Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

howard-shore-howard-shore-2381300-803-1056

Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

44937692-cached

Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

880ad2b41028c9552876a96ef61714a7

Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

maxresdefault2

Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

800px-skourta

The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

blog-pics

Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

blog-pics

Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

blog-pics

Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

blog-pics

Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Poetry Snippet: Pearl of Delight

blog-pics

Page of the Pearl manuscript from the Cotton Library in Great Britain

Time for a Poetry Snippet! This is where I simply recommend a classic poem by sharing a bit of it and some of its background with you. My first Snippet comes all the way from the 14th Century. It was written by man who, despite his great talent and works, we do not even know the name of. As a result he is usually referred to as “The Gawain Poet”. Behind Chaucer, he is considered among the finest of the Medieval English Poets. He is named after his most famous work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem I am sharing with you today is not as famous, but in my opinion is one of the most beautiful things ever written: Pearl.

blog-pics

Through grass to the ground from me it shot…

Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear,
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer.
So round, so radiant ranged by these,
So fine, so smooth did her sides appear
That ever in judging gems that please
Her only alone I deemed as dear.
Alas! I lost her in garden near:
Through grass to the ground from me it shot;
I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear
For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.

The language in this poem can only be described as exquisite. I, unfortunately, do not speak Middle English (learning it and Anglo-Saxon is on my bucket list) but this version, translated by the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien, captures such rich imagery with its choice of words and skillful alliterations that I am sure the original author would give it his stamp of approval.

blog-pics

14th century illumination of the Jeweler and the Pearl Maiden

The story is more than it seems in the first stanza. For the main character, a jeweler, is not in fact mourning the loss of an actual pearl, but something far more dear: his daughter, a sweet baby girl who sadly died. The story begins with the Jeweler’s anguish and loss of faith. In his grief, he lays down by his ‘pearl’s’ garden grave and falls asleep. But in his sleep, he has a vision: His daughter, resplendent and beautiful in the joy of Heaven. Comforting him with wise and kindly words, she heals her father’s broken spirit and helps him regain his faith.

There seems to be little that could make the poem more touching, but there is. Rather than merely being a fiction, it is believed that the Gawain Poet may have actually lost his baby daughter and wrote this ballad in her honor. Indeed, the heart-rending language seems to hold a type of grief that only a lost child could bring. Some scholars disclaim the story, however, insisting that the allegorical poem cannot possibly have only one, simple interpretation. But whether the story of the lost daughter is true or not, the poem is a masterpiece.

Although the work is definitely a Christian one, with heavy Christian themes and Biblical allegory, I believe at least its aesthetic beauty can be appreciated by all. I’m also very fond of reading the poem aloud in its original language, even though I don’t actually understand it. There is something very pleasing to the ear in the rustic and yet delicate sound Old and Middle English. To hear and speak it is truly a delight. “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere/Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot…”. It is a very beautiful tongue from which our modern English springs.

You can read the entire poem translated by Tolkien at this Link. If, like me, you love Middle English or are interested in how it sounds, you can go here and feel your mind transported back about 700 years. But no matter how you read or interpret it, the poem is a treasure; a precious pearl, indeed.

blog-pics

The Description Confectionery: Hound of the Baskervilles

blog-picsTime for another Description Confection! This time, we are going to go to one of the greatest and most famous mystery stories of all time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic The Hound of the BaskervillesThis extract comes from the moment Dr. Watson is coming upon Baskerville Hall, a very old manor in the desolately beautiful northern English moors.

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm.

                                          ~Chapter 6, Baskerville Hall

200px-cover_28hound_of_baskervilles2c_190229First, notice the words Watson uses to describe the land which they left behind; fertile land, threads of gold sunlight, and red earth. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine peeking through the clouds.

But when Watson turns back to the direction in which he and the driver are bound, the description dramatically shifts. The welcoming words such as fertile and glowing are sharply replaced by words like bleak and harsh. Instead of the fertile red earth, there is now a stone cottage, so inhospitable that a vine cannot even cling to its walls. The colors, which before were warm and pleasant ones like red and gold now turn to the tones of russet and olive, both colors having distinctly cool, dreary undertones. Without Sir Arthur even mentioning a change of light, the reader sees the land before Watson as gray, dark and eerie, sapped of color and life. The description is capped off with the addition of storm-gnarled trees, giving the land an unmistakably wicked and spooky atmosphere.

