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The Proverbs of Middle-earth

by David Rowe

An Arabic proverb says, “Before you shoot the arrow of truth, dip it in honey.” This book is both a quiver-full of well-pointed arrows, and a large jar of honey. It is a romp, as well as a thorough and deeply penetrating exploration of its subject. [From the Foreword by Peter Kreeft]

JRR Tolkien's masterpieces, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are unique in English Literature, as they are filled with hundreds of original proverbs. 'Not all those who wander are lost', 'Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,' and 'Never laugh at live dragons' are all poetic, wise, and convincingly real-sounding, but they are also a lens, through which more can be seen.

Tolkien did not merely fill his books with hundreds of original sayings–however, great and unprecedented an achievement that is–he also invented entire wisdom traditions in which they belong. Each proverb reflects the culture, the philosophical worldview, and the history of those who use them. 

In The Proverbs of Middle-earth, David Rowe discovers and investigates the degree to which the 'soul' of each of Tolkien's fictional civilizations can be understood through the lens of their proverbs. What is revealed enriches the reader's experience of and delight in Tolkien's world, as well as illuminating the astounding depth and detail of creativity in his work. Arrows dipped in honey abound!
The Proverbs of Middle-earth is now available for pre-order in the shop and will be released on November 30, 2016!

About the Author

David Rowe started reading The Lord Of The Rings aged seven, and hasn't stopped yet. Born in Sheffield, England, he has lived in four continents, now making his home in Charleston, SC, where he works for an Anglican church and teaches people how to make tea properly.

Have a look at an excerpt from the introduction to The Proverbs of Middle-earth...

What Makes a Proverb a Proverb?

In order to find the proverbs of Middle-earth, we need to know how to identify them. What is a proverb? It’s an awkward question. In spite of having a stream of academic study—paremiology—entirely devoted to them, it seems that proverbs are easier to discern than to define. Professor Wolfgang Mieder of the University of Vermont, long considered the world’s pre-eminent paremiologist, says that ‘A proverb is a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.’[i] Problematically, this definition implies that virtually any phrase can be a proverb, if it gains ‘currency among the people’ as a conscious reference to received wisdom. No parameters of style or content are defined. This boundary-free definition is frustrating, but it is accurate. While proverbs are often thought of as poetic expressions—and many do make use of imagery, alliteration, or rhyme—some of the most common (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, for example, or There’s no such thing as a free lunch) have no poetic features at all; some simply assert a bare fact and no more. And yet, somehow, we still recognise a proverb when we hear one.

If, in conversation, proverbs are relatively easy to discern, they are less so in print. Most of the phrases that have been identified as proverbs in this volume could be nothing else, or at least have the balance of probability comfortably on their side, but others are arguable. Since any phrase might potentially gain ‘currency among the people’ and be used as a proverb, how can the proverbs of The Lord Of The Rings or The Hobbit be detected?

Tom Shippey, discussing the same question, makes it clear that when on this search ‘you cannot always tell what is a proverb and what is not’.[ii] Yet sometimes it is straightforward. For a start, some are explicitly described as such. Never laugh at live dragons, says Bilbo to himself, ‘and it became a favourite saying of his, and passed into a proverb.’[iii] Others are recognisable for the simple fact that they are not Tolkien’s inventions at all: Gollum’s More haste, less speed; Merry’s Mind your Ps and Qs; and Farmer Maggot’s All’s well as ends well, are all in contemporary use and therefore recognisably proverbial.

Further help in identifying proverbs in the text is found when phrases are credited to tradition by their speakers, as when Butterbur qualifies There’s no accounting for East and West, with ‘as we say in Bree’,[iv] or when Gildor prefixes Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger, with ‘it is said’.[v] While these signpost-phrases helpfully clarify that we are reading a citation and not a normal part of speech, they are a formality mainly used when strangers of different origins meet.[vi] In normal conversation, particularly between close friends, signposting of proverbs is rare.[vii]

Standalone sentences, especially those with poetic features like Boromir’s rhyming couplet The wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears (and Aragorn’s reply-in-kind, Where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls), sometimes declare themselves as proverbs, while others have what Michael Stanton describes as ‘a definite air of sayings that are being repeated, not originated’.[viii] Beyond that point, however, the waters become murky and discerning what is or isn’t a proverb starts to become a matter of taste and opinion. Do Never travel far without a rope and Do not speak before your master have currency among the people as oral encapsulations of tradition wisdom, or are they merely sensible advice spontaneously spoken? We cannot know. Likewise, while some proverbs may be recognised due to their poetic properties, the heightened language in which many of Middle-earth’s more cultured peoples speak confuses the matter. For example, the phrase Seeing is both good and perilous may sound proverbial due to its lyrical elegance and grace, but so also does everything else Galadriel says.

