The Power of Song

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.

S.B. Roberts 2014

S.B. Roberts 2014

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?

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8 responses to “The Power of Song

  • Rebekah Loper

    I love songs within stories – and sadly, it’s also my weakest point when it comes to writing. My brain just… doesn’t construct songs.

    The Misty Mountains song made my breath catch the first time I read it in The Hobbit. When I heard the first snippet of it in the first Hobbit trailer? Chills. Everywhere.

    I still get chills every time I listen to it.

    Probably the only other book that has incorporated song that has affected me the same way was Immanuel’s Veins by Ted Dekker. It wasn’t even until the end of the book, but all he did was include the first stanza of “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” to close the book out, and everything just fell into place and it was just… wow.

    • S.B. Roberts

      I do too! (And writing songs isn’t my strong suit either…)

      What a powerful way to end Immanuel’s Veins. It’s amazing how one stanza can pull everything together like that.

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    When I was a musician, I used to tell people that the basic and primal parts of music are singing and drumming. That’s why they’re verbs, and “guitar” and “piano” and so on aren’t. And dancing, of course.

    This makes me think of Thomas Pynchon, who is intensely musical (as I talked about here: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=482). Someone did a calculation once and an average of one line per page of his novels is a song lyric. In the audio book of Inherent Vice, which is excellent, the reader (Ron McLarty) sang all the songs, most of which Pynchon made up, and I wondered where he got the melodies. I actually emailed him at one point, to let him know what a good job he did with the reading, but of course I never asked about the songs.

    • S.B. Roberts

      How fascinating about Pynchon! I read The Crying of Lot 49 in college. I don’t remember much about it (aside that it was one more book in my whirlwind of a final semester), but if I still have it, I’ll have to look through it for its musical quality.

  • http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com

    “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” is true. When I trained horses, I sang to them. When I rode, I talked to them in a sing-song voice. Children are soothed by lullabies. I love ballads that tell a story. Music and rhythms come naturally to us, in tune with those of nature.

  • The Silmarillion Recap: Quenta Silmarillion (Part XV) | The Everyday Epic

    […] The first time the Elves meet Men, it’s because of a song. […]

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