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The Triumph of Howard Shore

In which, inspired by Shore’s work on the film scores, I ponder Tolkien’s masterpiece. At length. (While glossing over some of the linguistic inspiration for Tolkien’s myth.)

The triumph of Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings films is that it makes me want to reread the books. Again.

Those of you who know me and my history with The Lord of the Rings will know, first, that I am easily moved to reread the great myth of our age, and second, that the movies for all their excellence really missed the mark in a number of ways. The music, however, was not one of those ways, and I would go so far as to say the music was as near perfect as I can imagine.

Unlike the movies – which betray the fundamental blindness of their makers, especially about character and nobility – the music captures the best of Tolkien’s world. Whether it is the pastoral and light-hearted tone of the music for the Shire, the screeching aleatoric passages for Shelob, the soaring and thrilling strains of a hardinger for Rohan, or the pounding mechanical violence of the themes of darkness, Shore capture the world that Tolkien so masterfully laid out.

I am an unabashed fan of Tolkien; I have found nothing that compares with the scope of his imagination or the mythological riches of his legendarium. Other authors have written at greater length or with greater psychological depth. None, however, has managed to create a myth. To be fair, most of them are not trying; the modern epic fantasy is generally less interested in mythology than Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or the other Inklings, all of whom were profoundly versed in the great authors of the past.

Tolkien was particularly unusual, however, in that the great authors he studied in his academic career – and indeed, his great loves – were drawn from an even broader stream than most of his contemporaries. Though all of them loved the great English writers, and all of them were well versed in the Greek and Roman epics as well, Tolkien loved the old Norse legends, too. And while both he and Lewis shared a love of mythology, it was only Tolkien who set out to do the impossible and fill (what he perceived to be) a profound hole in English culture: the lack of a coherent mythology. Drawing on those Norse legends he loved so deeply, he built not only the stories that are so well known and loved in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also a vast tapestry of mythological history behind them, covering ground from Creation through the fall of Atlantis (Númenor, called Atalantë, “The Fallen”).

Tolkien and Lewis’ best known fictional worlds both have creation stories, and the stories have a great deal in common – right down to the centrality of music in the creative act. Despite these commonalities, the narratives have an enormously different feel to them – a difference that highlights the different aims and approaches of the two authors. Lewis’ story is just that: story. It is seen through the eyes of a wonder-struck boy, caught up in events whose import lies far beyond his grasp but whose present outworkings are still comprehensible to his human mind. Tolkien’s creation narrative, by contrast, is higher in form and richer in setting; it is the unobserved creation of all that is by God and the angels. Even its form, that of a great symphony, is only an explanation delivered by angels to Elves in a way that their lesser minds could grasp, as though the reality itself were so far beyond beings of flesh and blood as to defy true comprehension.

Lewis’ aim was to illustrate theological concepts through story for children – a good and noble aim, and part of the reason his books are so approachable. Diggory’s vision of Aslan’s creative song is eminently relatable: we can put ourselves in his shoes and imagine what it would be to experience what he hears and sees. Tolkien’s aim, by contrast, was mythology, and not particularly mythology for children (The Hobbit being an exception which worked its way into Middle-earth and not the other way around). Mythology has always been concerned not with what humans can hear and see but with what they cannot. It has always been grasping for invisible divinity with feeble human words unsuited for the task, but hurled upward nonetheless with the desperate need of men to grasp at realities far larger and grander than their limited vocabularies can circumscribe.

And so it is with the rest of Tolkien’s mythos. He reaches into the depths and presents stories and characters that are larger than life, heroic figures we would imitate if we could. Tolkien was great because he created true mythology. Tolkien remains great because he did not leave his world unapproachable in its vastness or its depths of history. The Lord of the Rings is mythic in its scope, its setting, its conflict, and many of its primary figures. But like Lewis, Tolkien gives us a view into the world of mythology with characters much smaller than the drama against which they are set. The small physical size of the hobbits echoes their smallness in the grand scheme of the story. They are not angelic wizards, undying elves, or kings-in-exile. They are simple beings doing their best with the days they are given. They become heroes, but never heroic. They remain, at their most excellent, merely excellent – not larger-than-life like Aragorn or Gandalf, not epic figures at all.

The lack of such a viewpoint is what makes The Silmarillion so much harder going: it is pure mythology, unadulterated by the approachable point-of-view – a form our culture left behind long since, having replaced it with the character-oriented novel and play. Yet Tolkien perceived (rightly, it seems) that still England lacked a mythology that could hint at and share in the truths of reality while being itself unreal. At the least, he needed the mythology for his own joys, and gladly he shared it with the rest of us. That he did so in the form of a novel, with characters to whom all of us can relate, meant that it was a mythology we could keep, for it was a mythology delivered in the form suitable to our day. For all its splendor, The Silmarillion generally does not, and for the average person cannot, engender the same sort of yearning that The Lord of the Rings does. It is too remote. But its presence behind The Lord of the Rings is what makes the latter work so powerfully.

There will, I think, never be another Tolkien. He filled the gap that he perceived, and so there is no need for another to come and fill it. The Lord of the Rings will never be displaced; it is one of the great epics, not only for Tolkien’s day or our own, but for all.


  • Chase Russell thought to say:

    This is why i’ve always said that Howard Shore should have done the soundtrack for Twilight.

    Just kidding. For so many reasons.

    The only other composer who makes me want to draw a sword and charge out into the world to slay evil is Hans Zimmer, but only Tolkien and Lewis can make me feel that somehow that would be right and not merely glorious.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • That first line is abominable. I will do my best to forget it and move on. (While quietly offering imprecatory prayers against your sick and depraved soul.)

      Zimmer certainly has a talent for writing rousing themes and good music. The more I’ve listened to him and to Shore over the last few years, the more Shore impresses me, though. I’ve yet to come up with a good analogy in the realm of popular music, but one day I will. In any case, Zimmer is very good and much more approachable than Shore, but Shore has musical depths and intricacies that never appear in Zimmer. I lean toward the latter when I want more than an emotional jolt, when I want my mind as energized as thoroughly as my emotions.

      I rather like your quote about Tolkien and Lewis.

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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