follows a specific rhyme and meter, which Tolkien has implemented purposefully. The combination of meter and rhyme creates a light-hearted atmosphere despite the slightly ominous context. Considering Tolkien’s audience, the choice of distinct lyricism is significant and allows easier comprehension of the poem.

Themes

The Shadow Bride‘ explores the themes of change, unity, light, and darkness, as well as struggle. The decision to make the man, rather than the woman, motionless could well be intentional: having lived through the loss of both of his parents before adolescence, his childhood became increasingly bleak. Perhaps, then, the man that does not move while life around him goes on is an extended metaphor for Tolkien’s experience with loss and depression.

Literary Devices

  • A simile is the creation of comparison through the use of prepositions. Tolkien uses a simile in line three of the first stanza when comparing the man’s motionless way of life to a stone.
  • An anaphora is the repetition of words for emphasis. The word “shadow” is repeated multiple times throughout every stanza of the poem.
  • Imagery is the use of descriptive writing to immerse the reader into the poem. Tolkien uses natural imagery when describing the environment, as well as animal imagery in the stanza when he describes the owls.
  • Enjambment is the lack of punctuation throughout the line that allows sentences to continue across several lines or stanzas.
  • Caesura is the use of punctuation throughout the line for emphasis, repetition, or rhythm break.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

There was a man who dwelt alone,
as day and night went past
he sat as still as carven stone,
and yet no shadow cast.
The white owls perched upon his head
beneath the winter moon;
they wiped their beaks and thought him dead
under the stars of June.

The first stanza of ‘Shadow Bride’ begins with a storytelling-like opening: Tolkien is a renowned creator of captivating plots, characters, and environments. The stanza introduces a male protagonist: a figure spending his time in solitude. “Dwelt” is practical: to dwell is to live at a specific location, whereas dwelling as a noun means one’s place of residence. The man’s solitude is so profound that it almost becomes a physical state of being rather than abstract. 

The Moon

The second line of the stanza introduces natural imagery: the moon. The use of the moon rather than the sun is essential: the moon is associated with the night; the time of the day is typically associated with being alone: one can hide from the view of others and be able to be their authentic self without the judgment of others, visible in the daylight. Moreover, the moon itself does not produce light; it reflects it from the sun, hence being considered a secondary light source. The man, however, rejects even that light, choosing to stay in the shadow.

Therefore, Tolkien has not only effectively introduced the poem’s main character but also created subtle tension: why would someone hide from any source of light at all? Light typically has positive connotations of wellness and good in general. In contrast, someone who is constantly “in the dark” is considered to be hiding something, perhaps a sinister secret or an embarrassing truth that they would rather not show. 

The following two lines prove precisely that: the man sat so still that he cast no shadow, becoming an object of puzzlement to not only the reader but the poet himself, as indicated by the conjunction “yet.” The full stop at the end of the line is the second in the stanza, yet it is more effective: it has connotations of finality and absence; the man’s lack of shadow is absolute and indisputable.  

Stanza Two

There came a lady clad in grey

Beneath the moon a-shining.

(…)

And clasped her fast, both flesh and bone;

And they were clad in shadow.

The second stanza of ‘The Shadow Bride‘ introduces a female character – Tolkien used gender to show the contrast between movement and stillness, as the woman is described to “come” into the scene, rather than already exist, as opposed to the man, who is. The woman’s entrance foreshadows a possible resolution to the man’s solitude and lack of movement.

Grey Colour Imagery

Moreover, the woman is said to be dressed in grey, which is additional color imagery that is significant, although grey can be seen as the color of uncertainty, which is fitting in the middle of the poem, wherein the ending is unclear. Grey is also a transition color between white and black, a parallel between not only light and darkness but also a metaphor for shadow, which ties in with the title of the poem.

The second line of the stanza describes the woman’s location. Just like the man from the previous stanza, she, too, is under the moon. She, however, is under the shining moon, whereas the man is hidden in the shadows, away from the light. By existing under the moonlight, Tolkien reveals to the reader that the woman is not a personification of shadow but perhaps the creator of it.

Movement vs. Stillness

The third line of the stanza introduces the contrast of movement and stillness through the phrase “one moment,” which foreshadows upcoming change. An auxiliary verb (“would”) follows the word, the first one in the poem, which furthers the tone of fluidity, which is then additionally reinforced by two verbs: “stand” and “stay.” The combination of the verbs showcases the contrast of stillness and movement by collocating them. Both verbs are monosyllabic and share the first three letters. Yet, one ends on a hard consonant sound (‘d’ is a voiced alveolar plosive), whereas the other one ends with a semi-vowel (‘y’ is phonetically a vowel but phonologically a consonant), hence making the ending of the line softer.

Re-introduction of Natural Imagery

The fourth line re-introduces natural imagery and collocates it with an adjective rather than a verb, which is significant in the context of ‘The Shadow Bride.’ Tolkien could have used ‘hair intertwined with flowers’ but chose to use the continuous form – intertwining. The choice of tense is significant as it connotes the smooth movement and connection of the woman with nature, which the man lacks.

Even though the man has been integrated into his environment, namely having the owls be neutral to him, he was never entirely accepted or a significant part of the ecosystem that he settled in. Using the verb contrasts the male and female experience within nature: the woman is fluid and ever-changing, whereas the man is stoic and motionless. 

Tolkien chose to use “woke” – the past tense of wake, implying that physical sleep is akin to mental inactivity, and the woman’s presence awakened not only his body but his soul.

