On Songs Which I Have Never Heard

A Conspiracy Unmasked & The Old Forest


Word and note reunited (Source)

A small confession: I have almost always, as a habit, skimmed and skipped over block text. Long quoted sections, those over a couple of sentences and especially in academic works, seem to always explain the context in the preceding sentence and summarize the point in the following line. Only a really engaging book, or a quote from an author I knew well, convinces me to endure the set-aside section. And what is true with blocks is also true with ballads: songs and poetry within fiction infrequently garner my attention, even in books that I love.

It was for that reason that I considered listening to The Lord of the Rings instead of rereading it. And over the days that have followed we have heard quite a few songs and no less poems. And in them, I had a shock: for these were not the melodies I was expecting. Instead of slow, dramatic, and intentional, the cadences were quick, light, and sing-songy. The meters were different, and the tunes just off enough to force me to ponder. Not only was I lingering on the lyrics, but really hearing them for the first time.

Perhaps it was to be expected, given that in Tolkien’s work no musical stanzas appear alongside the words of the poems (and given how little knowledge or experience I have with musicology). Yet the stark difference in tone was startlingly: compare this narrated interpretation by Robert Inglis of “Ah Elbereth Gilthoniel” with the films’ versions of “The Lonely Mountain Song” or “Edge of Night” (which arguably is an interpretation anyway). The films have taken some clear liberties, but it is interesting to reflect on the overall character of the songs: do the darker, more mysterious, more unraveling natures of the modern renditions reflect something of our own contemporary tastes and styles?

Comparisons aside, the kernel remains the same: these poems of Bilbo and Frodo, these songs of Bombadil and River-daughter, were words I had never heard sung before. And truly, because of their lack of melody and tune, I had not really understood or appreciated them. They flowed, as all words due, over the contours of my mind to reveal the narrative’s unfolding picture. As they contributed little to the actual direction of the plot, however, they left little impact. However, taken in with the sense of hearing, not sight, the poems have not coursed over, but instead have sunk deep. They shape not the mind’s riverbed but instead fill the mind’s recesses. They don’t take our boat down to our ultimate conclusion – the Sea, the Sea! – but instead create little ponds and oases for us to savor and enjoy.

Now I am, as Samwise would say, talking poetry. Yet in an era where poems are often political and rarely proletarian, where concerts are common but walking songs are hard to come by, it brings me pause to hear songs which I have never heard sung. I wonder what else has passed without remnant through the passages of my mind.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Inquisitiveness of Friends
2015’s Reflection: “On Fredegar Bolger


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