Category Archives: Music

The Music of Iluvatar – part 3

Cover – The Silmarillion (

Several months ago – shockingly, back in May last year – I wrote two blog posts on the poetry that JRR Tolkien includes in Lord of the Rings. (The posts are at these links: part 1 and part 2). Those posts covered two regular metrical patterns found in most of the poetry of the first two books of the trilogy. To summarise those posts: “Tolkien chose one of two “templates” around which to build his elvish poetry, both based around pairs of lines – couplets. One template has equal lines with four stressed beats in each line – I shall call this 4+4. The other has four beats in the first line and three in the second – this will be 4+3. Some people might recognise that second pattern from English ballads. When you scan through the various poems set out in the book, there is a tendency for the equal-length pattern to be used in more formal contexts, and the unequal one in more emotional ones. On top of that metrical pattern there are also some different rhyming patterns, which I think are secondary to the metre.

Now, in the creation story at the start of The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes that the creator, Iluvatar, set up a series of musical themes, the first two of which were distorted by the great enemy, Melkor. Iluvatar, while angry at the discord introduced into his design, affirms that in the end the apparent chaos will serve his purpose. Tolkien wrote: “Then again Iluvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others.” This post tackles what I consider to be the third theme – the songs and poems of men.

Right at the outset we have a problem – many poems recited by men reflect material they have learned by close association with elves. So for example, Aragorn frequently quotes elvish poetry, especially when he is in the house of Elrond, or narrating past glories to his companions. The question is – how would men write poetry if it was not influenced by elvish principles? And this leads immediately to our next problem – the poetry of men is very diverse, and not so easily categorised as the earlier work. This should all, I think, be seen against Tolkien’s own background as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Norse. The old Germanic style of poetry, of which perhaps Beowulf is most familiar to us, relied heavily on alliteration, and was very relaxed about metrical pattern and end-rhyme. Typical features are the caesura (short pause) in the middle of the line, and the way in which alliteration links both halves of each line. Here’s a snippet from Tolkien’s own translation of Beowulf:

On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.

So, what do we see in the poetry of men in Lord of the Rings? I will start early on in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli recite a memorial for the dead Boromir. It is not clear, given the three different speakers, whether this represents human poetry or not, but at very least it shows a very different patterning to standard Elvish verse. The long lines show a fairly consistent pattern of
seven stressed beats, with an irregular number of unstressed syllables between:

The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes
The North Wind may have heard the horn of the son of Denethor
What news from the North, O mighty wind, do you bring to me today?

It’s also clear that alliteration is used very heavily in these lines, which also show an fairly simple end-rhyme pattern AABBCCDDEE in each ten-line stanza.

In the next chapter, Aragorn catches sight of the mountains of Gondor and recites what seems to be a fragment of a longer poem. It again has a regular number of strong pulses – this time 6 in a line – with an irregular number of unstressed lines and heavy use of alliteration. But before long we arrive at perhaps the best-known of the songs of men – the lament of the Rohirrim for Eorl the Young, which in the film version was put very effectively into the mouth of Theoden. And here we again have what reminds us very strongly of Anglo-Saxon poetry – lengthy lines with a caesura in the middle of each line, and alliteration binding the halves of lines together. The lines also each have 6 stressed syllables with a variable number of unstressed ones linking them, with a rhyme pattern of the form AAAABBCC.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Moving on to the third volume, The Return of the King, Theoden dies outside Minas Tirith, and we are treated to his lament in an out-of-sequence passage. This again shows similar patterning to the above. This time the regular pulse is of four-beat lines with irregular total numbers of syllables, extensive alliteration, and no obvious rhyme scheme. It would be hard to find something more aligned with the old forms of poetry that Tolkien knew so well:

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing
the swords shining in the South kingdom
went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled…

That happens to be the longest single piece of human poetry given in the books – 27 lines – and is also the last significant poem attributed to men (other than a snippet of another lament for Theoden, which shows most of the same features as above). It is curious that we don’t really learn anything substantial about the poetry of Gondor – presumably their long historical association with the elves will have shaped their habits. In contrast, the Rohirrim represent a new direction and new energy for humans in the post-Sauron era, as exemplified by Faramir’s marriage to Eowyn: “Would you have your proud folk say of you: ‘There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Numenor to choose?’” Apparently not.

So that brings to an end (after a long wait) this series of three posts on the music of Iluvatar – the three themes expressed in the creation story at the start of The Silmarillion, worked out in the examples of poems scattered through the three books. The first and second themes, associated with the older race of elves (and those other peoples influenced by them) are formal, highly structured, showing regularity of both stressed and unstressed syllables. The third theme, associated with men (and in particular the Rohirrim) is more fluid and open, and is based around structural principles more than formulae. I believe it is no accident that the examples of human poetry that we are given are almost entirely laments. After all, back at the beginning we learn that the third theme of Iluvatar was “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”

Simbelmynë – the flower that grows on the royal tombs of Rohan (

Some thoughts on poetry

Neolithic bone flute, China (Wiki)

I thought it was long overdue time that I wrote something on poetry – my historical fiction books lean heavily on poetry, and my various science fiction and fantasy books are regularly built around music and singing – something I reckon will forever be a part of human experience, wherever we end up living. Music has transformed itself many times over since our prehistoric forebears first accompanied their own voices on wind, string or percussion instruments. We have listened to and participated in music played solo or in groups, small and large.

