"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, Bilbo’s Song, TE CD 2, Track 8, 3:33.

Donald Swann, I Sit Beside The Fire, Swann, 25.

Howard Shore, Bilbo’s Song, LotR RotK CD 4, Track 8, 2:58.

Before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on their quest to destroy the Ring, Bilbo sings a song called I sit beside the fire, which speaks about the things he has seen in the past and how much he longs to hear the tales of people that have seen all the things he did not have a chance to see. The Tolkien Ensemble recorded the song as Bilbo’s Song. This song, which falls in line with the other renditions of Hobbit songs by the Ensemble and features a male soloist accompanied by a rapidly plucked guitar, has a strong air of longing: The style of the rendition with the very fast guitar playing evokes swiftly walking feet and can be seen as an expression of Bilbo’s secret wish to go out on adventure again. Because enough of Bilbo’s songs have been addressed in this paper, we will forgo any further analysis and just leave it with this mention for completeness’ sake.

Donald Swann also set the poem to music in his song cycle. His version is notable for the inclusion of the Elven Hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel (see 4.1.7), but otherwise very similar in tone and style to his version of the Old Walking Song (see 4.1.2), so it will not be discussed in detail here.

Much has been written in this paper about translations from one language to the other and about the difficulties of actually every poem being a translation from Westron into English. As such it seems fitting to have a look at one last musical rendition of a song from The Lord of the Rings taking the translation issue in a completely new direction: For the End Credits sequence of the Return of the King film, a rendition of I sit beside the fire was added, which is not present in the theatrical release. For this rendition, the text of the song was translated to Sindarin by linguist David Salo and is sung by a boy’s choir accompanied by string orchestra and plucked harp. The song is very slow, reminiscent and even a bit sad. Its importance for the Music of Middle-earth does not lie in its musical properties; it lies in its placement and existence: Just like the whole story started with a Hobbit giving a magnificent feast, it ends with a song by the very same Hobbit. We could see the Sindarin translation as a version of the Song Bilbo wrote on the way in the West with the Elves. It is also very significant that the very last impression from the film is Bilbo singing a song, thinking of his past adventures, of course referring to The Hobbit. Adams calls it “a final canticle of Middle-earth by Howard Shore” (Adams, 357).

One musical property of I sit beside the fire stands out in the context of the film: The song is sung by a boys choir, which has a hidden significance. The most important use of treble voices occurs in The Two Towers, after the Entmoot has decided not to go to war (a deviation from the book) and Treebeard is aroused by the destruction of the forest the Hobbits show to him. When the Last March of the Ents begins, a boy’s choir sings a poem by Philippa Boyens in Sindarin. A solo treble comes in, singing the Nature’s Reclamation Theme (Adams, 119). The treble voice in the film scores is associated with the (good) forces of nature – just as the waters of the Isen cleanse the Ring of Isengard, so figuratively, do the treble voices stand for the good forces in Middle-earth conquering the evil. So to have Bilbo’s Song sung by a boy’s choir makes a connection to the other uses of treble voices in the films and links the tales of the War of the Ring with the whole of Arda. The song, if seen together with Into the West, draws two opposite aspects of Middle-earth: Into the West deals with the large repercussions of evil, the Doom of Mandos and the wounds that will never heal; Bilbo’s Song is concerned with the tales of the little people that make a big difference – on a universal scale we might say. After all the Ring-bearers are the only mortals are allowed the entry to the West!

Bilbo, with whose adventure everything started, literally has the last word. How better could the viewer get a send-off from a world so much infused with music and poetry than by a song from the Ring-finder himself, sung in the language of the First-born and giving hope for Bilbo’s first adventure to see the light of the Silver Screen? Ending The Lord of the Rings trilogy in this way undoubtedly is one of the greatest nods to the author ever given and clearly a sign that the creative team of the films was keenly aware of the importance of music for Middle-earth.

Amendt-Raduege quotes Tolkien saying that the “real theme of The Lord of the Rings [is] death and immortality” (Amendt-Raduege, 114). The heroes of the tale go to the West, most of them to die, because the mortal Hobbits will be mortal there, too – and Bilbo’s days are coming to and end. But they also will be immortal, forever remembered in expressions of culture, or, to say it in Sam’s words: “Worthy of remembrance”.