"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

Tolkien Ensemble, Oliphaunt, TE CD 3, Track 16, 2:18.

Sam Gamgee at several times in the story expresses his wish to see an oliphaunt. These creatures, resembling large elephants and called mûmakil by men, were employed in war in much the same manner as war elephants. Sam asks Gollum about them and when Gollum does not know the word, he recites an old rhyme from the shire:

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you'd met me
You wouldn't forget me.
If you never do,
You won't think I'm true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie.

(LotR, 646)

Sam recites the poem; he clearly does not sing it, but it is not impossible that Hobbits did sing it to a tune at the campfire. The song has an oliphaunt talking about himself in the manner of a fantasy animal, most visible at some of the claims of the animal in the song: Obviously oliphaunts will lie down to die, but for the message of the poem, this and all the other claims serve to lift the animal up to a legendary status – after all no Hobbit has seen one for a very long time. We must also see the claim “big as a house” in relation to the average height of a Hobbit. From the description of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we can gather that they were considerably larger than modern elephants, large enough to put a tower-like structure on their back for warfare, but certainly not as big as a house.

As such, the oliphaunt poem must not be taken too seriously, which is also reflected in the Tolkien Ensemble’s version. Syncopated low brass with bass drum accents represent the steps of the animal. Composer Peter Hall describes the style of the song up to the line “Beyond count of years” as a “sinister recitation”.

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transcription (excerpt): Oliphaunt, TE CD 3, Track 16.

transcription (excerpt): Oliphaunt, TE CD 3, Track 16.
The song continues in the manner of a sprechgesang (0:44); there are clearly determinable pitches, but the articulation is much more loose than in conventional singing. Low trombone glissandi evoke the oliphaunt’s trumpet calls and add to the comic effect of the song.

After the line “not even to die” (1:00), the style and mood of the song changes: Chimes introduce the second half of the song, whose beginning has a very light tone and in its style resembles the work of the British duo Flanders & Swann17, most notably their song The Hippopotamus, which deals with an animal quite similar to the oliphaunt. As noted before, Caspar Reiff states, that Swann’s music did not serve as a inspiration, but Oliphaunt may very well be a case of sub-conscious inspiration due to the Flanders & Swan songs being widely known. For a short time, the song uses a waltz rhythm, and then at 1:35 returns to the brass accompaniment from the beginning.

We have to question the authenticity of the performance, again: When speaking the rhyme on the way to Mordor, Sam did not have any instruments with him, and he did not sing it. Therefore the rendition by the Tolkien Ensemble cannot represent his performance. It is more likely that the Ensemble wanted to record the piece as it was regularly performed in the Shire. In this case the instrumentation is questionable. While we do not have any detailed information about the instruments played by Hobbits, we should be able to rule trombones and tubas out due to their size. The situation is similar to what we have already discussed with guitars: The average Hobbit would have had great difficulties playing those instruments. In the case of this particular piece by the Tolkien Ensemble, it is most likely that the Ensemble chose to cater to the expectations of the listener; the onomatopoetic trumpet calls of the oliphaunt represented by brass glissandi as well as its loud steps on the ground go in line with the experience of the listener – this is how heavy animals like elephants are commonly represented in music. The music of Oliphaunt therefore is much less a representation of Sam’s rhyme, but more one of what it would sound like if a modern listener were to compose such a song.