Beyond the Books

The following post is the fourth entry in a series by Music Library intern Dan Hunt discussing the musical influences on the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The previous post highlighted the development of “The Road Goes Ever On” by Donald Swann.

Rock Music and the Counterculture

Whether Tolkien liked it or not, his works were wildly popular in the counterculture movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. In America, the belated success of “The Lord of the Rings” series resulted in a number of fan clubs, culminating with the creation of the “Tolkien Society of America.” The phrase “Frodo Lives!” became an underground rally phrase used by the hippie subculture, in reference to the many perils Frodo Baggins endured throughout his journey to destroy the One Ring. Back in England, Tolkien did not at all appreciate the type of cult that sprung up from his work, citing that he often received phone calls from fans in the middle of the night, blitzed on some mind altering substance, asking questions about hobbits and elves. “Being a cult idol in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant.” 

There was a time however when Tolkien openly embraced the adulation of an adoring fan. In 1967, the first major piece of Tolkien inspired music came to be with the release of Donald Swann’s “Roads Go Ever On,” a seven part song cycle made up of poems and songs from the existing series (“The Silmarillion” and “Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth” had not yet been published). An accomplished pianist and a member of an established comedy duo, Flanders & Swann, Swann began composing these songs as a side project during tour stops. Tolkien’s publisher allowed Swann to use lyrics and lines straight from “The Lord of the Rings,” and surprisingly, Tolkien wanted to hear what Swann had written. After a small recital attended by Tolkien and his wife Edith, the creator of Middle-earth offered to collaborate with Swann on the project. He provided illustrations and new translations to songs previously depicted only in Elvish text; Tolkien also dictated to Swann how he envisioned the Elvish lament “Namarie,” sung by Galadriel. Up until this point, the only other piece of Tolkien inspired music was “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” also released in 1967 and sung by Leonard Nimoy, famous for playing Spock on the original “Star Trek” series. This was a novelty song that recounted the exploits of the main character of “The Hobbit,” but there is no word on how Tolkien viewed this pop song. 

Both of these projects were tame and functioned as faithful homages to Tolkien’s works. Before long though, the musicians of the counterculture movement that Tolkien detested looked to his works for inspiration. One of the biggest groups of the period had shown interest in an ambitious Tolkien themed project. No strangers to the movie industry, the four members of the rock group The Beatles wanted in on Middle-earth. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr approached director Stanley Kubrick with their idea of making a movie based on “The Lord of the Rings” series, they even had their characters picked out; Paul would star as Frodo Baggins while Ringo would play his faithful helper Samwise Gamgee, George wished to be Gandalf the Wizard, while John oddly enough wanted portray Smeagol/Gollum. Kubrick declined the offer as the idea was too ambitious, even for Kubrick, but it was Tolkien who had the final say. Tolkien was not at all a fan of modern rock music, let alone The Beatles. Additionally, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and surely would not have appreciated the now infamous 1966 interview John gave on the fame of the Beatles eclipsing Jesus Christ’s. The project was dead. Years later Peter Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, related that Paul McCartney had no ill feelings about the cancelation. “Paul was very gracious… [he said] ‘It was a good job we never made ours because then you wouldn’t have made yours and it was great to see yours…’” 

Though the Beatles never had a chance to act on their project, explicit references to “The Lord of the Rings” became a prominent theme in Hard Rock music. Countless Led Zeppelin fans can cite how “Ramble On,” or “Misty Mountain Hop” contains not so subtle references to “The Lord of the Rings” series. Lead singer Robert Plant even named his dog “Strider,” one of Aragorn’s pseudonyms. Of the group’s fantasy tinged songs, “Battle of Evermore” from their fourth album “Led Zeppelin IV” directly references characters in the “The Lord of the Rings” and is arguably more musically aligned to the medieval/fantasy sounds of Middle-earth compared to the previous two songs, utilizing mandolins, acoustic guitars, and forgoing any percussion. The lyrics go as such:

The Queen of Light took her bow
And then she turned to go,
The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom
And walked the night alone.

Oh, dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the morning light.

The Dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all.
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe,
Rest not to lock your homes.

