"I feel as if I was inside a song"The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

There is little music in the physical world of Arda that is purely vocal. Most renditions of songs mentioned in The Lord of the Rings are performed a capella out of circumstances, but are by no means always performed this way; for many instrumental accompaniments are suggested. Hobbit drinking songs for example are certainly played in inns with instrumental accompaniment in addition to them being sung on the road a capella.

Any endeavour to find out how vocal music in Middle-earth may sound is hindered by the way the texts are brought to the reader, as Ben Koolen writes: Tolkien maintains that his works are translations from the so-called Red Book of Westmarch, the diary of Bilbo Baggins, greatly expanded by Frodo Baggins with his recollection of the War of the Ring and finished by Sam Gamgee. This diary was written in Westron, the common language of men, which served as a kind of lingua franca in Middle-earth, and (with the exception of some Elvish songs) all the songs and poems in there are written in Westron. (Koolen, 74). With the exception of songs and poems from human authors or Hobbits, who supposedly wrote the original works in Westron, all songs and poems from The Lord of the Rings are translations from the native language of their authors. In the case of Elvish texts, translations or transcriptions should be very accurate since both Bilbo and Frodo were able to speak Sindarin and had some understanding of Quenya, so they were able to ascertain the correctness of texts, at least as far as the content goes. As we will later see, still there seemed to be enough mistakes and errors to warrant a revision of the text. For other poems the Westron versions were written by the authors of the poems themselves. One example would be the Song of Durin, of which the Dwarves created an official Westron version; most likely by the author of the original poem or at least under his supervision. For the accuracy of these texts we need to rely on Bilbo’s and Frodo’s memory and assume that they have written them down correctly from memory after hearing them. A last group of texts now has only been translated by people not directly involved in the creation of the texts. The most notable example of this group is the Verse of the Rings, which was originally written in the Black Speech. It is unlikely that Sauron himself created a Westron version: The verse clearly speaks of the goal of the ring and of its master. From Tolkien we know that Sauron forged the Master Ring in secret without anyone knowing, so spreading poetry about its existence and true nature would contradict his whole plan. We can therefore assume that the translation probably was done by Gandalf or even by Frodo, modelled after Gandalf’s translation when he informed him of the nature of the ring. The accuracy of any translation from the Black Speech could also be hindered by the fact that, as Gandalf maintains, it is not customarily spoken out loud. Presumably it is not spoken at all by anyone outside Mordor. Unless Gandalf himself made sure the translation was accurate, it is doubtful that anyone else would have been able to determine its accuracy at all.

As Tolkien tells us in the Prologue of The Lord of the Rings, this diary then was copied several times, with the Thain’s Book, a copy of the original diary created for King Elessar, being the source for an annotated and edited version by the King’s Writer Findegil, who corrected spelling errors and other mistakes, especially concerning Elvish names. This basically means that Bilbo’s and Frodo’s Sindarin or Quenya were not perfect, which is a bit surprising given Bilbo’s extended stay in Rivendell. That suggests that there were indeed errors in the text, possibly even in the wording of poems and songs. It is this version that ultimately was preserved, while the original was lost.

So when Tolkien finally translated the Red Book into Modern English we get the complete picture: The text of the Red Book is passed on to the reader in the English translation of an annotated copy of a copy of the original Westron manuscript. So when looking at any given poem, in the worst case the text at hand is the English translation of a Westron version, copied from a copy of a translation from another language, originally written down from memory years after the writer originally heard the text. This complicated history unfortunately makes it futile to try to reconstruct the sound of a vocal piece from its text, as the original version has nothing to do in sound with the present version. Therefore we need to focus on descriptions of the overall sound of the music and need to live with the fact that an analysis of the text will not bring forth any meaningful information.