 

The Spring Sprung

The man is said to have “sprung” from stone: a rapid, enthusiastic action that signifies a jump-like ascend. Aside from the apparent simile of the man seemingly jumping up from stone, Tolkien’s use of “sprung” is a subtle pun. The wordplay is intricate: “sprung” is the past participle form of “spring,” which is both a verb and a noun, correlating the woman’s flower-woven hair with spring. Tolkien effectively connects the two characters through the sheer power of apposition. The repetition of “moon” and “shadow” effectively connects the stanzas and provides a practical setting for the development of the plot.

Unification

The final two lines of the stanza unite the two characters – the man makes an effort and puts himself around the woman, “clasping” her. “Clasped” has connotations of a long-term connection, similar to a clasp of a lock when closing. Tolkien introduces a metaphor that effectively connects the previous stanzas as well as the two characters: flesh and bone. The ‘flesh and bone’ analogy is parallel to the man and woman, movement and stillness. Just as the flesh is typically thought of as a living part of the body, whereas bones are inanimate, so is the woman full of life while the man is motionless. 

The couple is enveloped by the shadow together; the indirect color symbolism is evident in the implication. The woman is full of life, starting from the movement and ending with flowers in her hair, whereas the man spent what seems like an eternity sitting still, his mind and body frozen. They are the embodiment of black and white, light and darkness, and, once connected, form a grey unit, no longer fluid or stoic but rather transcending physicality.

Stanza Three

There never more she walks her ways

By sun or moon or star

(…)

They dance together then till dawn

And a single shadow make.

The final stanza of ‘The Shadow Bride‘ is the poem’s climax: Tolkien increases tension through contrast and personification. The juxtaposition of “never” and “more” effectively continues the concept of transcending the physical world, which connects the second and third stanzas. The woman has more power than the man: while he sits still, seemingly waiting for something to happen, she takes control and carves her path – “her ways.” The listing of celestial objects through the repetition of the conjunction “or” is effective in furthering the contrast between the docile man and the woman that chooses to move regardless of the time of day.

While the first two stanzas had only the moon imagery, the final stanza expands into the sun and stars; the light imagery is subtle yet significant. The Sun and stars are both capable of producing their light, whereas the moon may only reflect it; by putting the moon, which alludes to man, in the middle of the light-emitting objects, Tolkien furthers the power contrast. 

Connection and Tension Increase

The third line of the stanza effectively connects the third stanza with the first, increasing fluidity. The use of “dwells” when referring to the woman is identical to the “dwelt,” referring to the man, in the first line of the first stanza. Once again, to dwell is to place oneself in an environment long-term, which, combined with the iambic tetrameter rather than trimeter, elongates the line. To end the line with an alveolar sibilant, especially a voiceless one, increases tension through the phonetic creation of mystery and suspense

Tolkien furthers the tension by juxtaposing the days and nights through the conjunctions “neither” and “nor.” The woman is seemingly some sort of magical creature, able to exist somewhere without the guidelines of the time. The woman is said to dwell somewhere that does not have days or nights, perpetually in an almost weightless, metaphysical state. The full stop at the end of the shorter line increases tension through connotation finality. 

Personification and Mystery

The fifth line of the final stanza furthers Tolkien’s storytelling by personifying the caverns. A cavern can be defined as a large dark space, typically formed by wind or water erosion in rocks. The caverns are said to “yawn,” which is normally associated with sleep, opening up their mouths. The caverns come alive once a year, which increases the tension by introducing urgency via exclusivity: it is an event that is not to be missed. 

Furthermore, Tolkien increases the suspense by omitting the description of the creatures that exist in the environment: by calling them simply “things,” the poet gives the reader a certain amount of imaginative control, making the poem suitable for both children and young adults. The juxtaposition of “yawn” and “awake” is akin to that of stillness and movement – when one goes still, the other sets itself in motion. 

Climax

The final two lines of the poem are the climax: the man and woman are officially together: they dance “until dawn.” Dance is a form of collective movement that requires teamwork, coordination, and constant motion. The man finally moves, whereas the woman has left her mysterious dwelling. Tolkien implies that the dance started at night and lasted until sunrise – a compelling metaphor to end the poem. Moreover, it is a subtle parallel to the poem as a whole: there will be light after darkness; the changing of days is an inevitable part of life.

FAQs

When was ‘The Shadow Bride‘ published?

‘The Shadow Bride’ was published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which was released in 1962 in the UK, and 1963 in the US. ‘The Shadow Bride,’ however, is a revision of the 1936 poem with an analogous title – ‘The Shadow Man.’

How does ‘The Shadow Bride‘ relate to The Hobbit?

The Shadow Bride‘ is one of the nonsense poems written on the margins of The Red Book of Westmarch, which is a fictional manuscript written by hobbits that delves into the characters and additional backstory of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Who is Tom Bombadil?

First appearing in the 1934 poem ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ Tom Bombadil is a character in Tolkien’s legendarium, a collection of writing that reveals the background to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels.

What is the order of the poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil?

In total, the anthology features sixteen poems, with ‘The Shadow Bride‘ being number thirteen.

What is the significance of light and color in ‘The Shadow Bride?’

Light and color imagery symbolize the contrast between movement and stillness, life and death, as well as the two genders.


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Ekaterina Kazantseva Poetry Expert
About
Having obtained the International Baccalaureate diploma, Ekaterina is currently studying an Honours course in English language and literature. She has 6 years of experience in poetry writing and 5 in academic poetry analysis.

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