Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien. Bradford Lee Eden, ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010, paperback, 207 pp., $35.00, ISBN 978-0-7864-4814-2.
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:8 (#337) in August 2010.]
This is an uneven collection of essays, and not all are about “music in Tolkien”, per se. The relevance of the individual papers to the topic ranges from high to almost non-existent. Many pieces are actually about poetry rather than actual music, with the implication that the poems in Tolkien’s works were intended to be sung, at least by characters in the stories, if not readers in the primary world, so they might or might not fall under the definition of music, depending on individual interpretation.
The most successful explorations of the topic, to my mind, are Amy Sturgis’s “Tolkien Is the Wind and the Way,” which describes how she uses Tolkien-related music in support of her teaching Tolkien in academic settings; and David Bratman’s “Liquid Tolkien,” a comprehensive survey of music which may have inspired Tolkien, music which could be used as soundtracks to reading Tolkien, and music created in response to Tolkien. Both reveal a broad knowledge of the field on the part of both authors.
On the other hand, there are several essays here which, although interesting in themselves, have little or no reference to music in Tolkien. Amy Amendt-Raduege writes of how heroic actions in Anglo-Saxon culture and The Lord of the Rings are motivated by the desire to be remembered in song. Peter Wilkin discusses the exile of the Eldar in Middle-earth, only referring to a few poems to point the way into his topic. Darielle Richards describes Tolkien’s creative process without any mention of music at all, outside of her title. Deanna Delmar Evans talks about the “Lay of Luthien” [sic] and the Middle English Sir Orfeo, but only deals with the content of these poems and ignores any musical qualities they might have.
Occupying a middle ground are several good essays with various approaches to the topic. Jason Fisher focuses mainly on alliterative verse (Rohirric and Anglo-Saxon) but also points out instances of musical instruments and rhythms cited in the text of The Lord of the Rings. John R. Holmes, reminding us of Tolkien’s philological talents, looks at the phonaesthetics of the Professor’s prose, demonstrating the musicality of the very words in the text. Editor Eden’s own contribution compares the use of musical metaphors and allusions in Tolkien and certain Victorian writers and poets. Keith W. Jensen develops an interesting argument using the musical concept of dissonance and its place in the “Ainulindalë” to address the theological problem of evil.
The really odd duck in all this is Anthony Burdge’s “Performance Art in a Tunnel,” a panegyric about a New York City performance artist self-named “Thoth,” who claims to be influenced by Tolkien and creates works set in a secondary world of his own. Burdge seems to be trying to demonstrate a unique connection between the two creators using the concept of “sub-creation,” but his reliance on new-age concepts makes his argument less than convincing.
On the whole, this collection seems to lack an overall cohesiveness. Since I see no evidence that any more than two of these essays have been presented elsewhere, I can only assume that the editor solicited contributions for the book. If that is indeed the case, then one wonders why some of them were accepted at all. I also found an annoying inconsistency in the format of citations and footnotes, which made things confusing at times. More stringent editing seems to have been called for. The topic of music in the world and works of Tolkien is well worth study, and this collection might be seen as a beginning attempt, but it leaves this reader wishing for something better.