This phrase appears in a song Tolkien wrote, and what was the main theme of The Hobbit movie:

Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long forgotten gold.

Tolkien was an outstanding linguist, and I guess this line is one of the antique structures he often used in the LOTR’s poems. To my knowledge, the line means “We must go away before dawn”, but omits the main verb completely. What is this exactly? Is this structure used nowadays?

  • Have you looked up any problematic words in a dictionary? What did it say, and in what way were you left puzzled? – Prof Yaffle May 25 '16 at 12:54
  • Poetry and songs often use language that would sound unusual in normal speech. "Ere" is the only word in the highlighted line that is archaic in contemporary English, but the syntax of that line would be somewhat stilted in normal conversation. Likewise, "Mountains cold" and "caverns old" is non-standard usage, but acceptable in a song or poem. – Mike Harris May 25 '16 at 13:03
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    The missing verb in the line is also unusual in contemporary English. In Early Modern English, must go was often abbreviated to just must. (And must in sentences with no verb usually meant must go.) For example, Hamlet says I must to England. So it means we must go away ere break of day, or more idiomatically we have to depart before dawn. – Peter Shor May 25 '16 at 13:07
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    @PeterShor Excellent point! I guess in that line, away is actually acting as a verb, which is nonstandard usage. The only line that really works in modern, spoken English is the last one. Modern usage, at least in 1965, would be we gotta get out of this place. ;-) – Mike Harris May 25 '16 at 13:16
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    My answer on an unrelated question, shows that omitting the main verb was common with away. And here is an Ngram showing how frequent ‘lets away’ was. – Mari-Lou A Aug 23 '16 at 18:46

In this example, away means go away. The verb go is suppressed. It is an archaism, the sort of thing that Tolkien was fond of. It is rare in modern texts, but has been around for hundreds of years.

Here are some examples from the New English Dictionary:

1375 Otherwais mych thai noch avay.
1393 Whither awaie with my hens, foxe?
1594 I will away to Barnet presently.
1623 We must away euery man to his lodging.
1872 Meantime we must away.

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    'Away with you !' and 'Out !' are comparable and still in use, – Hugh May 25 '16 at 14:19
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    @Hugh Agreed. The OP's construction contains a suppressed infinitive "go". The construction you are comparing contains a suppressed imperative "go". These are very similar, and sometimes hard to sort, such as Superman's "Up, up, and away!" – MetaEd May 25 '16 at 17:44

protected by tchrist Jan 31 '18 at 15:05

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