From The Return of the King, either in the middle or toward the end:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

What on Middle-earth is this supposed to mean?! It's one of the most "out there" sentences in the entire story IMO.

Regions where pain and delight flow together? And where tears are the "very wine of blessedness"? I truly do not even have a guess for this one. How can tears be considered blessed, if that is what is meant?

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    @PaulDWaite Perhaps Wiktionary focuses too much on the plant. (You made me scroll down, for Pete's sake!) Merriam-Webster puts the emotional definition first.
    – Spencer
    Aug 20, 2022 at 16:28
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    I think in first point it is no region in Middle Earth. It discribes a region in the emotional landscape inside each being. Aug 20, 2022 at 18:56
  • @Spencer huh? The adjective is the first sense listed
    – Tristan
    Aug 22, 2022 at 13:10
  • @Tristan The first thing I see is a picture of berries.
    – Spencer
    Aug 22, 2022 at 13:56

3 Answers 3


Paul D. Waite hit the nail on the head when he referred you to the Wiktionary page for the word "bittersweet." Bittersweet describes the feelings one experiences when simultaneously feeling sadness and pleasure.

The minstrel told them of powerful experiences, all the more so because the members of his audience had experienced them personally.

Imagine having gone through days of fear and anxiety, maybe thirsty and hungry and certainly dusty and ill-smelling, and meeting the most terrifying foe you've ever encountered, with the most dreadful consequences if you should fail. And then, after you've won and it's over, and maybe your buddies are dead and buried, a minstrel tells you, in front of everyone else, how great a deed it was, how meaningful, without ignoring the death and sorrow, but praising you for saving the world's future. It would be overwhelming ("their words, wounded with sweet words, overflowed") and keen ("their joy was like swords"). "Pain and delight" would be intermingled; you couldn't be proud of your accomplishments without also sorrowing for your loss. Tears would flow, but they would not be entirely sad either, being "the very wine of blessedness" -- a relief.

If you have never felt the combination of feelings known as bittersweet, you may account yourself both lucky, in a way, for not having undergone such an internal conflict, but also deprived of an important human experience. Maybe you will recognize it now in your memories, or maybe it is yet to come in your lifetime.

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    I think OP's quote is from the Field of Cormallen, but I don't have an opportunity to research it right now.
    – Spencer
    Aug 20, 2022 at 16:25
  • Holy cow, what a great answer! Aug 21, 2022 at 14:09

To me this seems right in line with Tolkien's creation myth, Ainulindalë (the first section of The Silmarillion), wherein Tolkien describes the rebellious dark music of Melkor—i.e. the cosmic origin of evil and suffering—as integrated by the creator (Illúvatar) with all the beauty of creation's music into an overarching theme of godly glory. In line with Tolkien's Catholicism, suffering evils is part of the spiritual growth mortals must take on their journey to salvation, and the joys of salvation are possible in an important sense because of those evils.

Hence @PaulD.Waite's comment (and @InvisibleTrihedron's answer) about bittersweet is spot on.


As an optional extra to the excellent answers about the meaning, for completeness I will explain the grammar, which is not necessarily entirely obvious. I will do so by replacing most of the poetry of the passage with prose.

And he sang to them, sometimes in the elven-tongue, sometimes in the speech of the West. He sang until their hearts overflowed with emotion, being wounded with his sweet words; and their joy was painful to them, and in their thoughts they were moved to a place where pain and delight flow together and where tears are blessed.

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