Side by side we wait the might
Of the darkest of them all.

I hear the horses' thunder
Down in the valley below,
I'm waiting for the angels of Avalon,
Waiting for the eastern glow.

The apples of the valley hold,
The seeds of happiness,
The ground is rich from tender care,
Repay, do not forget, no, no.

Oh, dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the morning light.

The apples turn to brown and black, the tyrant's face is red.
Oh the war is common cry, pick up you swords and fly.
The sky is filled with good and bad
That mortals never know.

Oh, well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow,
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow.

The pain of war cannot exceed
The woe of aftermath,
The drums will shake the castle wall,
The ring wraiths ride in black, ride on.

Sing as you raise your bow,
Shoot straighter than before.
No comfort has the fire at night
That lights the face so cold.

Oh dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the mornin' light.

The magic runes are writ in gold
To bring the balance back, bring it back.

At last the sun is shining, 
the clouds of blue roll by,
With flames from the dragon of darkness
The sunlight blinds his eyes.

Bring it Back!

Note the references to “The Dark Lord” and “the Ring Wraiths,” two of the primary antagonizing forces in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (Sauron, a disembodied power-hungry being, is often referred to as “The Dark Lord,” and his agents of destruction in his quest to reclaim the One Ring are the “Ring Wraiths,” nine former kings of Middle-earth whose souls have become corrupt in their own pursuits of power). Also mentioned is “the magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back,” which makes strong connections to the One Ring itself which has an ancient inscription and must be destroyed to secure peace in Middle-earth.

Beyond Led Zeppelin, many other rock bands of the period put out their own Tolkien inspired songs. On their second album “Fly By Night,” the Canadian rock band Rush released “Rivendell,” in homage to the Elven kingdom of the same name, and the much longer “The Necromancer” on their follow up album “Caress of Steel,” once again in reference to one of Sauron’s titles. In 1970, Black Sabbath, a band that pioneered the Heavy Metal genre, wrote “The Wizard,” a song many fans and critics speculated was a reference to a drug dealer, though lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler maintains it was a nod to Gandalf the Grey. 

Bands like Styx, Golden Earring, Camel, and Argent also joined in creating Tolkien inspired music throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and they are just a small sample of the musicians that took to “The Lord of the Rings” series. In recent years, the Heavy Metal community has made use of Goblin/Orc words for stage names and song titles. The band Cirith Ungol takes their name from one of Sauron’s primary fortress of operations. The front-man for the Norwegian group Dimmu Borgir goes by “Shagrat”, the name of an Uruk captain in Sauron’s army; interestingly, there was a short lived band during the 1970’s to go by Shagrat as well, led by former T. Rex member Steve ‘Peregrin Took’ Porter (a name shared by one of the Hobbits from “The Lord of the Rings”). For whatever reason, the setting of Middle-earth has resonated with musicians who play aggressive and progressive music, perhaps because the two share an appreciation for developing high concepts.

Classical Music and Film Composition

In analyzing the songs, poems, and texts of Middle-earth, one will inevitably encounter an impasse; we have no idea how these songs are supposed to sound. There are a few recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reciting some verses here and there, but this is more useful for establishing the meter of a piece. As a result, many musicians have brought their own interpretations and ideas to the source material to create something that fits their image of Middle-earth. While the key influences on the music of the literary universe is steeped in Northern European culture and oral tradition, the composition of these interpretative songs often incorporates a number of instruments, genres, and ideas from all over the world.  

Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen for example composed “Symphony Number 7. (The Dreams of Gandalf) in 1996. There is no clear narrative going on within the piece that relates to any storyline, rather, the composer interpreted their vision of the fantasy world and the character through a traditional orchestra.

Similarly, Dutch composer Johan de Meij came to prominence with his “Symphony Number 1. The Lord of the Rings,” comprised of five movements based on characters and set pieces of Middle-earth. This Includes “I. Gandalf (The Wizard),” “II. Lothlorien (The Elven Wood),” “III. Gollum (Smeagol),” “IV. Journey in the Dark (a. The Mines of Moria b. The Bridge of Khazad Dum),” and” V. Hobbits.” The composition and instrumentation make use of a traditional string and wind ensemble, and does not attempt to tell the full story of “The Lord of the Rings.” Released in 1988, Symphony No.1 would become one of de Meij’s most performed symphonic pieces. 

