J.R.R. Tolkien’s Musical Influences

The Library’s intern Dan Hunt has been researching the musical influences on the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The article below contains his preliminary findings.

In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Iluvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Iluvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

From the early days of World War One to the 1970’s John Ronald Reuel Tolkien set about creating a fictional universe that could be as in-depth as the mythologies of Europe. Though an acclaimed scholar of Anglo-Saxon History and Literature (Tolkien was one of the leading “Beowulf” scholars at Oxford University), most recognize Tolkien for his collection of stories pertaining to “Middle-earth.” These stories include “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and the Return of the King), “The Silmarillion,” and “Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth,” the latter two published posthumously.

Over the years, there have been a number of historical and literary interpretations and criticism regarding these stories. A common religious interpretation compares Christ-like motifs among characters like Gandalf the wandering wizard and King Aragorn. Scholars have pointed out historical parallels to medieval Europe in shaping the cultures of Rohan and Gondor, two central kingdoms in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There has even been discussion of anti-industrialism and pro-environmentalism in regards to the details Tolkien gives in the ecology of Middle-earth, not to mention the personification of trees with the Ents and Huorns of Fangorn Forest, walking and talking tree beings. For a somewhat simple set of stories with the main theme being good triumphing over evil, there is certainly much to uncover and dissect. 

There has been a glaring omission, however, in the interpretation of Tolkien’s works; the music of Middle-earth. 

On the surface, this aspect of the “legendarium” (Tolkien’s term to describe his literary universe) may seem like extra world building that was added as a way to enhance the setting and characters; Tolkien admittedly knew little about music apart from what his wife played for him on piano and the occasional concert[1]. So, can there be a lengthy analysis of this music if the author himself knew little on the subject?

Yes. And it is exhaustive. 

In the next few weeks, I’d like to highlight some of the real world influences of song and music that appear in Tolkien’s stories. Many parallels can be drawn between the oral traditions and verse poetry of Old Norse civilizations from the work of Icelandic skalds to the tietajats of Finland. The resurgence of these myths in 19th century operas and symphonic poems of Wagner and Sibelius impacted the cultural landscape of Europe so much, that it is difficult not to consider their influence on the making of Middle-earth. The circumstances surrounding the performance of dirges, laments, merry-making, and story-telling in the literary universe has just as much room for interpretation as the songs being performed. Just as in our world, people keep stories and histories alive through music, they express their grief and happiness, and they commune with one another.

The first grouping of music I would like to highlight comes from the North Atlantic, Iceland. Settled by a hodgepodge of Scandinavian and Celtic immigrants around the late 9th century. These people utilized song and poetry as a means to communicate with one another, tell stories, and occasionally call upon divine powers.

Though ruled by Norway and later Denmark, Iceland’s geographic isolation allowed the people to maintain their customs without heavy interference or modification. As a result, many of the songs and poetry recited over 1000 years ago can be sung and read by Icelanders today. This is in part thanks to a number of court poets called Skalds; the bard who gets the most attention nowadays is a skald named Snorri Sturlusson who compiled several volumes of mythology, poetry, and history for his people. It is thanks to Snorri that the world can observe the details of Norse mythology from the Tales of Odin and the Mimir to the cataclysmic Ragnarok. 

Here are several sources that relate the story-telling traditions of Medieval Iceland to the types of song and story craft that appears in the world of Middle-earth.

In the Library:

  • The Poetic Edd. Hollander, Lee M. (Lee Milton), 1880-1972, ed. and tr. 1962. MAIN PT7234.E5 H6 1962
  • Edda: Myths of Medieval Iceland: Sequentia (Musical Group) Music Library. Audio CD CD 9096.

Outside resources: 

  • Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013. 
  • Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. “Rimur.” Library of Congress. 2019. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701903/

For further details and specific examples of Iceland’s song and music traditions and their influence on Tolkien’s writing, please see this related blog post.

[1] Christopher Snyder. The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. (New York. Sterling. 2013), 267.

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.
email: gisele.schierhorst@stonybrook.edu
Gisele Schierhorst

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