"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, Lament of the Rohirrim, TE CD 3, Track 9, 3:07.

We have previously seen on the example of the Song of Durin how Tolkien characterized the Dwarven culture by evoking similarities to sacred architecture and thought, most notably Cathedrals (use of light, general architectural features, …) as well as values and socio-economic features (tradition, economic status as builders and craftsmen,…). Similarly, the Rohan culture draws heavily from the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, as Jason Fisher explains (Fisher, 7). We have already touched on Tolkien choosing to represent the Rohirric language as Old English. The oral culture of the Rohirrim is very similar to Mercian culture, too: “The Rohirrim sing and chant using an alliterative verse structure which is strikingly similar to that found in Beowulf [. . .] indeed the greater portion of surviving Old English poetry” (Fisher, 7). Fisher in detail explains the workings of alliterative poetry as well as general features of Old English epics (of which Beowulf is of special interest in regards to Tolkien, due to his great influence on criticism of the text). For our task at hand, one special feature reigns supreme:

While [. . .] the many other works [. . .] of the Old English corpus are usually thought of as poems by today’s literal standards, they were really closer to songs, meant to be performed, chanted or sung, accompanied by the Anglo-Saxon harp.
Fisher, 9

We have already dealt with the harp (possibly coming from the Elves originally) as the most important musical instrument in Middle-earth. To see the importance of music for the lives of the Rohirrim, we shall have a look at the Tolkien Ensemble’s rendition of the Lament of the Rohirrim, which was briefly mentioned when looking at instrumental music in 3.2.3. Aragorn sings the song when approaching Edoras with Gimli and Legolas, first in Rohirric (without the text given), then in Westron. Similar to the Song of Durin, the song speaks of the times of Eorl the Young, who built the Golden Hall, which goes back to the mead halls of the old epics.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

(LotR, 508).

The Tolkien Ensemble in their rendition of the song chose to not use any of the instruments mentioned to be employed by the Rohirrim. The lament begins with a solo plucked guitar introduction, maybe meant to represent the style of harps used by the people of Rohan, to set it apart from the Elvish or Dwarven harps. At 0:28, a string quartet plays a drone while the guitar plucks broken chords. This accompaniment stays the same over the course of the song with short melodic fills inserted between lines. The song does not group the lines into stanzas by means of a repeating melody, but instead has the singer declaiming the song with free use of melodic arches. The last two lines (2:05) are only accompanied by sparse guitar accents using arpeggiated chords. Only after the end of the poem the strings come in again, together with plucked broken guitar chords, which ends the song. The song gives us a good insight into Rohan culture: Right at the beginning, we find the mention of the “horse and the rider”, probably referring to Eorl the Young and his trusted steed Felaróf, the latter the ancestor of the Mearas and thus central to Rohan culture. Of the two musical instruments mentioned, the horn comes first – most likely in order to differentiate the Rohirrim from the Elves, who also use harps. The “hand on the harpstring” features in the same line as the “red fire”, suggesting the use of the instrument in the hall for the accompaniment of epics. Again this makes the connection to Mercia. The song laments the days gone by similarly to the Song of Durin and is widely known among the Rohirrim (“So men still sing in the evening”). It is likely that the song was performed accompanied by harp at the fire. Fisher names five types of songs in the Anglo-Saxon corpus: Heroic music primarily consists of epics, such as Beowulf or the Song of Eärendil, even though this song is not Rohan. He states that in the book the prose descriptions of battles fit into this category, as well. Martial music (horn battle calls and spears clashing in the book, primarily) are only mentioned in prose, as well. Elegiac verses on the other hand are represented as music, most notably the Lament for Théoden. Gnomic verses, mainly riddles and recorded wisdom, are not present in Rohan music, but there is no reason to doubt their existence. Ecclesiastic music finally is completely absent from the book (Fisher, 15).

Music certainly plays a large role in Rohan society; in fact it is so important that immediately after Théoden’s death, a lament is composed for him. Snowmane, his horse (presumably one of the Mearas, too), was buried on the battlefield with a poem set as inscription on his grave. This shows the intertwining of music/poetry and love of horses in Rohan culture; the two are inseparable and one of the traits making the Rohan culture unique. Of the Mearas it was said that some were able to understand the language of men. It stands to reason that if we had access to any more poems from Rohirrim authors, we would find horses feature prominently in them as self-conscious and independent characters.