The entirety of this book is filled with marvelous descriptions, but I particularly love this one. It introduces a sinister, foreboding feeling to the reader, perfect for this book which emphasizes the battle of logic and knowledge over the terror of the unknown. This short but masterful paragraph wonderfully sets the tone in only a few sentences. Indeed, one can almost hear the feral baying of the Hound itself, echoing across the land to fill the hearer with a nameless fear.

blog-pics

 

 

Hercules, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

blog-picsHercules is probably among the most famous names in Western culture. Everyone knows who he is: The fantastically strong son of Zeus, the Samson of the Greeks! However, these days, a great many people, particularly my fellow Americans, know this information from something other than original Greek myth: the famously inaccurate and yet delightful Walt Disney Pictures.

The 1997 animated film, Hercules is one of the acclaimed movie members of the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance‘, their great comeback era after the 80’s. Possessing charming animation, equally charming characters and all of the bowdlerizing deviations from source material you would expect from a Disney film, Hercules’ tale of self-realization, sacrifice and heroism remains a staple of children’s cinema to this day.

blog-pics

The Hipster Demon: “You can’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. Everyone likes Bohemian Rhapsody…”

I loved the movie back in the day. Of course I did: I was a kid! But eventually came a new era in my life: I became a Teenager. And with Teenager-ism came the dreaded Demon of Hipsterdom. No longer was I allowed to like the things everyone else liked. I had to be “unique” now and find a reason to dislike everything popular in favor of the obscure.

“Look how Disney ruins the Greek myths!” my Hipster Shoulder-Demon cried out at Hercules. And to an extent, the little Hipster Demon was right. There were many problems great and small. For instance, the irritating decision to use the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Herakles’ when literally every single other name in the movie is in Greek. I mean, come on, really? Another quibble is that the winged horse Pegasus is in the entirely wrong myth. Not to mention, in the kids’ movie, they have the cute pony formed adorably out of puffy little clouds, when the actual story goes that the vicious, killer, flying horse sprung from the blood of Medusa, spilled on the ground after Perseus decapitated her. Less cute, yes, but quite awesome.

hercules-removes-cerberus-from-the-gates-of-hellBut things get far more different than simple name changes and misplaced equines. The original story, as one might expect, is faaar less child friendly than the one coming out of Disney studios. For one thing, Herakles is most certainly not the son of Hera, but the demigod son of Zeus, king of the gods and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Hera is the hero’s mortal enemy, who loathes him for being the result of one of her husband’s many illicit affairs. Always searching for a way to destroy Herakles that she can get away with, Hera sends terrible madness upon him several times, eventually resulting in Herakles unwittingly slaughtering his two children, and in some stories, his wife Megara as well. A decent sort of person in the stories, the stricken Herakles performs his famous Twelve Labors as reparation for the murders, but the suffering doesn’t end there. He ends up being poisoned by his next wife, Deianira, who thought she was giving him a love potion. Unable to die of the poison due to his immense strength, Herakles writhes in agony, burned internally  by the poison until he orders his servants to burn him alive on a pyre to end his suffering. His wife, realizing her horrible mistake, then hangs herself in remorse.

Try wrapping that story up with a catchy musical number.

hercules-and-meg-disney-couples-6037438-277-231

Ha ha, I’m eventually supposed to kill you and our children.

 

However, missing all of this less savory stuff means that they missed a lot of the cool stuff too. Numerous movies could be dedicated to Herakles’ Twelve Labors, and many other amazing adventures involving other heroes, monsters, journeys and battles. But instead of telling about how Herakles defeated the Nemean Lion, or how he accompanied the Argonauts or choked Death until he gave back the soul of Alcestis, Disney decided to go a different route; by completely making something up. Sigh.

Being a child of the 90’s, I was first introduced to the story of Herakles and indeed, the entire Greek mythos by Disney. Watching and being fascinated by this movie as a small child planted an interest in my brain that I still have not shaken. Greek mythology became one of my childhood passions. I got every book I could on Greek mythology from the library and read them all until I had to move on to the adult section. As I learned more and more, my Hipster Demon grew strong, and I despised the Disney movie I had once loved, pooh-poohing it for many years as a borderline parody of the original story.

However, as I exposed myself to more and more literature, Greek and otherwise, I began to feel a bit ungrateful to Disney. How could I condemn a work which had functioned as a key for me to the door of Greek stories? If it hadn’t been for this movie, who knows if I would have ever bothered picking up a book of mythology? I watched the movie again for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong. While wildly inaccurate, Disney’s Hercules was still a treasure. In this coming of age story, the title character learns that true heroism is love and sacrifice and becomes a great role model for kids in a way that the womanizing, violent Herakles of the original tale never could be. Who was I to criticize? Who knows how many kids like me went and sought out more myths after watching this movie?

And so, I learned a lesson. I flicked the little Hipster Demon off of my shoulder. I decided that faithfulness to source material, while usually a must, isn’t always the point. It’s the actual story that matters. Is Disney’s Hercules a good representation of Greek mythology? Heck no. But is it a good movie with a good story? Yes, it is. Can you like both original myth and censored Disney classic? You most certainly can.