Deciding which of Middle-earth’s phrases can be identified proverbs is, to a degree, a matter of personal preference and shrouded in subjectivity. But what is undeniable is that Middle-earth has hundreds of proverbs. Scattered throughout the Tolkien corpus we hear proverbial-sounding sayings in the mouths of every culture and people. While the proverbs identified in this volume are limited to those from books published in Tolkien’s lifetime—The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings—this does not reflect the full range of Arda’s proverbial depth. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The Children Of Húrin each contain a further treasure trove of proverbial material, demonstrating that Tolkien’s commitment to convincing inner reality was not a late addition, tacked on to the texts at the last minute to add a sheen of realism, but was entwined within the creative process itself. The Tree grew from its leaves, not the other way around.
[i]       Wolfgang Mieder, quoting Stuart Gallacher ( accessed on May 31, 2014).
[ii]       Tom Shippey, Roots and Branches (Walking Tree, 2007), p. 307.
[iii]      JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (Harper Collins, 2006), p. 263,
[iv]      JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 153.
[v]       Many such proverbs are additionally italicised in the text, though not all.
[vi]      Other examples include the Hobbits’ Handsome is as handsome does to Strider in Bree, Faramir’s Night oft brings news to near kindred to Frodo and Sam in Ithilien, and Beregond’s At the table small men may do the greater deeds soon after meeting Pippin.
[vii]     The exception being Sam Gamgee, who rarely uses a saying without signalling its provenance. Whether this is a matter of deference (to those he considers his superiors) or bashfulness is not clear, though if so either would be characteristic.
[viii]     Michael Stanton, ‘“Advice Is A Dangerous Gift”, (Pseudo) Proverbs In The Lord Of The Rings’, Proverbium 13, (University of Vermont, 1996), p. 335.
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 A Daily Tale from Oloris Publishing

Come back every day for a new story like...

The Farmer and the Stork

A FARMER placed nets on his newly-sown plowlands and caught a number of Cranes, which came to pick up his seed. With them he trapped a Stork that had fractured his leg in the net and was earnestly beseeching the Farmer to spare his life. "Pray save me, Master," he said, "and let me go free this once. My broken limb should excite your pity. Besides, I am no Crane, I am a Stork, a bird of excellent character; and see how I love and slave for my father and mother. Look too, at my feathers—they are not the least like those of a Crane." The Farmer laughed aloud and said, "It may be all as you say, I only know this: I have taken you with these robbers, the Cranes, and you must die in their company."
Birds of a feather flock together.

An Aesop's Fable


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Joe Gilronan is a full-time professional artist who has been greatly influenced by the works of Tolkien. He received a Fine Arts Degree in painting from Liverpool University and holds a Higher National Diploma in design and ceramics from the University of Wales. Originally from Chester, England, he has lived in Olvera, Cadiz Spain for the last 4 years. His works have been exhibited and sold worldwide. 
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Jason Alan was born and raised on Long Island, New York, where his childhood was immersed in developing his vast imagination. He grew up reading as many books as he could get his hands on, enjoying 1980's science fiction movies, and commandeering his parents' butcher block kitchen table for countless nights of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing. All of this played a huge part in influencing his creative writing skills.

Jason currently resides in Cape Coral, Florida, where he works as a graphic designer for a local publication. He is a co-founder and writer for the fan website, and writes an ongoing fantasy fiction article for Jason's passion for writing is nearly equaled by his passion for music. He plays and records lead guitar with a variety of local bands, including the progressive instrumental project Mourning's Hope.