The Muses (

But today I am writing about poetry, not music, though the two are very closely related – probably the topic of another blog sometime. Six of the nine Greek muses were explicitly involved with music and poetry, and the focus of the other three was on pursuits which depended heavily on them. In the myths, the muses were not just engaged in fun and celebration – they also turn up to defend their reputation and avenge themselves on mortals who presume to challenge their primacy.

When most people in the modern world think of poetry, we typically imagine lines of regular beats with some sort of rhyme scheme – either adjacent lines rhyming in an AA-BB pattern, or alternating lines sounding like AB-AB, or the looser version AB-CB. For example, the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, uses ABAB for the first four lines of each stanza, and AA-BB for the last four. At the casual end of the scale, Mary had a Little Lamb uses AB-CB. We all know that “real” poetry does not always adhere to these basic patterns, but if asked to come up with a rhyme on the spur of the moment, these basic schemes will probably come to mind.

Musicians from ancient Egypt (British Museum – Wiki)

Most of the earliest poetry that we have, however, is not built around rhyme, nor indeed around a regular pulse or metre. Instead, early poetry from Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed later all around the ancient near east and so also appearing in the Hebrew Bible, was built around the idea of parallelism. (Ages ago I wrote a post about how this pattern also turns up in the much more recent Finnish epic Kalevala) Pairs of lines expressed the same idea in different ways, without special regard for the exact number of syllables or metrical beats, or any rhyming pattern. Something like the start of the Ugaritic epic poem of king Keret:

The clan of Keret died out;
the house of the king was destroyed

Now the advantage of parallelism, from the point of view of other people trying to understand it, is that it is comparatively easy to translate. There will almost certainly be subtleties of the language, word plays and the like, which don’t translate, but the basics certainly do. But poets rapidly wanted to make their work richer and more complex. So variations of parallelism arose – words omitted or added in the basic couplets, changes of word order to invert the second line, triplet forms extending the basic pairs, and so on. The parallelism of words was enhanced by using alliteration of consonants to reinforce the connecting sounds.

Reproduction of an ancient Irish horn from Armagh (

So the stage was set for end-rhyme to make its appearance in poetry – the pattern that we are most used to today. You can look at end-rhyme as just another form of parallelism – but instead of the line endings being signalled by words with parallel meaning, something opposite is happening. The correspondence of rhyming words at the line ends makes us put them in parallel, and so establishes links between words which otherwise would remain separate in our minds. The more appropriately creative the rhyme, the more striking becomes the connection between words in our minds. William Blake’s Tyger has the following lines, provoking us to make connections between spears and tears

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

And again, poets play with our expectations of rhyme in order to jolt us into a different interpretation. Sometimes called a “censored rhyme”, it is often used to suggest politically subversive or sexually risque themes – the actual words themselves are typically innocent, but the expectation aroused in the listener is not. My favourite example is Sweet Violets… almost every line sets the listener up to expect a particular rhyming word, and then diverges away…

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture
On horses and chickens and eggs
And told her that she had such beautiful manners

That suited a girl of her charms
A girl that he wanted to take in his
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They could get married and raise lots of

Sweet violets
Sweeter than all the roses…

An authorised version of these songs (cover image – Caedmon Songs – see

This all has a lot to do with writing. Some authors want to include real poems in their books, as opposed to saying something along the lines of “then they sang a song”. So then you have to decide how your poem is to be structured in a formal sense, and whether you want that to mirror the conventions of the time of the setting. So a book set in the ancient near east – if it is to be authentic to its era – would not use rhyming couplets, but parallel ones. A story set in Anglo-Saxon times would use the conventions of Germanic poetry, built heavily around word alliteration and stock verbal images with little if any rhyme. A fantasy or science fiction book is free to build up its own conventions as to how poetry in that world is created – but would be enriched by making those fictional conventions fully integrated into the wider world-building . It’s a habit of thought that Tolkien was a master at – he had the advantage of being able to draw on a wide variety of early conventions of song and poetry, and he deployed these conventions so carefully that you can tell almost at first read of one of his poems, which of the various peoples of Middle Earth are in focus (see the Open Culture web site for some readings)

To close, here’s a video of ancient Irish music, found at A wealth of information and live demonstrations, with (to my ears) odd resonances in the music of Bladerunner

My music album challenge

Something completely different for today – I was challenged on Facebook a while ago by a friend to name ten albums which have had a great influence on my life. I found the whole exercise to be hugely rewarding, and got a great deal of pleasure out of searching back through years of memory to identify suitable items.

So I decided that it would be silly to squander the work on ten posts scattered here and there in Facebook, and so have gathered them all together into one place – for my own convenience as much as anything else!

