Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien. Bradford Lee Eden, editor. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. ISBN: 9780786448142.
Reviewed by Emily A. Moniz
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 111/112.]
Bradford Lee Eden’s Middle-earth Minstrel begins by recognizing what Eden sees as a glaring error in Tolkien scholarship: while music and musical allusions arguably play a large role in Tolkien’s presentation and creation of Middle-earth, and throughout his work in general, precious little scholarly or critical attention has been paid to their roles and functions. This collection seeks to remedy that glaring oversight and provide some insight into Tolkien’s use of music and musical themes, as well as a look at music that has since been influenced by Tolkien’s work. Eden’s efforts are clearly a labor of love in the strictest sense; one has the impression from the introduction that Eden has a passion for both Tolkien and music, and would have gladly compiled this book with or without funding. Eleven essays delve into the topic of music and Tolkien, taking different approaches from different disciplines, and all speak to the importance of music within Middle-earth and Tolkien’s life in general. What results is a useful book on many levels, containing a few stellar pieces of scholarship, a great deal of fascinating textual criticism, and a ringing testimony to the importance of music for Tolkien and for many of the scholars themselves.
The essays draw upon a wide array of disciplines—ranging from linguistics to educational pedagogy and back again. They include studies of Tolkien’s relationship with contemporary music of his day, Old English alliterative poetry reflected in the songs of the Rohirrim, music theory as a representation of free will in The Silmarillion, and the relationship between the medieval Sir Orfeo and Tolkien’s “Lay of Lúthien.” Much of the scholarship is well researched, well written, and—often more importantly—interesting. Some pieces are truly excellent, and elevate the collection considerably.
The book is strong right out of the gate. Jason Fisher’s analysis of Rohirric verse, “Horns of Dawn: The Tradition of Alliterative Verse in Rohan” is quite fine and sets a clear tone for the kind of work contained therein. Fisher carefully examines Tolkien’s influences for Rohan, various traditions of Old English and Germanic alliterative poetry, and the connections between languages both real and fictional. What is even more delightful than his scholarship itself is that he somehow manages to do it all without losing a reader who admittedly knew nothing about Germanic alliterative verse or the Saxon kingdom of Mercia until she had finished the essay. While there are many outstanding pieces in Middle-earth Minstrel, Fisher’s piece stood out and one could not ask for a stronger opening than “Horns of Dawn.”
Another fine contribution is Eden’s own “Strains of Elvish Song and Voices: Victorian Medievalism, Music, and Tolkien.” It is equally lovely and deeply true to the theme of the collection. It goes a long way to situating Tolkien amongst other medievalist-influenced writers of the Victorian period, or rather, showing how he continues their earlier works and was shaped by the medievalism they all share. Without dwelling on it overly much, Eden deftly shows how Tolkien was deliberately out-of-step with his literary contemporaries, and yet, still squarely amongst other writers who shared his backwards gaze.
Last, but by no means least, is Peter Wilkin’s “Ǽfre me strongode longað: Songs of Exile in the Mortal Realms.” This is a stellar piece of scholarship, and beyond that, a true joy to read as he unpacks and unfolds his theory. Wilkin clearly and succinctly examines the difference between the songs of Elves and Men, and how each works within various parts of Tolkien’s story. He teases out excellent overtones in both, finding religious allusions without over-playing Tolkien’s Catholic orientation. He moves deftly between what death and longing mean in different contexts, how they function for Elves and Men, and he plays them off one another as he considers the songs of each race. He looks at poetry as the reaction to the problem of death, and the means of transmitting a longing for something more, both within Middle-earth and in our own world. The essay is restrained and lovely, and it is almost a disappointment to find that it has finished, much like a good song. It is a fine example of textual criticism and engagement, and proves an outstanding contribution not only to the book itself, but to the field in general.
Unfortunately, for all the excellent essays in the collection, there are some that do not quite live up to the promise of the book. It seems that some contributors struggled with the theme, leaving one questioning just what, exactly, the essay had to do with music beyond a reference to it in the title. Darielle Richards’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Fortunate Rhythm” appears more a piece on Tolkien’s method and a Jungian study of his process as a writer than a serious reflection on music within his world or said process. It is, to be sure, quite interesting, but its relevance to the collection seems entirely strained. John R. Holmes’s “‘Inside a Song’: Tolkien’s Phonaesthetics” is written in an utterly engaging style with touches of wry humor, but the material is exceptionally dense. Linguistics are most certainly on point in a collection centering around music, but the terminology in the piece is daunting and loaded with the jargon of the discipline—perhaps an unavoidable result of linguistics writing, but still difficult for one not well-versed in the field, despite Holmes’s many efforts to make the material accessible. Anthony S. Burdge’s study of a Manhattan performance artist named Thoth, whose history and Tolkien-influenced inspirations he details in “Performance Art in a Tunnel: A Musical Sub-creator in the Tradition of Tolkien,” felt somewhat incomplete and the tone was biographic, making it stand somewhat awkwardly amongst the more theoretical pieces in the collection. For as interesting as the subject was, it felt hastily included, tacked on at the end, and somewhat mystical in places, in stark contrast to the rest of the book.
Lastly, David Bratman’s “Liquid Tolkien: Music, Tolkien, Middle-earth, and More Music” is a marvelous survey of Tolkien-inspired music, nearly staggeringly vast. Bratman clearly knows what he is about, and speaks the nuances of classical music with razor-sharp precision. However, for all that he has a supreme command of the field and writes about music with a keen passion and refinement, his attitude towards Howard Shore’s well known film score prove an unfortunately consistent distraction. Bratman’s critiques of Shore’s work are arguably justified and sharp. He understands the failings of Shore’s work as a symphonic piece, and his point about the Celtic-inspired music being inappropriate to the Shire, inspired as it was by the English Midlands, is justifiable. Despite his good points, the critiques are also too-often repeated to the point where they struck this reader as ongoing complaints, and by the time Bratman comes around to actually talking about the score itself, his disdain for Shore’s “uninspired hackwork” (146) become exceedingly grating. It is an unfortunate detraction from what is otherwise a fantastic piece of work, and one cannot help but wish that perhaps the editorial pen might had been slightly more ruthless.
Overall, Eden’s Middle-earth Minstrel is readable, well researched, and a strong contribution to the field of Tolkien studies. The works contained feel fresh and interesting, and even where the essays sometimes miss the mark regarding the theme of the collection, they are still useful in their own rights. The two essays by Fisher and Wilkins alone are worth the price of admission, and Bratman’s discography makes this book highly useful for anyone interested in the intersection of Tolkien and music, whether that intersection lays within the boundaries of Tolkien’s world, or square within our own. Eden’s collection is worthwhile reading, and neatly achieves his aim of filling the musical gap in Tolkien scholarship.