- Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien
Middle-earth Minstrel is an inconsistent book. It contains promising moments of analysis which sit somewhat uncomfortably beside other, less compelling, discussions. The book seems not always quite sure of itself; not sure, that is, if it wishes to be scholarly or something else. The result is a volume of essays of relatively uneven quality that would benefit from a clearer focus and a more explicitly articulated organizing principle so that its contents and arguments might better build momentum. The book is not, however, without its high points. In fact, it should be emphasized that a good number of the essays in this volume offer satisfying and insightful meditations on music in Tolkien, especially those by Keith W. Jensen, Amy M. Amendt-Raduege, Amy H. Sturgis, and David Bratman, all of which appear in the second half of the book.
As readers of The Silmarillion know, Tolkien’s universe is born of a song, or something like unto a song, composed by the Ainur, including Melkor. Through Melkor’s theme, the song, and thus creation itself, contains immanent and transcendent discord. Arda, the world, the culmination of Ilúvatar’s vision, therefore is a place of perpetual conflict whose origins lie in, and even precede, its conception. This conflict is not simply symbolic or spiritual. It is part of the fabric of Arda itself; struggle and the violent confrontation of opposing forces literally shape its physical surface. “Yet it is told among the Eldar that the Valar endeavoured ever, in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (“Ainulindalë” S 22). Given this, it is altogether appropriate to ask, as Keith W. Jensen does in his essay “Dissonance in the Divine Theme: The Issue of Free Will in Tolkien’s Silmarillion”: “Why does Ilúvatar allow evil to enter the world?” (102) One answer is that things would be dull otherwise: “Choice is necessary. We could have a perfect world, but it would be boring,” as Jensen says (111). Better, we might suggest: “there cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall,” as Tolkien himself said in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman (Letters 147; reprinted at the head of the 1999 second edition of The Silmarillion). There are parallels between music and fiction, here. Dissonance makes the music, as the fall makes the story. Hope, however, is what makes the story work against a backdrop of “sorrow, pain, and anguish” (110). Jensen cites Beren and Lúthien in this connection; one [End Page 127] might also comfortably cite Frodo, Sam, and any number of characters and instances in The Lord of the Rings. A key feature of Tolkien’s fantasy is its responsiveness to the notion that one must never give in to despair. Unresolved dissonance in music, therefore, contains within it a source of eventual harmony, just as the ultimate resolution of Tolkien’s fantasy, and fairy-stories generally, is the opposite of tragedy, or eucatastrophe.
Perhaps the best essay in this volume, Amy M. Amendt-Raduege’s contribution, “‘Worthy of a Song’: Memory, Mortality, and Music,” investigates the “symbolic immortality achieved in song” (115) throughout Tolkien’s universe. Connecting her analysis to observations on Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon works, Amendt-Raduege demonstrates convincingly how the “songs of Middle-earth hold its story together” and thus communicate a larger and deeper historical backdrop over and against which the stories may unfold (118). She attributes three purposes to songs in this context—commemoration, consolation and communion—and argues that “their subjects cross all barriers of culture, race, and even time...