And It Is Sung: The Music of Iceland

The Library’s intern Dan Hunt has been researching the musical influences on the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a supplement to the first blog post in this series.

While reading the books pertaining to Middle-earth I came across a phrase, or some variation of it, a number of times, so many that I stopped counting them. “Many songs were sung.” 

“In those days Maedrhros son of Feanor lifted up his heart, perceiving that Morgoth was not unassailable ; for the deeds of Beren and Luthien were sung in many songs throughout Beleriand.”[1]

“Many songs are sung and many tales are told by the Elves of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, in which Fingon fell and the flower of the Eldar withered.”[2]

“But somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin wars of which so many songs had sung; and also he had noticed that such weapons made a great impression on goblins that came upon them suddenly.”[3]

People are constantly singing, but not in a performance setting, though there is plenty of that too. Rather, histories and stories are being recounted through a musical exchange. This begs the question why not write these stories down? Why does Tolkien chose to have these events commemorated through song?

To answer the first question, Tolkien’s world does contain written accounts of history and song; they are just used in very specific circumstances. Gandalf journeys to the great library in Minas Tirith in Gondor to learn more about the One Ring in “The Fellowship of the Ring” and there is no mention of song. After the death of the warrior Turin Turambar, featured in both “The Silmarillion” and “Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth,” a great stone is engraved with runes to commemorate the lives of Turin and his family, which was preceded by having minstrels of Men and Elves lament the champion’s tragic life. The biggest mention of written history in regards to historically significant songs is found in the extinct race of the Numenoreans, a race of men whom the Gods of Middle-earth granted extended life and their own continent to dwell upon. However, like the ancient civilization of Crete, the island nation sinks into the ocean and almost all of their work is lost or forgotten. 

“And the loremasters among them learned also the High Eldarin tongue of the Blessed Realm, in which much story and song was preserved from the beginning of the world ; and they made letters and scrolls and books, and wrote in them many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm, of which all is now forgot.”[4]

So while there is writing, it doesn’t always do justice to the described event, and it risks total destruction and loss of culture when heavily relied upon. Songs however present another means to transmit information. In a world where writing is scarce, oral transmission allows for an open form of expression and thus the stories are preserved. 

Besides practicality, music is used as a magical device throughout the bulk of Tolkien’s mythology for his world. The world is literally sung into creation by heavenly beings called the Ainu. Tuor, the Hero of Gondolin, is able to navigate through a dark cave after his harp playing gets the attention of Ulmo, the Vala of Water (The Valar, as they are referred in the plural, are a godlike race that took part in the shaping of Middle-earth). Enchantments are created through songs such as the Girdle of Melian, a magical barrier that protects the elven kingdom of Menegroth. Calling upon the words of a song are thus akin to reciting a spell or blessing.

To understand why Tolkien wanted the music of his world to adhere to these kinds of rules and abilities, we can observe two song traditions found in Medieval Iceland; the Rimur and the Galdr. 

This recording is of a typical Icelandic rimur; note the repeating melody, elongated final notes to a phrase, and backing harmony.[5]

Rimur can be traced back to the 13th century, but scholars speculate it developed before written records became commonplace in Iceland. They can best be described as lengthy poems that were chanted, spoken, or sung. The melodies of these rima (plural for rimur) were maintained as simple phrases that repeated; a greater emphasis was placed on lyrical composition, having a wide knowledge of history, poetry, and mythology, and adhering to a variety of rules depending on the scenario. The tvisongur, ‘two singing,’ for example was a case in which two or more individuals would recite a rimur and adhere to a harmonic structure similar to, but predating, Gregorian chant and other ecclesiastic music found in mainland Europe. The Lausavisur on the other hand pit two singers against one another to see who could construct the better song, often making use of palindrome lyrical construction and coded messages when sung in reverse. Despite these high barriers of entry, the rimur was an informal oral tradition that could be recited by skalds (court poets) to just about anyone, especially after a family gathering or feast. The kvoldvaka, or ‘evening awakening,’ would see family, friends, and guests taking turns reciting rima, many times well into the night. 

