10/7/16 UPDATE: I highly recommend you check out Nerdwriter1’s video on Howard Shore’s LotR score. It briefly mentions the “Lothlórien” theme as it appears in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which flew completely over my head, but mostly focuses on the “Fellowship” theme. 10/10. Would watch again.
Quick! Say the names of all the characters from Lord of the Rings ten times as fast as you can! Mithrandir, Peregrin, Thranduil, Dúnadan, Saruman, Galadriel…
If you’re anything like the makers of “Honest Trailers,” you’ll give up before you make it to the main characters. I don’t blame you. The names are complex and difficult to remember, especially since place names are equally tongue-tying (Cirith Ungol and Minas Tirith, for example.) As a philologist, author J.R.R. Tolkien created the fictional languages from which these names are derived and (over-achiever) decided he would build a whole world around them. These languages include Quenya and Sindarin, two forms of Elvish, and Adûnaic, the language of Men in the Second Age, along with several others cultivated throughout his lifetime. And he based an entire British mythology around them with Tbe Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, among other works.
What? No, I’m not obsessed. What makes you say that?
If you are unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings, know that director Peter Jackson’s films are relatively faithful adaptations of the books. They tell the story of a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who inherits the One Ring – an evil object with a mind of its own. The Ring once belong to Sauron (voiced by Sala Baker), the Dark Lord who once ruled over the realms of Middle-earth (Tolkien’s version of Europe in an imaginary time period.) He was eventually defeated in battle, but still haunts the land of Mordor, his old headquarters, and seeks to find his Ring to regain his former power. Frodo and eight mismatched companions known as the Fellowship of the Ring set out to destroy the Ring and break Sauron’s last hold on power.
The plot fits neatly into a typical “quest” archetype, but the characters, realms, races, fighting habits, and cultures are far more complex. They are so numerous that those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Tolkien’s mythology may muddle and homogenize them.
Howard Shore’s award-winning score uses leitmotif to help differentiate between the various cultures and characters represented in the films. For example, the theme for the men of Gondor features brass as its primary instrument, and has a stately sound to it, whereas the theme for the horse-riding men of Rohan relies more on strings and a regal but free sound, reminiscent of Celtic music. It is hard to forget Boromir’s (Sean Bean) lineage when the “Gondor” theme underlies his scenes, just as there is no doubt that Théoden (Bernard Hill) is King of Rohan because of the music that accompanies him. But Shore did not merely use leitmotifs to distinguish characters and culture. He also used them to build culture the same way Tolkien did with language.
I took an AP Human Geography class in my Freshman year of high school. During one busywork exercise, we were required to create a pop or folk song based on a unique aspect of culture. I don’t remember what my team did – some parody of “Rolling in the Deep” – but I remember watching Lord of the Rings afterward for what must have been the 575th time and thinking that Shore tapped into culture directly through his music. A great example of how Shore did this is the piece “Lothlórien,” introduced in first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, during a scene where the Fellowship flees the Mines of Moria (you may watch the scene here – but spoiler alert, they mention the death of a main character.)
“Lothlórien” is significant because of how it contrasts with the other primary theme for the Elves – “Rivendell.” Both are based on the geographical regions shown below. Long story short, the elves of Lothlórien and the elves of Rivendell came from different backgrounds and have different hierarchies. The elves of Rivendell are lead by the Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), while the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the Lord Celeborn (Marton Csokas) govern Lothlórien. Tolkien differentiated the two groups in various ways, such as comparing the elves of Rivendell with “night” and the elves of Lothlorien with “day.” Their poetry and song is often different as well.
The elves in The Lord of the Rings often chant verses for prayer or reflection, but their musicality was open to Shore’s interpretation. He designated more traditionally Western choral music for the Rivendell elves, with harps, strings, and pipes as the primary features, and references back to “earthier” themes, such as “In Dreams.” “Lothlórien,” on the other hand, was designed to have a more exotic sound to it – one that would come across as more mysterious and forbidding to the ordinary Western ear. It was openly modeled after an Arabic form of music called the maqam hijaz, and uses lesser-known instruments such as a sarangi (an Indian bowed lute), an African flute (or “ney” flute), and a monochord, a 50 string instrument that produces a distinctive droning sound when played. The choir also sings in Quenya, rather than Sindarin, which is often favored by the Rivendell elves. The ancient, foreign sound cultivated in “Lothlórien” shows Shore’s skill in worldbuilding. Since Tolkien spent fourteen years writing The Lord of the Rings alone, Shore wanted to create a “musical mirror” to his writing by doing his cultures justice through music.
“Lothlórien” is also a good example of how Shore was able to demonstrate the overlap and interaction between various cultures in different situations through music. In The Two Towers, the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the “Lothlórien” theme is revisited (spoiler alert). It is heard as troops from Lothlórien and Rivendell march to defend Helm’s Deep, a fortress run by the men of Rohan. It is not the exact same music as before, however – now it is militarized, with an added drumbeat (you may watch the scene here, starting at the 1:00 mark). The theme becomes even more warlike at the beginning of the battle, as brass replaces the choir and the industrial theme of the orcs blends with the elves’ melody (you may watch the scene here, starting at the 2:40 mark). By altering the leitmotif, Shore reminds his audience of the elves’ homeland while pitting them against an entirely new race.
Shore’s total immersion in the worlds of cinema and of Middle-earth made him the perfect man to map out its lands and cultures. He often read sections of the history of Middle-earth aloud to the musicians before recording sessions. He wanted his score to reflect the ancient nature of Tolkien’s mythology, and said he hoped his audience would “have the feeling that maybe [they] discovered the score somewhere […] at the bottom of a sunken ship or something.”
He certainly succeeded. Shore’s work for The Lord of the Rings won numerous awards, including two Oscars and two Golden Globes. His success continues today, as he recently scored Spotlight, this year’s Best Picture winner.
Now, if only he could travel back in time and teach my AP Human Geography class. He could make me write Taylor Swift parodies all year and I wouldn’t care. It would give me an opportunity to find out how his brain works. I wonder how one human mind can create nations from melodies.