Songs that Shape the Land in LOTR

Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is a musical.

This was the second trait that jumped out at me during my first reading of this beloved fantasy novel.  I was startled by the important role that music, singing, and song played in each segment, how integral was the improvisational song as well as the memorized, ancient song to the forward movement of the plot and also to character development.  When a character dies, his friends make up a song on the spot.  When one wants to know about a certain location or character, he asks for or offers a song passed down through oral tradition.  When Frodo and Sam embark on their grueling journey, they often stop to ponder how they will be remembered in song.  In some — many — ways, song is its own character — perhaps the most important character — of LOTR.  Indeed, the function of story-telling stood out to me as a paramount concern: not only for Tolkien as a writer but also for each central character.  Well-being of body and mind depends upon learning the histories of lands and peoples, adventures are undertaken in the promise of becoming a character in the story — what seems the story of life, in general.  I was awestruck by Tolkien’s not-very-subtle way of  highlighting “the story”‘s particular relevance in modern times by showcasing its function in fantastical times gone by.  The mission is not only for Frodo to destroy the ring.  The mission is also — maybe more importantly — for him to return to tell his story to Bilbo, the historian, the author.  This goal is perhaps less iterated than the destroying of the ring, but it appears consistently throughout the novel in the mouths and thoughts of the Hobbits.  In fact — now that I think of it — it appears ONLY in the context of Hobbitly reflection.  The Hobbits — those whose songs are, ironically, mostly jest, fun, and celebration — are the most aware of song’s role in teaching the most important lessons of life: the struggle to conquer the shadowy self. I thought to myself that this epic would be a fantastic text to help me emphasize the critical role of storytelling in composition, creative writing, and literature courses.

I fell in love with LOTR when I saw Jackson’s films.  I thought, “these are very true to the novels,” even though I had never read the novels — isn’t that a funny feeling?  (Has that ever happened to you? — You think you know a lot about something because it is part of your literary culture?)  I was swept away by the sublime landscapes.  The nature in the films seemed to jump out of Burke’s Inquiry.  But as I read the novels, I understood that nature is, like song, its own character — maybe more important than any of the other central figures (except song).  Nature certainly could be vast and harsh, big and powerful.  But mostly, it was unknowable, quaint, and localized (maybe domesticated?) to such an extent that Tolkien takes a lot of time to describe its intricacies: much more than I expected.  Nature is, like song, above the outcome of the ring.  Tom Bombadil, is one representation of nature (like the Ents) who has been in Middle Earth before even the Elves.  He (and his nature) will continue even if everything else falls to “evil.”  Tolkien makes his point sharp with the Ents — actually bringing “Nature” to “life.”  In the films, I hated (HATED) the Ents.  In the novels, they were my favorite characters.  In fact, I cried when I learned that they never found their Entwives.  Even more than the destruction of the ring, I wanted the Ents to find the Entwives again.  The Ent/Entwives relationship is the first romantic one that is fully actualized in the work; and it is the only romance that ends unfulfilled.  The un-fulfillment of the Ents struck me hard.  Indeed, I wanted to undertake a writing of the history of the Ents/Entwives — it seems like it could be such a feminist epic!  Entwives, what happened to you in your Herland-like Brownlands?  How did you go up in flames, my sisters?

I wished that someone would have sung me the story.  Somewhere out in a quaint, dewy landscape fringed with bleak, sharp mountains in the background, I would have propped myself up on a tree and thought about companionship, relishing every last bite of my meager luncheon, casting warning glances at my darkening shadow as it tries to get closer to my heart.

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