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Tolkien songs

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SarahP asked if there's a way to hear how the songs in Lord of the Rings are meant to be heard.

My answer is too long to tweet, so I'm resorting to a blog entry.

There are at least two parts to my answer:

  • There are audio recordings of Tolkien reading his work.
  • Other people have put Tolkien's words to original music.

First, Tolkien's own renditions:

In 1952, Tolkien—"depressed because The Lord of the Rings [...] had been refused by publishers," visited George and Moira Sayer, who had been reading the only complete typescript copy of the book. George Sayers brought out a tape recorder, and a great story ensued:

[Tolkien] had never seen [a tape recorder] before and said whimsically that he ought to cast out any devil that might be in it by recording a prayer, the Lord's Prayer in Gothic. [...] He was delighted when I played it back to him and asked if he might record some of the poems in The Lord of the Rings to find out how they sounded to other people. The more he recorded, [...] the more his literary self-confidence grew. [...] "Surely you know that's really good?" I asked[....] "Yes," he said, "it's good. This machine has made me believe in it again, but how am I to get it published?"

[...] "Haven't you an old pupil in publishing who might like it for its own sake and therefore be willing to take the risk?"

"There's only Rayner Unwin," he replied after a pause.

"Then send it to Rayner Unwin personally."

And he did. And the result was that even during his lifetime over three million copies were sold.

—from the back-jacket liner notes of the LP J.R.R. Tolkien reads and sings his The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Caedmon, 1975.

That 1952 home recording was turned into an LP from Caedmon Records—possibly three LPs, but I have only one of them—in the mid-'70s.

Later, Caedmon was bought by HarperCollins and became an audiobook imprint, and now you can buy CDs of Tolkien reading his own work from the HarperCollins website.

There are actually two different Tolkien CDs available from that website, with no indication of what the differences are between them. I've dropped a note to HarperCollins to find out; will update this entry when/if I hear back.

(Edited later to add: the HarperCollins people responded to let me know that the Essential Tolkien CD contains only J.R.R. Tolkien himself reading, while the Tolkien Audio CD collection (at twice the price) contains both Tolkien's readings and his son Christopher Tolkien reading selections from the Silmarillion. Neat touch: clicking the Buy link from the HarperCollins page takes you to a list of purchase links, including links for some local bookstores.)


But if I remember right (it's been a long time since I've listened to the recording), Tolkien doesn't do a lot of singing per se in that recording. And other people have come up with their own music to his words.

For example, in 1967 composer Donald Swann published a sheet-music songbook called The Road Goes Ever On (still available from Amazon). It's a lovely book, with hand-lettered (I assume) bits in Quenya. But I haven't loved the music from it, the bits I've tried playing.

There was an album that went with that book; it apparently contained some readings by Tolkien and some recordings of Swann's versions of the songs. You can hear some or all of it online, though that's apparently a non-legitimate copy (and it says it's not for public use, which makes it rather odd that it's on the public web).

Unrelatedly, there's an extensive page providing discussion and music for a lot of Tolkien songs, but I don't know much of anything about that; just came across it while looking for the Swann book.

Another unrelated item: a group called Brocelïande recorded an album called The Starlit Jewel, authorized by the Tolkien estate, "with musical settings by fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kristoph Klover, and Margaret Davis." (I think that means all the music is original to them.) You can buy the CD and/or listen to clips online. None of the songs on the album really grab me, but it's another approach toward a "correct," or at least authorized, rendition.

Finally, a host of musicians over the decades have created their own songs relating to Tolkien, such as Bob Catley's album Middle Earth, and zillions of filks. But those don't generally use Tolkien's lyrics at all, so this is drifting rather far afield from the original question.

2 Comments

Thanks, Jed!

Do you like the walking song that is a round?

I'm not sure I like the versions with all the instrumentation, because most of them as they are presented in the book are just sung aloud, usually by one person, unaccompanied. Simpler. Like talk that happens to have morphed into song (this especially true of Tom Bombadil). The fancy versions sound a little...well...twee to me.

That said, I used to dislike the songs, but that was back when I thought of them as poetry. I like them a lot better as songs.

Also, when reading the book aloud, you realize how many of them there are. Theo insists on reading them all, and then pausing to discuss them.


Once upon a time, Harper Collins had large portions of this available for download on the web. Perhaps no longer. But you can get a nice sample on Youtube: J.R.R. Tolkien sings 'Troll Sat Alone On His Seat Of Stone'.

Also, Donald "Flanders &" Swann? Wow!

My nuncle set "I sit beside the fire", and I learned this some years ago when I stumbled across an hour-long public radio interview with his wife on the web which included a recording of him singing it! Quite a strange day, that.


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