During the summer and autumn, I’ve slowly been working my way through a gem of a scholarly book in the field of medieval studies. It’s The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers, and it’s about how people in the Middle Ages memorized things, why they memorized, and memory’s role in story-telling and moral formation.

It so happens that, just after writing my post on Strider’s recitation of the poem on Weathertop, I ran across the following passage in Carruthers’ book. It’s from a chapter called “Memory and the Ethics of Reading,” which I recommend indiscriminately to everyone who likes to read.

In considering what is the ethical nature of reading, one could do much worse than to start with Gregory the Great’s comment, that what we see in a text is not rules for what we ought to be, but images of what we are, ‘our own beauty, our own ugliness.’ It is this which enables us to make these texts our own. We read rhetorically, memory makes our reading into our own ethical equipment (“stamps our character”), and we express that character in situations that are also rhetorical in nature, in the expressive gestures and performances which we construct from our remembered experience, and which, in turn, are intended to impress and give value to others’ memories of a particular occasion.

This is a really good description of what is happening on Weathertop. By remembering and reciting the Lay of Beren and Lúthien, Strider is informing his own character, because it is a story that he himself is re-enacting in a certain way. But Strider also uses the story to form the Hobbits’ characters and guide their action, in the hope that it will strengthen them to resist evil and bear suffering.  In short, Strider’s use of poetry is a good example of a medieval use of poetry.  I’m not at all sure that Tolkien consciously premeditated it as such, but it is nevertheless befitting that his quasi-medieval world should incorporate a quasi-medieval poetic ethics.

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