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Harder than stone is the flesh and bone

September 29, 2015

When Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, & Strider come across the turned-to-stone trolls in their journey to Rivendell, Sam Gamgee sings this song:

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.

Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: “Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like the shin o’ my nuncle Tim,
As should be a-lyin’ in graveyard.
Caveyard! Paveyard!
This many a year has Tim been gone,
And I thought he were lyin’ in graveyard.”

“My lad,” said Troll, “this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o’ lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
Tinbone! Thinbone!
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don’t need his shinbone.”

Said Tom: “I don’t see why the likes o’ thee
Without axin’ leave should go makin’ free
With the shank or the shin o’ my father’s kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Rover! Trover!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!”

“For a couple o’ pins,” says Troll, and grins,
“I’ll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o’ fresh meat will go down sweet!
I’ll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I’m tired o’ gnawing old bones and skins;
I’ve a mind to dine on thee now.”

But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o’ the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.

But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain’s root,
For the seat of a troll don’t feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.

Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the bone he boned from it’s owner.
Doner! Boner!
Troll’s old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from it’s owner!

It’s a curious song for Tolkien to have written. Evil seems to win. Of course anyone who’s read the Silmarillion knows Tolkien tells many stories where evil wins; but they’re always contained within a larger story, catastrophe followed by eucatastrophe. Here, the troll keeps the bone, and that’s the end of the story.

Some explanation is needed. I offer this one: though trolls be evil in Middle Earth, in the world of this song this troll is not. He is simply natural; perhaps, even, (though Tolkien hated allegory,) he is nature, or rather is matter, and the resistance matter offers to our desires. This troll is not to be overcome, or given the boot to larn him; he’s harder than stone, and no more mobile: “Troll’s old seat is still the same.” But neither is he malicious; unlike Sauron, who detests whatever he does not control, “Troll don’t care, and he’s still there.” This troll is to be accepted, and taken into account.

If we accept this reading, we can see in this song (despite Tolkien’s hatred of allegory) three interpretive levels of natural resistance:

First, and most obviously, the troll is gnawing on the shin o’ Tom’s nuncle Tim. This is perfectly natural: animals eat each other. But it bothers Tom because he’s not merely natural, he’s human, and he wants his nuncle Tim to remain buried. But as Tolkien knew, nothing can remain buried forever. If a troll doesn’t dig up your shin and eat it, it will still turn eventually to dust.

Second, much of the humor of the song comes from each stanza’s apparently nonsense rhyming: “come by. / Done by! Gum by!” Of course, the rhymes aren’t all nonsense; some reveal what someone intended to keep hidden. Take “larn him. / Warn him! Darn him!”: Tom claims to want only to teach the troll, but his words betray him: he wants to damn him. Or “owner. / Doner! Boner!”: Tim was the bone’s owner, but the bone is no longer his, he has donated it to the earth, and all that’s left of him is bones. By stressing and over-stresing the rhyme-words, the song demonstrates the materiality of language, and how that materiality is a two-edged sword: it breaks down both sense and deception.

Finally, Sam Gamgee sings this song while the fellowship takes a rest in the literal shadow of one of the most memorable events from the book The Hobbit, predecessor of The Lord of the Rings. Without The Hobbit, of course, The Lord of the Rings could not have happened. But in writing the latter, Tolkien had constantly to overcome the resistance offered by the former. He found it necessary, in fact, to rewrite an entire chapter (the riddle-game with Gollum) to fit with his new conception of the Ring. But in Tolkien’s mind it would have been dishonest to simply rewrite that chapter with no explanation; it would be a brute-force attempt to overcome the resistance The Hobbit offered in the writing of TLotR, a resistance necessary for that work’s composition. So Tolkien did something more ingenious: he rewrote that chapter of The Hobbit, but made its very rewriting a minor plot-point of TLotR. The original chapter becomes the story as Bilbo first told it; the revised chapter becomes the story as it really happened; and the difference between them becomes significant: it shows us how the Ring convinces its wearer to deceive others about its true nature.

Of course there’s more to be said about this poem; I could write, for example, about how Tom evading the troll’s grasp but laming his foot offers a comic version of a common Tolkien motif, the maimed hero (consider Beren’s hand, or Frodo’s finger). But I’ll end, I think, with this: a recording of Tolkien singing this song (with slightly different lyrics). His singing voice is actually quite decent:

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