This kind of activity can be seen frequently among the dwarves in “The Hobbit,” the biggest moment being in the very first chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party,’ after the dwarves have had their fill of poor Bilbo’s pantry:

The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music.

Far over the misty mountains cold              
To dungeons deep and caverns old             
We must away ere break of day                   
To seek the pale enchanted gold.                 
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,    
While hammers fell like ringing bells          
In places deep, where dark things sleep,     
In hollow halls beneath the fells.                 
For ancient king and elvish lord                 
There many a gleaming golden hoard         
They shaped and wrought, and light they c
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.                
Far over the misty mountains cold              
To dungeons deep and caverns old             
We must away, ere break of day,                 
To claim our long-forgotten gold.               
Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.
The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.
The bells were ringing in the dale
And men they looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.
The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doo
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.
Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him![6]

Note the rhyme scheme, alliterative verse, and the recitation of an old chapter in Dwarven history. 

While the Rimur has purpose as a means to recite history and entertain, the Galdr connected the Norse people to magic. Britt-Mari Nasstrom explains that the Galdr could be used as a curse, healing spell, or imbuement of power, and shared a special affiliation to Odin, the “Galdr Fadir” 

The stanza of Hävamed mentioned tells that unöir randir ek gel  “I sing (a galdr)  towards the shield”, and later on in the same poem he [Odin] relates the following:

Pat kann ek et
fiöröa I ef mer fyröar
bera / bönd at
böglimom I syö ek
gel /at ek ganga
må  /sprettr mer- af
fötom fiöturr I en af
höndom hapt
from my hands.(Hvm.149)[7]
 I know that for the 
fourth, if people
bind my limbs
with fetters, then I
chant that I can
walk, loosening
the fetter from my
feet and the chain

Nasstrom relates that this particular Galdr makes reference to the First Merseburger Galder, a ninth century incantation. Noted “Lord of the Rings” readers, however, may draw comparison between a galdr of this type to the magical songs of Tom Bombadil, a mysterious magic user whose origin not even Gandalf knows (at the council of Elrond, serious consideration was given to giving the One ring to Tom, because he seemed to be completely un-phased by its influence). Early on in the Hobbits’ quest to the Prancing Pony, they come upon the Old Forest and Merry and Pippin are ensnared by an enchanted Willow Tree. Frodo and Sam spot Tom up the road and enlist his aid:

“‘My friends are caught in the willow-tree,” cried Frodo breathlessly.

‘Master Merry’s being squeezed in a crack!’ cried Sam.

‘What? Shouted Tom Bombadil, leaping up in the air. ‘Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!’…Tom put his mouth to the crack and began singing into it in a low voice. They could not catch the words, but evidently Merry was aroused. His legs began to kick. Tom sprang away, and breaking off a hanging branch smote the side of the willow with it. ‘You let them out again, Old Man Willow! He said. ‘What be you-a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig Deep! Drink Water! Go to Sleep! Bombadil is talking!’ He then seized Merry’s feet and drew him out of the suddenly widening crack.”[8]

The unfortunate nature of oral tradition is that it is difficult to say what these songs sounded like. What was preserved is shrouded in doubt and speculation as to the degree of influence the writers took from Christianity and word of mouth interpretation. We have a pretty good idea that people used Rimur and Galdr in Iceland to tell stories and recite poetry, the exact nature of its musical accompaniment is up for debate, but certainly within the realm of possibility. 

