"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

The references to music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both in terms of musical elements only mentioned indirectly in passing as well as music directly performed as part of the story are many and varied. Spanning nearly all cultures described by Tolkien in his work they arguably form an important part as to the cultural and historical background of the cosmos envisioned by the author. We may say that, to a large extent, music serves as a major characterising force for the protagonists, while – as shall be discussed at length – still remaining very realistic in its depiction and use as a believable part of the characters’ behaviour, cultural background and overall place and importance in the universe of Tolkien’s work.

While a very large number of artists – creating both private, “inspired by” and similar projects as well as licensed productions 1 – have striven to bring the music described by Tolkien in his works to life already shortly after their publishing, only recently the scientific world has begun to look further into this aspect of the Professor’s works. The year 2010 has seen the publication of a number of books on the general subject, dealing with extensive analysis of Tolkien’s texts, which will form the basis of this paper. 2

As noted, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, and The Lord of the Rings in particular, have inspired countless artists to bring elements of his stories to life in their respective art form(s). A major part of the works created by these artists draws motives and inspiration from Tolkien’s works and does not necessarily follow his directions to the letter, but instead builds upon his legacy to create unique and personal works of art. We may in this category see most of the musical creations commonly referred to as “fan art”, but also some commercial releases of music. All those projects for the most part do not overly concern themselves with strictly following the author’s clues and indications, but instead extend his universe by making references to works or to elements from works. While all those pieces of art are undoubtedly interesting and can give great insight into how a particular story universe can be modelled, this paper will be concerned with what is best described as “official interpretations” of musical allusions, clues and descriptions in Tolkien’s works, focused on The Lord of the Rings, meaning projects aiming to bring the music of the book to life as a retelling of Tolkien’s words in a different medium.

The most important aspect of Music in Middle-earth are songs sung by characters during the course of the story as well as poems recited by them, with the boundaries between the two not always clearly separable. These texts range from traditional folk songs to – supposedly – art music as well as prophecies, riddles and verse. All of these are tightly interweaved with the actual narrative, not disrupting the storyline, but instead being part of it and are in some cases even necessary for understanding the plot. The mere number of poems and songs in the book confirms their importance to the author, who clearly suggests poetry and vocal as well as instrumental music to be an integral part of the culture of most peoples in the story.

Given all this, it is not surprising that, even when leaving out all music not directly based on the author’s texts (sanctioned by the Tolkien Estate or not) and solely focussing on instrumental music described in more or less detail by Tolkien himself, as well as songs based on the numerous poems by the author, there is still a significant amount of musical material created by different artists, all of it claiming to be true to the general vision of Tolkien. This paper aims to analyse the musical allusions and clues as well as the poetry given in The Lord of the Rings and partly also The Hobbit and compare these findings with the creations of artists who have used this information to create musical renditions of Tolkien’s words and worlds.