As I reviewed the rest of chapter 14 of The Silmarillion for this week’s Silmarillion Recap, I couldn’t help pondering an element that mythology, legends, and fantasy (mostly older fantasy, from my exposure so far) share: the power of song.
When Fingon is faced with jagged rocks, a sea of enemies, and no idea where to go in chapter 14, his first thought is one that would never occur to most modern characters. Instead of fighting his way through the hordes of enemies alone or infiltrating the fortress like a secret agent, he sings an old song that Maedhros knows and listens for his reply. And while it seems a bit ridiculous, it actually works.
This isn’t the only time that J.R.R. Tolkien uses this, either. While it was cut from the film version of The Return of the King, Sam finds himself in the same situation when Frodo is captured. He’s in this enormous tower filled with Orcs, and he has absolutely no idea where Frodo might be. So what does he do? Without even meaning to, he begins to sing. And as his voice echos through the halls, he thinks he hears someone join in the song. It’s not something that Orcs would sing, so he takes heart and follows the echo until he finds Frodo.
Throughout Tolkien’s works, song plays an important role in the plot. In The Silmarillion, it’s used to conjure up a disguise so that two lovers are able to travel straight into the enemy’s lair undetected, and it later changes the mind of the Valar (the equivalent of lesser gods in other mythologies). The Lord of the Rings is filled with it, though one of the most notable mentions would be Tom Bombadil, who sings constantly and sometimes nonsensically but who brings down the terrifying barrows with his words. Not to mention that Arda (the earth in Tolkien’s works) is first revealed as a vision created out of a song. (And don’t forget that his fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, used song in the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.)
It even shows up in historical fiction that I teach at school. The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff is filled with “singing magic.” While it’s never completely clear how it works, the power of song is used by both Brits and Saxons in the late 900’s A.D. — in the years following the Roman’s abandonment of Britain. While the protagonist’s sister refrains from using it when it’s not appropriate, a Saxon princess uses her voice to enthrall Brits and Saxons alike at a feast. Only the protagonist seems to see past the beauty of her and her words and understand how she is using it to manipulate the people around her.
And the examples from mythology, legends, the Bible, other fantasy novels, etc. are so countless that it would be quite a feat to list even a fraction of them.
So what is it with song?
Obviously, there are cultural aspects to it. In cultures that share their stories orally, it makes sense. It naturally adds a cadence to the words and makes it easier to remember. And it’s more aesthetically pleasing. But it’s more than that. Words, especially when they’re spoken, are powerful. Like the “singing magic” from The Lantern Bearers. And when they’re set to music, it makes them resonate with us on a deeper level. I may not know all of the science behind it, but it’s hard to deny when listening to a favorite song. It changes my mood, engages with my emotions, reminds me of other things.
No wonder it’s able to bring hope in the deepest dungeon, captivate listeners, and bring worlds to life.
What do you think about the power of song? Do you know any other great examples? Have you noticed it in other genres as well?