In 2019, more than 30 years after its debut, de Meij followed up “Symphony Number 1” with “Symphony Number 5: Return to Middle-earth.” The symphony contains six movements with the subject matter ranging from both the core trilogy of books as well as the extended histories detailed in “The Silmarillion.” de Meij took the composition a step further from his first project and included choral arrangements with solo for soprano. The singers of this new movement sing both in ancient Elvish as well as “Black Speech,” the language used by the Orcs/Goblins. de Meij also provides a series of notes and descriptions for each movement that other conductors can use as reference. “Miri na Feanor (Jewels of Feanor)” suggests other members of the orchestra assist the percussion section during their rest sections: “This movement calls for multiple triangles, in various sizes. The percussion section may have to ask some of the players in the orchestra who have nothing or little to do for assistance (tubas, baritone sax, string bass).” Additional information includes transcriptions for suggested instruments and a note that the choir should consist of at least 80 singers “to be in balance of the wind orchestra.” 

It would be foolish to neglect the iconic music of the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films in this post, and it certainly deserves attention. The compositions were just as important to the successes and failures of these movies as the actors were in their performances. However, before getting into Howard Shore’s well-regarded contributions for the Peter Jackson directed trilogies, it is necessary to highlight three previous films and their scores. 

20 years before “The Fellowship of the Ring” hit theaters across the world, independent animator Ralph Bakshi helmed an ambitious adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” making use of both traditional and roto-scoped animation (Many segments of the film relied on animators tracing over footage of the actors performing their scenes). The music of this film, composed by Leonard Rosenman, received a mixed reception, much like the film itself, both from critics and Bakshi himself. During a 2008 interview, Bakshi expressed that he was not a fan of Rosenman’s more traditional sounding score, revealing that he wanted to use Led Zeppelin music in the soundtrack. “I thought it [Rosenman’s score] was cliqued; Gregorian chants, what else is new? I wanted Led Zeppelin because they were right for the film; they were hip…”The Lord of the Rings” was for us in the East Village, it wasn’t for anybody uptown, and Led Zeppelin represented to me that kind of brilliance.” 

Prior to the Bakshi led adaptation, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, famous for their Christmas films “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” produced animated movies for “The Hobbit” in 1977 and “The Return of the King” in 1980. Similar to Donald Swann, Rankin and Bass lifted many lyrics from the source material and composed music around them, with folk singer Glenn Yarbrough contributing additional lyrics and performing some of the songs. While there are orchestrated pieces, many of the songs make use of folk ballad performances with a single singer and guitar accompaniment; “The Return of the King” film introduces a minstrel character who regales some of characters with songs that retells Frodo’s story. While “The Hobbit” film debuted on television, a companion storybook and album was released alongside it, essentially containing the audio of the film and the soundtrack.

Now, finally, the Howard Shore soundtracks. Howard Shore had been a well-established film composer and conductor by the time “The Fellowship of the Ring” went into production. The sheer scope of the project however would be a challenge, logistically and creatively. Shore visited the cast in New Zealand a number of times, he even got a cameo as a knight of Rohan (during the drinking contest scene in “Return of the King”), but most of his work would be done far away from set, sometimes at Abbey Road Studios in England. Shore received much support though from the production team. Peter Jackson set up live feed monitors so he could listen to the soundtrack developments and suggest changes in accordance with the footage. Writers/producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens provided original lyrics for many of the songs, which were translated into a variety of dialects depending on the race of the characters singing by a Tolkien linguist; the people of Rohan, a region that closely resembles Anglo-Saxon England, sing in Old English, which can be heard in “Lament of Theodred” during “The Two Towers.” Some of the actors even contributed to the song writing process when necessary. Aragorn actor Viggo Mortensen worked out, what he described as, a Celtic themed melody for his “Song of Beren and Luthien;” Billy Boyd wrote the lyrics and performed “Pippin’s Song” for a last minute inclusion scene for his character, Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took; Liv Tyler, who played Arwen, provided vocals for “Houses of Healing” which was meant to be used earlier in the series, but ended up in the extended edition of “The Return of the King.” 