It still annoys me that they used his Roman name though. I mean, gosh, why?

J.R.R. Tolkien: Just Say No… to Allegory

blog-picsJohn Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as many will know, is the creator of Middle-earth: almost certainly the most exquisite and complex fantasy world in the history of the Fantasy Genre. And while even his Arda/Middle-earth lore is enough to make people love him, not everyone knows just how deep and thematically loaded his books are. With his rich, poetic writing and the beautiful messages he spells out on the pages, Tolkien is definitely worthy of inclusion with the greatest English authors of all time. Certainly Shakespeare himself would have admired Tolkien’s eye for themes, and Wilde would have relished reading every word of his beautiful descriptions.

blog-pics

However, they are fairly equal on the dirtbag scale.

But there is an error which readers of Tolkien often make. I myself made this mistake for years. The mistake is this: Allegorical Interpretation. So many times have I heard people make a simplistic interpretation of The Lord of the Rings and especially The Silmarillion. Little do they know what a lot of the beauty in the text is missed because they simply say “Frodo is Jesus” or “Sauron is Hitler” and leave it at that. I speak with the intention of Tolkien himself on my lips when I say that is not it.

In a letter to one of his friends, Tolkien, with all of his usual eloquence, is quoted as saying “I cordially dislike allegory in all of its manifestations…”. He repeatedly insisted that people making allegorical interpretations of his works, such as equating Mordor with Hell or the Ring with the Atom Bomb, were doing it wrong. For years he refuted such interpretations as his goal, before eventually giving up because people refused to accept his word on it.

blog-pics

He may not be Satan, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be scary as Hell.

As a Catholic, the temptation for me to interpret allegorically was pretty strong. Especially as Tolkien himself was a Catholic, and therefore many Catholic philosophical ideas are printed out pretty plainly in his books. But if one reads The Silmarillion and just goes with the “Melkor is Satan” route, for example, they miss out on a lot. All the themes are lost because instead of being read as the complex epic that it is, it’s been twisted into a boring, simplified parable. But Melkor is clearly supposed to be Satan, you might be saying. Well, yes and no. Meant to be a Satanic figure? Yes. But meant to be a direct representation of Satan? No. There is a difference. One interpretation leads to a whole mess of sophisticated themes such as Order versus Chaos and Destruction through Solitude. The other interpretation leads to the sentence “He’s Satan, so he’s bad.”. The end…. Oh, I’m sorry, the crippling boredom almost killed me.

blog-pics

Some geniuses wear tweed instead of lab coats…

As a general rule, it’s always going to be more interesting looking for themes rather than direct parallels. Firstly because allegory is so simple. It’s usually the Lazy Man’s Literature. But besides this, Allegory is by nature extremely subjective. An interpretation by one person may be completely unrelatable to another. Thematic interpretation is more universal, and can be appreciated by most, if not all. In this way, literature has become more advanced as humanity has advanced. Gone are the days of mankind’s childhood, where people were satisfied by Aesop’s simple moral tales. Now, we crave something deeper.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like allegory just as much a the next guy (go, Nathaniel Hawthorne!), but in the instance of Tolkien, allegory is all wrong. His stories are too intricate for that, which is one of the many reasons he is my favorite author. And believe me when I say, this is not the last of him you’ll see on Mind Vitamins.

The Description Confectionery: Moby Dick

blog-picsIntro: Do you smell that glorious aroma? That, my friend, is the smell of a magnificent description. The Description Confectionery is a simple place on my blog. Here you will find the mental equivalent of a chocolate cupcake in the form of a short description from a classic book. Many people knock descriptions as dull page filler, but a well executed description, whether it be of something beautiful or horrid, is a real treat for the brain and often paints a vivid picture of the themes in the story. So sit back and drink in this first little snippet I found for you; the description of The Whale from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick…

 

“For, it was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other sperm whales, but, as was elsewhere thrown out—a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.

The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

~Moby Dick, Chapter 41

That last bit is truly marvelous, is it not? The contrast of the pure white of the whale and the deep blue of the sea. The foam sparkling with gold light. Simply exquisite. And given the inexorable and godlike representation the Whale is meant to have in the book, one must stand in awe at the ingenious insertion of the Milky Way in the description. Not only because of the vivid image it evokes, but because of how perfectly such an image is complemented by the similarities between the vast, ink blue ocean and the endless, indigo night sky. In the imagination of the reader, those few lines of text paint a picture of the Whale as though he were a divine being, moving through creation and leaving behind him glittering stars which last but a moment in eternity…

maxresdefault