Saturday, March 17, 2007

Song in Lord of the Rings

A little while ago I bought and read The Battle for Middle Earth by Fleming Rutledge. The book examines themes as they come up taking you through the story as it unfolds. This makes for an interesting read, and I think this book would be a nice companion that could be used as you read through the LoTR series itself. However, I personally think the LoTR is such a deep series that one book can hardly do it justice. Rutledge focuses in on the theme of divine providence and human responsibility and does it well. But Rutledge misses one of the points that I think is important in the books and absent from the movies (which is why I think the movies are not faithful to the books). Singing.

I believe that singing is the way in which Illvutar (the almighty creator god in the LoTR) breaks into the story and guides his servants. Singing is not just something that is done but plays the role of Scripture because it is the chief means of grace. At the very least singing is sacramental for Tolkien in his series. Just take a look at the characters. The older characters and races that are unaffected by evil are always singing like Treebeard and Tom Bombadil. The Elves are full of song as are the hobbits. The men less so, but the good characters sing, and the orcs never sing. Also the act of singing often brings about a change in attitude or outlook as if grace had been bestowed. Singing was used by Illvutar to create the world in the Simirillion, and is thus to be thought of as connected to the divine. If you still do not think that singing had grace-like effects listen to a few easily over read quotes from the books.

Sam on his first encounter with elves when they were given an elven feast (and hobbits love food):

Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: ‘Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.’ (Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 92)

The music goes to Sam’s heart, and it is the music, not the food, he remembers of the elves.

Here Pippin talk of the Ents as they marched to Isengard.
There was very much more. A great deal of the song had no words, and was like a music of horns and drums. It was very exciting. But I thought it was only marching music and no more, just a song – until I got there. I know better now. (Two Towers, pg. 186)

Pippin thought the song was just a marching song, but after seeing what the Ents did, he knows better. He no knows that song was not just singing, but something altogether more powerful.

Sam provides one more example as he sits defeated while Frodo is hostage of the Orcs.
At last, weary and feeling finally defeated, he sat on a step below the level of the passage-floor and bowed his head into his hands. It was quiet. The torch, that was already burning low when he arrived, sputtered and went out; and he felt the darkness cover him like a tide. And the softly, to his own surprise, there at the vain end of his long journey and his grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam began to sing. . . . And then suddenly new strength rose in him, and his voice rang out, while words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune. (Return of the King, pg. 194-195)

The song is moved in his heart by something other than himself. The song removes his grief and sorrow. The song stirs him to action as well as gives him strength. Grace through song.

One could recount this all day long. Other lesser examples abound as well such as hearing the song of waterfalls (creation itself), or characters wanting to do the ‘deeds of song’, or even the times when singing was hindered and the people became depressed. In my opinion Tolkien created a world where singing is the primary means of knowing the divine and the primary means of grace. Thus, a movie that omits all songs, omits the very substance of the hope that is within the characters. But, perhaps I am wrong. Go read the books and you tell me.


angelsinger64 said...

That's an interesting should post this for the group to see, I'd like to see their comments on this. I'll have to read the books sometime :-)

Andrew Duggan said...

Quite right. That's why the Silmarillion begins with the Ainulindale or the Music of the Ainur. The main root of that word is "lind" which means singing/music. The entirety of the history of Ea (the universe) is foreordained in the song. The song and verse within the Tolkien's mythology is as close to special revelation as it comes, in his universe where Eru Illuvatar has no communicable attributes such as righteousness.

If you read Ainulindale, you can see evil and sin are ultimately framed in the idea of disharmony, as opposed to being inherently antithetical to perfect moral righteousness and goodness.

Andy Gilman said...

Hi Lee,

I had never thought about Tolkien's use of song as you have have suggested here, but it has a ring of truth to it. The movies struck me as horribly grim and dark, and without the humor and joy conveyed in the books. I had not thought about the lack of song and poetry, and how much that contributed to the bleakness of the film adaption.

I recently reread "The Fellowship of the Ring," and found myself regretting having ever seen the movies. I was reluctant to see the movies to begin with, because the books are so dear to me, but I went against my own better judgment. Now there are lingering images from the films which I would rather not have in my head as I reread the books. All the talk as lead up to the movies, about the movies being so faithful to the books, was just rubbish!

Andrew McIntyre said...

Great observation, Lee. Tolkien's imagination was truly, amazingly fascinating.

I appreciate both the books and the movies. Of course, the books are far more intriguing, but that is the nature of the medium. Because film is a visual medium, it requires a change in the presentation of the story. For instance, the inclusion of Tom Bombadil, although he was a wonderful book personality, would have stiffled the movie plot and resulted in boring screenplay. I do think the films capture the sacramental nature of the books through stunning visual effects, idyllic scenery, and, occasionally, song. The heavenly music as the white rider repells the nasgul is quite brilliant. The rising of the sun, as Uruk-hai are blinded by its light is another case in point.

I guess all in all, what I am saying is I like the films as films. One has to consider the nature of the art and not take them as seriously as books.