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Astrid Tuttle Winegar is the author of Cooking for Halflings & Monsters: 111 Comfy, Cozy Recipes for Fantasy-Loving Souls, which is available on the Amazon Kindle. Astrid has been cooking, baking, and reading fantasy (and plenty of other literature!) for over 40 years. She has a bachelor's degree in English and Latin and a master's degree in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of New Mexico. She has loved C. S. Lewis since childhood, J. R. R. Tolkien since middle and high school, all Star things, both Trek and Wars, all things Whedon, and many other things besides... She lives in the enchanted city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband and dog; she is also a mother and a grandmother.

Jenny Dolfen is a freelance illustrator and a teacher of Latin and English currently living in Western Germany with her husband and two children. She is known for bringing to life characters from Celtic fantasy, the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien, and traditional folk tales. Working in traditional media such as watercolours and pencil, combined with digital media, her flowing artistic style reflects a blending of such influences as the Art Nouveau movement, the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, and the aesthetics of contemporary graphic novel illustration.

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John Cockshaw is a painter/photographer and Tolkien enthusiast based in North Yorkshire. Cockshaw studied Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University, earning an MA in Art and Design in 2003.  As an artist and fan of Tolkien, he set out to create a collection of original artwork inspired by the extensive mythology of Middle-earth as found within The Lord of the Rings and the author’s wider writing.

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Robyn Kraft, sometimes published as Robyn Stone-Kraft, is a Cincinnati native and a cat lady with a serious rescue addiction. Her wine consumption, she insists, is because she's a poet and not because she's a wino. In addition to being a life long fantasy nerd, she enjoys playing video games that allow her to work off some of her anger issues, hiking, sometimes knitting, and drinking coffee while a cat tries to knock the mug out of her hand with his head. If you buy her a drink, she will happily tell you about her cats (or the dogs, if you prefer). If you buy her a lot of drinks, she'll start lecturing you on history or literature, her academic passions. This is her third book of poetry with Oloris Publishing, and she has also written an area history book with Arcadia Publishing.
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Lara Sookoo has been writing since she could hold chalk. A member of the Federation of Canadian Poets, her work has appeared in local Toronto newspapers and community publications, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, Silver Leaves Journal, and several anthologies including The Poetry of Yoga and Dreams of Kathmandu. She was the Founder and Director of The White Tree Fund and served as the Editor-in-Chief of Silver Leaves Journal from 2006 to 2014. Currently, she is an award-winning graphic designer and the CEO of Oloris Publishing LLC. Sometimes you will still catch her writing with chalk.

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During his forty years as a teacher, he often used The Hobbit as a literacy unit in the classroom and shared Tolkien’s world with hundreds of students through reading stories, composing and art.

Now retired, Peter writes poems, songs and fantasy stories inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth as a hobby and shares his work in his presentations and with his friends. His continuing passion and writing has led to a selection of his work being chosen for this publication.

Emily Spahn lives in an old farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband and daughter. Her goal in life is to completely finish renovating at least one entire room someday. She keeps bees, sells honey, and spends entirely too much time writing stories, blog posts, and fanfiction.
Katherine Bolger Hyde taught herself to read at age four and has rarely been without a book since. Katherine writes the Crime with the Classics traditional mystery series for adults as well as fantasy and picture books for children. She lives in California with her husband and a varying number of offspring and cats.
Chris Andruskiewicz Artistic inspiration began at an early age for Chris Andruskiewicz. Being raised as an only child in a small town in Texas, she had to find creative ways to occupy her time and energy. With encouragement from her parents, she began drawing and painting as a form of expression. Growing up, a career in art seemed inevitable. She attended and soon graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science from the Art Institute of Houston in 1999.
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Follow the brilliant illustrators who created the images for High Towers and Strong Places:

Anke Eißmann is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer living and working in Germany. Since studying Visual Communication at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and Graphic Design at Colchester Institute in Colchester, UK she has worked for a number of international publishers, preferably on fantasy publications and children’s books. These include books on Greek mythology, fairytales and ghost-stories, adaptations of historic tales such as Beowulf, mixes of fantasy and historical subjects such as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and most prominently illustrations based on the works of JRR Tolkien.
Aaron D. Siddall is a life-long devotee to fantasy art. He has over ten years experience producing illustrations for games, magazines and educational books. His work includes educational publications, numerous tabletop games, short story illustration and miniature design. Aaron loves fantasy, folklore, myth, history, science and science fiction. He presently lurks in the wilds of Upstate New York with his beloved wife Kathleen, Nala the vermicious knid and many, many books. 
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