What we do know about Norse culture, the sagas, the histories, and mythologies, were chronicled by a number of skalds, the court poets of Scandinavian lords, chieftains, and kings. Many of these poems and songs were later compiled in written form under the name “Poetic Edda” found in the Icelandic document “Codex Regius” (Note that this is distinct from the “Prose Edda,” or just “Edda” collection of works compiled by historian and lawspeaker Snorri Sturluson). The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse stories, the subject matter of which ranges from mythological exploits of the Gods to heroic deeds by mortal men. These stories include the Voluspa in which Odin is told of the beginning and end of the world, the comical Thryskida that sees Thor cross-dressing as a bride in order to reclaim his hammer Mjolnir, and the legendary Volsunga saga or Volsungkvida which describes the exploits the warrior Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir; a piece of the Edda that would influence not only Tolkien but also Richard Wagner’s Opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

An aspect of the recorded language of these eddic works that has proven useful to many scholars is that, due to geographic isolation, the Icelandic language has not altered much over the centuries; many Icelanders can read the centuries old stories with little difficulty. This, combined with the cultural preservation of these oral stories, has made the Edda a source of musical inspiration, historical analysis, and a mark of cultural identity throughout the years. Icelandic composer Jon Leifs drew upon the Edda a number of times, going so far as to create a three-part symphony made up of the Eddaic stories. The Icelandic group Sequentia also took inspiration from their culture’s song tradition and created a musical interpretation of the Edda that hearkens back to the intimate kvoldvaka. Steindor Andersen, a contemporary Rima singer, collaborated with the Icelandic band Sigur Ros to create new renditions of these ancient songs. 

The usage and reverence that the Norse placed upon musical activity parallels that of the peoples of Middle-earth. The stories come alive and their significance enhanced when a setting and occasion is created for the music. The contrast between the dwarves teasing Bilbo Baggins to becoming lost in their music makes for a powerful scene that sets up the motivation for their quest to the Lonely Mountain. Later in the series, Aragorn sings of the ancient Lay of Beren and Luthien, the story of a man and elf maiden whose love saves middle earth, but ultimately results in their demise, to entertain the hobbits and comfort his own situation with the elf maiden Arwen.

While these posts will discuss a number of European cultures, Iceland gets the distinction of first mention because its music was the building block of many song stylings that are mentioned within the body of Tolkien’s work. There’s much to discover though with many cultures overlapping one another, many traditions and influences made their way from mainland Europe after all. Below you will find a series of links to pieces of music and resources you may wish to explore, found both online and in the University’s libraries. 

Useful Resources:

  • The Poetic Edda. Hollander, Lee M. (Lee Milton), 1880-1972, ed. and tr. 1962. MAIN PT7234.E5 H6 1962
  • The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson; tales of Norse Mythology: Snorri Sturluson, 1179?-1241.; Young, Jean Isobel, translator.; 1954. MAIN PT7313.E5 Y6 1954a
  • Edda: Myths of Medieval Iceland: Sequentia (Musical Group) Music Library. Audio CD CD 9096.
  • Jon Leifs. Edda, Part I: The Creation of the World, Part II: The Lives Of The GodS. Found on Naxos Music Library database.
  • Svarfdaela Saga. A collection of Rima and other songs by Steindor Andersen, Sigur Ros, and others.


  • Brown, Nancy Marie. Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. New York. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012.
  • Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. “Rimur.” Library of Congress. 2019.
  • Nastrom, Britt-Mari. Magical Music on Old Norse Literature. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, Vol. 16. 1996.
  • ed. Rice, Timothy; ed. Porter, ed. James; Goertzen, Chris. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 8: Europe. New York and London. Garland Publising Inc. 2000.
  • Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1937.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York. Houghton Mifflin. 1954.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales of Numenor & Middle Earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York and Boston. Mariner and Houghton Mifflin. 1980.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Silmarillion. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977). 188.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Unfinished Tales of Numenor & Middle-Earth. (New York, Boston. Mariner, Houghton Mifflin. 1980). 65-66.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1937). 80.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Silmarillion. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977). 262.

[5]  Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. Rimur (California. Library of Congress. 1940.)

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1937). 21-23.

[7] Britt-Mari Nasstrom. Magical Music in Old Norse Literature. (Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis. 1996) 236.

[8]  J.R.R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York. Houghton Mifflin. 1954). 117-118.

Gisele Schierhorst

Gisele Schierhorst

Head, Music Library at Stony Brook University Libraries
Gisele is the Head of the Music Library. She is the liaison to Music, Africana Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology.
Gisele Schierhorst

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