All that is Gold Does Not Wander… Or Some Such Nonsense

Oh this…. I’ve not been a Tolkien fan for too incredibly long. A couple of years or so, really. I didn’t grow up with it, and though I saw the movies, I wasn’t taken by them – especially when compared to how I was completely taken by the books when I finally got around to them.

But this poem, the “All that is gold does not glitter / Not all those who wander are lost” poem, I think I really hate it. And though it’s ridiculous, I think it’s because of how often it’s quoted. It’s easily the most overused Tolkien quote. But that’s neither the fault of the poem nor of Tolkien. So let’s try to ignore the borishness and get into the heart of this. And then probably forget it.

This was blurted out by Bilbo during the Council of Elrond when Boromir and Aragorn sort of had a disagreement about whether it was to be the House or Sword of Elendil that would come to Minas Tirith.

It is in response to the doubt in Boromir’s eyes over about Aragorns noble lineage. So, *sigh* … let’s hear it.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not whither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
The crownless again shall be king.

The purport of it is pretty obvious. Though Aragorn doesn’t look like much and is a Ranger, he’s actually of nobility. Though the world has turned dark, it hasn’t touched him. And out of the darkness, the Sword of Elendil will be made anew and Aragorn will be king. The End.

As it turns out, Bilbo had made up the poem a long time ago, just after Aragorn told him who he was. He then voices a sentiment that will come back to us before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell: “I almost wish that my adventures were not over, and that I could go with him when his day comes.”

Aragorn admits that he doesn’t much resemble Isildur or his kin, so he can’t blame Boromir for doubting. But he assures him, “I am the heir of Isildur, not Isildur himself.”

This is a strange thing for him to say. In Gondor, they didn’t really know much about Isildur, other than that he was the guy who took the Ring. Boromir didn’t go into detail about knowing anything else, but maybe Aragorn (who did know more) assumed that Boromir might suspect that Isildur’s Bane would soon become Aragorn’s Bane. This would explain Aragorn’s reminder that he wasn’t Isildur himself.

He goes on to explain his life and how he was descended from Valandil and a “long line unbroken from father unto son for many generations.” Thought he days had grown darker and the Dunadain had dwindled, “ever the Sword has passed to a new keeper.”

This brings us to just why the over-used poem was so important. More than likely, it was the first time that Tolkien wrote about the Sword of Elendil being broken. If not for this poem, the writing might have continued in a very different direction. After writing that draft, in subsequent drafts and in additions, Tolkien simply added the broken sword. But he first wrote about it here, because of a poem (and possibly because “broken” rhymes with “woken” – good god!).

So are you up to a quick history of Narsil, the Sword of Elendil? Sure you are! The sword was created in the first age by Telchar the Dwarf. It was made for the Elves and eventually found its way to Elros, Elrond’s brother and the first King of Numenor. It seems to have been handed down through the different kings of Numenor until Elendil received it and saved it from the drowning of Numenor.

During the war with Sauron that closed out the Second Age, Elendil carried it with him into battle, and when he fell, he broke the sword in two. Nearby, Isildur picked up the sword and used the hilt and shard to cut off Sauron’s finger and take the Ring. He then carried it with him to the Gladden Fields where he gave it to Ohtar before being killed by Orcs. Ohtar took it to Rivendell.

But the shards didn’t stay in Rivendell. Valandil, who was Isildur’s youngest son (and Aragorn’s ancestor) took them with him when he re-established the kingdom of Arnor in the north. There, as Aragorn says, it was handed down from father to son until he finally received it from his own father.

I suppose it doesn’t matter much that it was broken. It just as easily could have been a normal sword. But that it couldn’t be reforged until Aragorn had it and Sauron returned in force adds a bit of magic to it all. And that’s a very good thing.

Aragorn ends his piece by laying it all out for Boromir: “A new hour comes. Isildur’s Band is found. Battle is at hand. The Sword shall be reforged. I will come to Minas Tirith.”

Boromir still has some questions, of course. For instance, he wants to understand how everybody can just know that it’s the One Ring. Good question, Boromir, and we’ll get to that tomorrow.

A Few Notes

  • I know that my dislike of this poem will probably shock people. I mean, not only is this the most over-used, it’s also the most over-tattooed. Just… just ugh.
  • If someone would ask me which Tolkien tattoo they should get, I would give this as advise: Get whatever moves you, whatever you have taken into your heart. Get something important, driving – something that will always make you ecstatic. Get something that, when you first read it, took your breath away, and changed your life. … Unless it’s that fucking “not all who wander are lost” poem. Seriously. Knock it off.
Camera: Mamiya C3 (1962ish) Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 10/94 -- xpro as C-41)

Camera: Mamiya C3 (1962ish)
Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 10/94 — xpro as C-41)

About the Photo
That said, this is one of my favorite shots. Certainly not glittery, but a whole lot of golden in there. Thanks, creepy closed service station! Thanks!

  • Day 136
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 671 (217 from Rivendell)
  • 123 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 250 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,108 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 13th night out from Rivendell. January 7, 3019 TA. (map)


6 thoughts on “All that is Gold Does Not Wander… Or Some Such Nonsense

  1. The poem (and maybe to a lesser extent the appeal of the movies) is much more sensible if you’ve been a Tolkien fan for decades. Coming to the poem now, it’s trite and overused. But growing up with it, seeing it rarely across the subculture (I had a small press sticker of it on my car in the nineties!) it was a fun little poem.

    I think of the kick we got out of seeing Frodo Lives graffiti in small clubs and punk places (What was that show space in Pittsburgh? The bathroom had Frodo Lives!) despite it being a somewhat silly and trite thing to write. It was a little in joke before internet and globalized pop culture syndrome shut those down.

    The movies are like this for me too- despite the problems, I like them because I wanted them so badly at age 9.

  2. Yeah, I’m another one who came to the poem as an early teen, so I still love it. But I can imagine coming at it from this side of Tolkien inundation of the culture. I’d probably hate it, too. Fortunately, I tend to have the attitude of “Nope. It was mine first. The rest of you can’t ruin it.” Especially in context with Bilbo standing up for Aragorn.

    • Yeah that’s another point that makes it work for me- Bilbo admits his verse is nothing really compared to the real poets of the Elves. So it isn’t meant to be perfect… Just a doggerel Bilbo composed in his youth. But still… it has a place in my heart.

  3. That probably explains it. I’m not saying it’s a bad poem (I mean, it’s not Robert Frost!), just that it’s been so overused. My first exposure to it was probably on a shitty tattoo.

    I guess this is one of the drawbacks to getting into Tolkien later.

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