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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Poetry Snippet: Pearl of Delight

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.