Tolkien, 'The Wanderer' and the Ubi Sunt-tradition

When I first saw The Two Towers there was one moment which really stood out to me, a scene that set a mood that lingered throughout the rest of the film and has remained with me ever since. I'm speaking of the moment in which Theoden is armed before the Battle of the Hornburg. Have a look at it below:

It's a stunning scene, with beautiful cinematography and perfect acting on Bernard Hill's part. However, what truly makes this scene as powerful as it does is the words spoken by Theoden which set the mood I was referring to before. The context to this poem is crucial to understanding the importance of the words. Theoden and his people have been forced to flee their homeland, abandoning their houses and their hall, and seek safety in the Hornburg where they are now preparing to face the hordes of orcs sent by Saruman with a single purpose, to wipe them out. Theoden expects to have to witness the end of his people, of his culture. And this is how he laments this, in his eyes inevitable, end.

This is an abridged version of the poem Tolkien wrote for The Two Towers. I assume that for pacing etc. it had to be shortened and Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh did a good job in keeping the tone. However, for the sake of this discussion I want to show you Tolkien's "original" poem as well:

Where now the horse and rider? 
Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberg, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills, into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? 
 In the book this poem is spoken by Aragorn when he, Legolas and Gimli look upon the graves of the lord of Rohan that have passed since the building of the hall. It is a poem of memory, of cultural history, that reaches back to the ancestors of the Rohirrim. As you can see, Tolkien's version very strongly relies on the repetition of a single phrase: 'Where is'. With each occurrence of this phrase Tolkien conjures up an image belonging to the Rohirrim, from the typical horse and rider to the hearthfire and harvest.

With this repetition Tolkien is not just trying to grab the reader's attention, he is also playing into a very strong tradition of medieval poetry: the ubi sunt-motif. The name for this motif comes from the Latin phrase 'Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?' which means 'Where are those who were before us?'.This is called an erotema, a rhetorical question, and forms the beginning of many Latin poems which ponder upon the concepts of mortality and the transience of life, while also calling strongly upon a sense of nostalgia. Considering the former it should be no surprise many of these poems were Christian, extolling the virtues of living a good life since all perishes and only Heaven is a reward. However, this tradition was also extremely well-represented in English literature as early on as in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Tolkien's occupation as Anglo-Saxon linguist and professor naturally meant that he engaged with this tradition, especially in its most extensive form in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer. In and of itself a stunning poem already, the lines making use of this tradition are among its most beautiful. They also very clearly formed the inspiration for Tolkien's own poem:

92aHwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune!Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga!Alas for the mailed warrior!
Eala þeodnes þrym!Alas for the splendour of the prince!
Hu seo þrag gewat,How that time has passed away,
96agenap under nihthelm,dark under the cover of night,
swa heo no wæ if it had never been!

Rather than question the value of the horse, rider, etc. the erotema confers' a deep nostalgic value upon them, and the very fleetingness which the questions call to mind enhances rather than diminishes their preciousness', argues Rosemary Woolf in her essay 'The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and the Genre of Planctus' (in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, p.201). Surrounded as they were by remnants of both a Celtic and a Roman past, there was no doubt the Anglo-Saxons were aware that their culture would come to an end as well and as such their poetry is suffused with a sense of doom and a nostalgia. Other poems, such as The Ruin express this beautifully as well.

To return to The Wanderer, this poem expresses a warrior's sorrow over the death of his lord and the hardships he now encounters without the protection of this retainer-lord bond. This bond was amongst the strongest in the Anglo-Saxon society, providing safety, hierarchy and also social order within a group of people. It went above mere duty and relied on love and loyalty as much as on reward and service. A similar bond exists within the Rohirrim, with Eomer being continually loyal to Theoden for example. It has often been noted that Tolkien's Rohirrim are practically Anglo-Saxons on horses and it is no surprise to see two such trademark traditions of the Anglo-Saxons have made it into Tolkien's work.

Tolkien copies much of The Wanderer into his own poem, not only the first line but also the sense of things passing. Jackson himself has taken this transmission one step further, retaining the sense of Tolkien's poem in a new form and in a new place in the story. These three "texts" (yes, a film can be a text) are a great example of how literary traditions are continued and adapted to new forms, from oral poetry to cinema.


  1. In my own fantasy Epic, Dirt, I have enjoyed using poetry from time to time. Whether it is reflective or celebratory, spoken or as a song.

    It allows both me as a narrator and my characters to step back from narration and dialogue and to just state a wish, a want, and emotion, in a way that would be so contrived and trite in another form.

    Whether it as a chant at a battle like this from one of my unpublished books:

    No life without tears
    No water without blood
    No food without suffering
    No birth without pain

    Or a lament, such as one that I have written in the following link, they add add texture to a work and are great fun to write:


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