"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

As already discussed when dealing with vocal music, the guardedness of the Dwarves to outsiders and their subsequent custom to create special versions of songs for outsiders in the Common Language of Westron makes analysing originally Dwarvish music quite hard. As with vocal music, for instrumental music, too, we need to accept that we cannot say anything with certainty about the music played among Dwarves when they were on their own. What we can however do is look at the music performed or mentioned by Dwarves in public and at the influence of Dwarven craftsmanship on other cultures.

Steimel at length discusses Bilbo’s “unexpected party” in The Hobbit, which indeed is the best source about Dwarven music (Steimel, 100-103). The instruments mentioned are: fiddle, viols, flutes, clarinets, drum and a harp. The fiddles, viols (comparable to a cello in size probably) and flutes easily fit into what we have already learned about music in Middle-earth. None of the other races are said to play fiddles – most likely regular violins, as Tolkien preferred the term; and indeed it makes more sense in such a style of music – but that does not prove that no others may have played fiddles, too. Viols were already used by the Elves a long time earlier and since fiddles are basically a smaller version of the same design, they would have been a natural choice for traveling musicians. As to how the Dwarves got the big viols on Bilbo’s front porch, we have no information.

The drum, which could have been almost any size, is not surprising, either. As Steimel notes, it probably was used to keep all the players together. Also it proves that not only the cultures allied with evil were using percussive instruments. The problem lies more with the clarinets, them being a rather modern invention and something that severely clashes with the notion of the music of Middle-earth being roughly comparable to medieval music. (Steimel, 101). Of course, Tolkien may have had something like the chalumeau or even the medieval double clarinet in mind, forerunners of the modern clarinet, but with a much narrower range. It is unlikely, however, that Tolkien specifically researched old wind instruments, just to then use a modern instrument name. Why Tolkien chose the clarinets, we do not know, but evidently he did not really mind the issue, otherwise he could have easily changed the instrument in a later edition of the book. We shall be content with Steimel’s theory that he “merely chose an instrument which could go unnoticed among the walking sticks” (Steimel, 101).

Again here we have a harp. Thorin’s harp must have been magnificent, judging from the description. Once again Maier has some insight into how Dwarven harps could look and sound like: From a passage in The Hobbit he suggests that Dwarves used metal strings for their harps. He compares these harps to instruments by the Gaelic Celts in Ireland and Scotland, which were not plucked with the fingertips, but instead with the nails and “sound like bells” – exactly the sound attributed to the Dwarven harps. (Maier, 113). Also at least Thorin’s harp had to be fairly small. Thorin takes it out from a cloth and it clearly is very portable. We can assume that, apart from singular instruments in larger dwellings, most Dwarven harps would be built this way. While it is indeed likely that they were built from hardwood, with the Dwarves’ skill and the presence of special metals (Mithril may not necessarily be the only metal not known anymore today, even though no others are mentioned by Tolkien) it could be possible that at least some instruments were made of metal. Bilbo’s mithril shirt is very light, so that a harp made of mithril would not be too heavy. We have no indication that there were harps made of any other material than wood, but it is very likely that the Dwarves at least tried to use metal, maybe successfully.

Lastly, there is a curious feature of those harps: They are sometimes enchanted, for example the instrument found in Smaug’s cave, so they are never out of tune. Again there is no information about the kind of magic employed here. It might be interesting to know, though, because this special feature of the instruments could again be a result of the knowledge of its makers: Maybe it wasn’t even real magic, but skill. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Clarke).

If the Dwarves indeed were either able to routinely weave magic into their instruments or had knowledge of instrument-making that to outsiders would appear like magic, this would go a long way to explain a striking fact about the importance of Dwarves in music: While we do not know whether or not Dwarvish musicians were leading the way as performers, Dwarven craftsmen certainly played a major role in crafting many of the instruments of Middle-earth. We have already heard about the origin of Merry's horn and will learn that instruments of their making were even used in the Shire. Merry's horn is described being embroidered with Rohan ornamentation, so the Dwarves made it specifically for the Rohirrim. Unless it was a one of a kind instrument, built as a gift to the Rohirrim, we can assume that Dwarves had a major enterprise in crafting instruments as to their customer's wishes. We must not forget that the overall presentation of Dwarves in Tolkien's works is as a very enterprising culture, with a monopoly on all sorts of metal, construction of stone structures and hosts of expert craftsmen. With a once gigantic corporate empire - we are told that Dwarves helped build many a great landmark - the Dwarves far more appear like a culture of professional craftsmen with a knack for corporate thinking (to speak in modern concepts) than as just some people digging holes and mining for metal! When later having a look at the Song of Durin, we shall see this in a very pronounced form.

While in the times The Lord of the Rings is set there was not much contact or even friendship between Elves and Dwarves, this had not always been the case. In former times, Dwarves took a great part in crafting Elven kingdoms. With Dwarves being very good at building instruments, as we can see at Merry's horn, it is not at all unlikely that a great number of instruments used by Elves, Men and in other cultures alike are of Dwarven making. The Dwarves may not always have created the design and specifications, but for anyone wanting to have instruments built it would have made perfect sense to give the task to the most important source of expert craftsmanship.

If this theory is correct, this means that the instruments played by the Dwarves at Bilbo's so-called party could be taken as models for most if not all instruments present in Middle-earth. This also would explain our findings of the similarity of the choice of instruments between the different cultures. While this similarity undoubtedly harks back to the First Music, whose sounds, resembling real instruments, encouraged the cultures to develop instruments sounding this way, it nevertheless better explains why there also seems to be little diversity between the instrument types. There is no reason to assume that an Elvish viol would differ greatly from a Dwarven one - which would make sense if both were built by the same people. This does of course not mean that races other than the Dwarves did not build instruments or were not even able to, just that they probably most of the time chose to let expert instrument builders do it rather than doing it themselves.