Aside from the cast and production team, Shore reached out to artists from all different backgrounds in order to shape the sounds he was developing for Middle-earth. Celtic singer Enya, who had previously recorded a song titled “Lothlorien” in 1991 for her album “Shepherd Moons,” sang two songs in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Aniron” and “May it Be;” both make use of Quenya, one of the invented languages Tolkien created for the Elves of Middle-earth. Pop singer Annie Lenox was also brought in to record “Into the West,” for the finale of the trilogy. Shore also made use of a variety of opera and classical choir singers of all ages and nations including India, Iceland, Italy, England, and Polynesia to shape the diverse cultures of Middle-earth.

Howard Shore’s own contributions to the score are of course astounding. In choosing the sounds, textures, and instruments for the songs, Shore tapped into a variety of cultures and musical techniques for inspiration. Breaking with the Gregorian chant tradition for the Elves, Shore decided to use instruments and motifs from East African and Asian music, particularly with the Elves of Lothlorien. To highlight the violent upheaval of Isengard, Shore wrote the theme in 5/4 time to suggest imbalance and leave the audience feeling like the drama was unresolved. Since the land of Rohan closely resembles the Norse/Anglo-Saxon people, shore utilized a Hardanger fiddle (a type of Norwegian violin that uses sympathy strings, which are not struck, but resonate to create a droning sound) in performing the melody of the Rohan theme. When scoring the horrific sequence of Shelob’s lair, a giant spider infested cavern, Shore switched up the traditional orchestra in favor of electronic instruments and atonal textures. 

Even when the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy wrapped filming, Howard Shore and his orchestra stayed busy. They contributed hours of additional music for the extended editions, and condensed the entire film score into a two hour show to tour around the world. The music is undoubtedly iconic and Shore was brought back again when it came time to film “The Hobbit” prequel trilogy. 

Much like how reading can be subjective, so is the musical process. Everyone has their own unique idea of what their version of Middle-earth should sound like. Though J.R.R. Tolkien shied away from his status as a fantasy icon, and he might not have approved of every musically inspired creation, it is definitely astonishing to consider how much of a well-spring these books have been to countless musicians.

Below is a list of resources you may wish to explore to learn more about the music that was inspired by Middle-earth. 

Useful Resources

  • Led Zeppelin, Complete Recordings: Audio CD CD 2763/72
  • Meij, J. de: Symphony No. 1, “The Lord of the Rings” (London Symphony, Warble): Naxos database
  • Meij, J. de: Symphony No. 5 “ Return to Middle Earth”:  
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Main Library StacksVideotape Collection Vid Cas 5236
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Main Library StacksVideotape Collection DVD 3741
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Main Library StacksVideotape Collection Vid Cas 5236
  • Rankin, A, Bass, J. “The Hobbit – 1977 – Rankin/Bass – Complete Original Soundtrack Record.”:
  • Sallinen, Aulis: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7 / Chorali / A Solemn Overture—Symphony No. 7, Op. 71, “The Dreams of Gandalf.”: Naxos Database
  • Swann, Donald. “The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle.” Cage M1621.4 .S947 R62 1967; MUS M1621.4 .S947 R62 1967; OVERSIZE x Child Lit SWANN


  • de Meij, Johan “Symphony No. 5 Return to Middle Earth,” Last modified May 1, 2019,
  • Jackson, Peter, dir. The Lord of The Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy, Special Extended Edition Box Set. 2004; (New Line Home Video) DVD.
  • Rankin Jr., Arthur & Bass, Jules, dir. The Hobbit. 1977 ; (Warner Home Videos). DVD.
  • Rankin Jr., Arthur & Bass, Jules, dir. The Return of the King. 1980 ; (Warner Home Videos). DVD.
  • Segundo, Bat “Ralph Bakshi (BSS# 214),” May 21, 2008, The Bat Segundo Show, Podcast, MP3 audio, 43:33
  • Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013.
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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