Updated: Aug 22
Gil-galad was an elven king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing;
The last whose realm was
fair and free
Between the Mountains
and the Sea.
This is just one of nearly twenty
references to harps in J.R.R Tolkien's legendarium. From the dwarvish music which enchants Bilbo Baggins onto the road for his great adventure and makes him wander off the path in search of the Elvish feast in Mirkwood in The Hobbit, from the elves' gift of harps of gold to Eärendil, to Galadriel's farewell in Lothlorien, to the harpers of Dol Amroth heralding the coronation of King Elessar, to Elrond departing Middle-earth with a silver harp in hand in The Lord of the Rings, and from Finrod Felagund harping for an encampment of astonished men to the heartbreaking scene of captive Maedhros hearing the harp of Fingon in Thangorodrim in The Silmarillion, no other instrument receives such attention in Tolkien's writings. The harp could justly be called the soundtrack of Arda or the music of Middle-earth.
And when one considers that music was so fundamental to Tolkien's sub-creation that it was actually used to shape the world by the Valar whose voices were "like unto harps", it can add a new layer of rich enjoyment to spend a little time imagining what some of our most beloved scenes might actually have sounded like. This article will help you hear the legendarium, as well as read it.
A Brief History of Harps
The harp is an instrument of ancientry. Examples of its close relative, the lyre, pre-date the Egyptian pyramids, and in the early European context, stringed instruments of this kind are most closely associated with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. At least a dozen Pictish stone carvings show harps and harpers and, by my count, there are half a dozen references to the hearpe (harp) in the epic poem Beowulf, which Tolkien translated and so loved. For example, the line,
"Loud in the hall the thrum of the harp"
would refer to a lyre-like instrument similar to the one excavated at Sutton Hoo.
To imagine the sound of this instrument in the storied mead halls, we can turn to the excellent program The Story of English (which, incidentally, gave me my first introduction to my favorite Tolkien scholar, Professor Tom Shippey, and is a must-watch for any Tolkien fan). Here, Dr. Christopher Page sings the opening lines of Beowulf to the accompaniment of a lyre-harp:
In Tolkien's writing, dwarves, elves, and men all play some form of the harp. Depending on the state of culture you assign to the various peoples in varying ages and places, some of the music might well feature a lyre harp and singing like Dr. Page's.
By the 8th or 9th century AD, the harp took on its more familiar triangular form, developing into distinct instruments like the Irish cláirseach and the Medieval bray harp. The accompanying photo shows an outstanding depiction of an Irish harper on the 11th century Breac Maodhóg reliquary, and this is the same period in which a famous meeting took place in Glendalough, County Wicklow, at which harpers from Ireland and Wales came together to standardize aspects of their enchanting craft.
Moving forward from the Renaissance to the Regency, the harp continued to evolve via various shape and tuning innovations throughout Europe so that we find literary figures like Mary Crawford and the Musgrove sisters in Jane Austen's writings at home with large and elegant floor harps in their parlours.
And in Ireland, Scotland and Wales today, a strong tradition continues of playing old tunes like those of the famed 18th century harper Turlough O'Carolan, both on replicas of ancient harps and on the Celtic folk harps that have proliferated over the past century as a result of popular movements in folk and traditional music.
One of my own family surnames, Creedon, is associated with the celebrated harping tradition of Ireland, and here is a photo of my own lovely harp, crafted by the wondrous folk at Stoney End:
Tolkien, Celts and Elves
As a woman of predominantly Celtic-Norse heritage, I was, in a word, delighted when I reached the section of John Garth's dazzling book The Worlds of J.R.R Tolkien in which he outlines how much the professor's faërie owes to my ancestors. As Garth explains:
"Tolkien's debt to the Celtic West has long been severely underrated...Tolkien's Elves most resemble the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish mythology...They are both godlike and faëry; they arrive in mortal lands from an enchanted land over the sea; and they vanish back over the sea..."
To Mr. Garth, I offer a hearty go raibh maith agat (thank you) for his scholarship on this topic. I don't disagree with Tolkien's take that Celtic mythology is "mad" and like a "broken stained glass window". Wasn't it Freud who said the Irish are the only people who are "impervious to psychoanalysis"? But non-conformism and great art tend to go hand-in-hand and I'd argue that therein lies a great deal of the mystery of Celtic storytelling and music that has enchanted generations.
From his boyhood, Tolkien adored the Welsh language and modeled the soft beauty of Sindarin on it. He wrote his own versions of the curious sea voyage of Saint Brendan and of the Celtic King Arthur. He repeatedly visited Ireland. And it's a dominant theme of the legendarium that the West is the source of generativity, hope, and healing. Tolkien may have set out to create a mythology for England, but his sub-creation of the divine drew him across the mossy stones of Offa's Dyke into misty Wales and over the "ever-flowing billows" into mother Ireland.
In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien may have been walking an asterisk reality road of seeing elves amongst the Welsh and Irish "others". Some researchers posit that that the whole notion of hidden folk, fairies, and elves may be rooted in invasion. If a conquering people destroys or displaces the original inhabitants of a land, it's theorized that there is a temptation to pretend the sufferers weren't real, ordinary humans.
Instead, conquerors like the Anglo-Saxons might reconstruct a mythical identity for the misplaced Celtic Britons and then develop uneasy lore surrounding them that tends to focus on danger, tricks, and taboos. Whether this theory is accurate or not, the phenomenon is very apparent to any modern American who observes the denial and misappropriation of Indigenous cultures so prevalent in the United States since its founding.
But Tolkien loved the elves with a love supreme, and just as so many aspects of his elvendom spring from Celtic wells of story, his elvish music may best be imagined through listening to Celtic harpers.
And harps of gold they brought to him
If, like Bilbo, hearing music makes you feel "the love of beautiful things", take a moment to listen to one of Ireland's great young harpers and sean-nós singers, Séamus Ó Flatharta. Close your eyes and imagine the Fall of Gil-galad being rendered this way and don't be surprised if you find the hair rising along your arms with a delightful chill.
Then, imagine yourself in tree-tangled Mirkwood, lost and hungry and exhausted, and watch this video of Shimmer in the Shadows (a rather elvish song name!) by the harper Fiachra. Follow the music through the forest to the vanishing feast of Thranduil's folk:
I think gifted musicians like these, carrying on the ancient Celtic harping tradition, give us our best taste of what it might be like to sit in the presence of an Elvish harper. You could fill some very happy hours searching YouTube and imagining what a dwarvish harper might sound like compared to an Elvish one, or one of the men of Dol Amroth, based on the videos you discover.
When Eärendil arrives in Valinor to beg the intercession of the Valar for suffering Middle-earth, the elves gift him with harps of gold and and the sages instruct him in song and melody. There are so many repeated symbols of holiness running throughout Tolkien's legendarium. There are trees that are signs of hope down the Ages. There is water that is so much more than water when Ulmo rises from it or it falls on the roof of Tom Bombadil, or it carries Frodo away from the Grey Havens. There is the secret fire, and there are heritage gems, and salvific eagles. But of all the strains running through Tolkien's peerless writings, music may be the most powerful and important of all, because it begins the world. Surely, deep contemplation of this beautiful theme is worthy of further study.