So here we go…

Cover image - Yes... Going for the One (Wiki)
Cover image – Yes… Going for the One (Wiki)

1. The first is an album which I first discovered at university (feeling very risqué at the cover), and which I still listen to now. It’s Going for the One, by Yes, full of tracks which I love (and a few I’m not so struck by). The cover image is courtesy of Wiki…
Here’s a YouTube link to Awaken, perhaps the finest track on the album, and long enough it is in two parts…



Cover image - Pink Floyd... Dark Side of the Moon (Wiki)
Cover image – Pink Floyd… Dark Side of the Moon (Wiki)

2. The second album goes a little bit further back than the first – back into school days in fact when this album grabbed all of us by storm. Yes, it was Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon (cover image courtesy of WIki). Originally a London group, I have never heard them play live.


Cover image - Wishbone Ash... Argus (Wiki)
Cover image – Wishbone Ash… Argus (Wiki)

3. Day 3 of the album challenge took me back to university days again. This time it’s Wishbone Ash, and Argus, something I listened to over and over. Another British band, this time from the West Country (rumour had it that they were the loudest band ever to play Exeter University). The YouTube extract is Time Was… a splendid track to introduce this album


Cover image - Peter Finger... The Elf King (Amazon)
Cover image – Peter Finger… The Elf King (Amazon)

4. Day 4 marks a transition from things that influenced me as listener to things which I tried to imitate as player. And I start with Peter Finger, a German acoustic guitarist who I tried (almost entirely unsuccessfully) to emulate. He did wonderful stuff with open tuning as well as conventional. This album – The Elf King – is the first of his that I came across.
The track I’ve chosen from this excellent album is Sabine… well worth a listen…


Cover image - John Fahey... The Best of John Fahey (Amazon)
Cover image – John Fahey… The Best of John Fahey (Amazon)

5. Day 5 continues the theme of albums that influenced me as player. Peter Finger’s music was always seriously above my ability level, but John Fahey was a different story, and I tackled a lot of his work. He played a lot of pieces in dropped-D or various open tunings, of which this – On the Sunny Side of the Ocean – is one.
And in a never-before-heard-by-the-general-public move, I am linking to a very old and quite noisy recording of me playing this wonderful piece…


Cover image - John Renbourn... The Hermit (Wiki)
Cover image – John Renbourn… The Hermit (Wiki)

6. Day 6 brought another of my playing influences. This time it’s John Renbourn, and out of all his sundry guitar work I have picked something from The Hermit. Specifically, it’s a selection of three pieces originally by the Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, transcribed for guitar. The pieces are
1. Lamentation of Owen Roe O’Neill
2. Lord Inchiquin
3. O’Carolan’s Concerto
I played these on both guitar and lute (for a while) and loved them. The rest of the album – and the rest of Renbourn – is well worth dipping into as well!

Cover image - 10 Classic Rags ( (Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop,
Cover image – 10 Classic Rags ( (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop,

7. Day 7 was another playing choice, and this time it’s a compendium called 10 Classic Rags for Guitar by Scott Joplin, as played by various artists.
I’ve chosen Weeping WIllow, played by Ton Engels, not because I know very much about Ton or have listened to much of his playing, but because this was a rag I worked on a lot. I’m not saying I ever got especially good at it, but it’s a nice, pleasant but challenging piece to play. I’m sure it’s available still in tablature somewhere…

Cover image - Mike Oldfield... Tubular Bells (Amazon)
Cover image – Mike Oldfield… Tubular Bells (Amazon)

8. Day 8 took me back again to my listening choices rather than playing… and back a lot of years to an album that hugely affected me and a great many other people… Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield. How many of us practiced saying “Mandolin” in the privacy of our rooms?
Here’s a link to the full album, original (remastered) version…

And if you want a very different – and very compelling – version, here it is live at Montreux in 1981…


Cover image - Camel... The Snowgoose (Amazon)
Cover image – Camel… The Snowgoose (Amazon)

9. Day 9, and once again it’s a band which I started listening to many years ago, and still do now. I even heard them once at what was then Guildford Civic Hall (it’s much posher now and called by a much grander name). The group – Camel… the album, well it;s the first of theirs I got to know, namely The Snowgoose, a thoroughly splendid instrumental piece, thematically built around the Dunkirk “small ships” rescue.
The track? Well, it’s not an easy choice, especially as the pieces flow and merge into each other, but I’ve gone for Flight of the Snowgoose, a central part of the whole album…
Whole album

Flight of the Snowgoose


Cover image - Kayak... Merlin, Bard of the Unseen (Amazon)
Cover image – Kayak… Merlin, Bard of the Unseen (Amazon)

10. And finally for Day 10, last one of the series, I thought I would come into the present day, and a band which (surprisingly) I only encountered recently. The band: Kayak… the album I have chosen: Merlin, Bard of the Unseen, with its overt Arthurian theme.
Album cover courtesy of Amazon .
And the specific track is Lady of the Lake (Niniane)

Why this? Well, my own writing is tending to draw on Arthurian themes just now, and Ninane in particular is a fascinating figure who (in time to come) will get a bit more narrative treatment from me in her own story…

That’s it folks, all ten albums, spanning something like 35 years of my musical life! And a great trip it has been… and will no doubt continue to be…