The on-line zine Metal Observer recently featured a short essay by “Alex” celebrating the granddaddy of metal aesthetics. No, not Ozzy, and not Jimmy Page either. Not even Anton LaVey. Alex chose instead to trace the influence of an Oxford linguistics professor, nearly 30 years dead, who amused himself in his spare time by devising his own languages and populating an imagined world with different races that might speak them. Pundits kvetched over the recent Waterstone’s poll that named this antimodernist’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, the best-loved book of the 20th century, but their questions about literary merit were even less pertinent than usual. J.R.R. Tolkien occupies a unique place as a shaper of internationally shared dreams, and perhaps no one dreams as deeply as a metalhead.
Alex writes: “Now here [is] a list of bands and artists, who have lent Tolkien’s creations for their own purposes, just to show the influence. Of course this list does in no case claim to be complete…Rivendell, Arathorn, Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul, Isengard (twice), Gandalf (also twice), Moria, Count Grishnack [sic], Lugburz, Ancalagon, Marillion (short for Silmarillion), Morgoth, Rhun, Amon Amarth, Gorgoroth, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, Ephel Duath, Morannon, Dagorlad, Elbereth, Morgul, Nazgul, Shagrath, Shadow Host, Cirith Ungol, Cirith Gorgor, Evereve, Khazad-dum, Nargothrond…”
Well, now. I’d say Tolkien didn’t invent the term shadow host, and I’d add to the list Grond (the name given first to the mace of Morgoth and then to the battering-ram of Sauron). But we’re still just scratching the surface: a devout fan with an archivist’s bent has devised a more comprehensive list at www.vikings.lv/witchcraft/jrrt/index.htm. Here we learn that there have been a dozen bands called Mordor (which rather, er, dwarfs the two Isengards and two Gandalfs), as many as six Nazguls (plus a Web zine), and a few more paying homage to Melkor. Not surprisingly, most are metal. Did you expect ingratiating Eurodisco from the fearsome Burzum of Norway? Their name means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor–as in that famous slogan (engraved on wedding bands everywhere), “Ash nazg thrakataluk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” Damn, that just sounds metal, doesn’t it?
And, of course, it sounds evil–you don’t need to know the prehistory of Middle Earth to guess that those are some villainous consonants grating against each other. Alex notes that his list is dominated by places and people that the professor, light-sider Catholic that he was, would never have endorsed; he created them to illustrate his notion of pure foulness. But Tolkien’s myths have been adopted enthusiastically by all sorts: fanciers of high-tech atavism and advocates of the primal, dwellers in the mainstream and refugees living on the far lunatic fringe alike. And their agendas have often differed from the author’s. Neofascists have named themselves after Orc captains, hippies fond of “pipe-weed” have named their daughters after Elven queens, and countless high school kids have written papers that compare the War of the Ring to World War II, always assuming the Ring represents the atom bomb and the hobbits represent the English.
Tolkien certainly felt that the hobbits represented him, but not everyone shares his humility. During the first surge of Tolkien’s worldwide popularity, which exploded with the first legitimate American paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s (roughly a decade after it was first published in the UK), he was embraced largely by idealists (Led Zeppelin among them) who wanted to align themselves with the noble, artistic, star-worshiping Elves, the freely wandering wizards, and the merry, ancient, and perpetually rhyming Tom Bombadil. Many found a kindred spirit in Tolkien’s foaming hatred of anyone who dared to harm a tree. Tolkien was a bit of a Luddite: upon conquering any territory, his villains invariably level forests and build dirty, noisy machines. So why did metal, once the noisiest and most electricity dependent strain of rock, pledge fealty to his creations?
I’ve always held that Tolkien is underrated as a horror writer. The chapters in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (the first part of Tolkien’s masterwork) in which the hobbits lose their way in the Old Forest, which is bent on misdirecting and thwarting them, and catch periodic glimpses of the deadly Ringwraiths hunting them by scent, have an exquisite Lovecraftian creepiness; the determination of Morgoth (who is indeed more goth than you) and his giant void-spinning spider companion Ungoliant to destroy the sacred twin trees of Valinor in The Silmarillion (Tolkien’s prequel to LOTR) is utterly bloodcurdling, and that’s not just my arachnophobia talking. Not a few readers of The Silmarillion thirsted for greater knowledge of the rebellious Melkor/Morgoth and his protege Sauron–some actually longed to hear the compelling dissonance Morgoth had the balls to introduce into the sacred music of creation. One Russian fan, a woman known as Niennah, went so far as to write The Black Book of Arda, or “The Black Silmarillion,” an interpretation of the story from Morgoth’s point of view. Tolkien was better at evoking evil than perhaps he wanted to be.
Metal, of course, divides into sub-sub-sub-genres as rapidly as English dance music, and its competing sects are just as fractious. It’s not uncommon to hear certain branches–say, straight-up death-metal or math-metal or thrash-metal–touted as “having all the raw force of metal without all that elves and wizards shit.” Me, I’ve always dug a bit of elves and wizards shit with my roaring grandiosity. The blare seems bland without it, like scrambled eggs without hot sauce. But though I’ve always preferred the more epic brands of metal and I keep a few Ronnie James Dio records around as a guilt-free pleasure, for a long time I didn’t know why I was so taken with a particular bit on the sound track to That Peter Jackson Movie–a Carmina Burana-ish choral piece with lyrics in an approximation of the Black Speech of Mordor that appears in the movie just about every time the Dark Riders do. It hit me one day that the thing was orchestral metal–sepulchral and eldritch and viciously melodramatic, possessing that certain je ne sais quoi endemic to the forces of ancient darkness.
The key word there isn’t so much “forces” or “darkness” as “ancient.” Any hack can stick some humanoid thugs in some spiky black armor and announce that they’re evil, but creating a reasonable facsimile of antiquity is a real feat. Unthinkable age is often itself a creepiness trigger in Lovecraft, but in Tolkien’s world it’s taken for granted that the Ringwraiths are hoary undead throwbacks to a darker and prouder age. Yet at the time of the Lord of the Rings, at a mere 4,000-and-change years old, they’re a pretty new innovation–Elves, being immortal, have a few still among them who remember a time before the sun and moon. It’s one thing to tell us all this, but Tolkien’s day job gave him a window into how languages and cultures shift and morph and replace each other. The fact that he worked on his world constantly from about 1917, when he was a young soldier, up to his death in 1973, gives his crumbling stone a verity you just can’t get via shortcuts. If there’s anything that epic metal and heroic sound track composers crave, it’s a sense of deep history, which is unusual in popular music.
Metal musicians may be attracted to Tolkien’s villains, but the chief appeal of his work lies in his effective simulacrum of antiquity–a prehistory of prehistory. Tolkien’s palette drew from real legend and lore, real religions (including his own), and real languages. He consciously intended to forge a new national myth for England; while he believed he failed, he did create a coherent myth cycle for many of his readers. His ambitious, ridiculous, wonderful goal isn’t just premodernist or antimodernist–it shoves aside the Age of Reason itself.
What could be more grandly attractive to the metal mind-set? Metal cherishes antiheroes who defiantly cross lines in the sand. And as in Niennah’s retelling of The Silmarillion or John Gardner’s Grendel or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s reimagining of the Arthurian villainess Morgan le Fay, metal is a place where alternate versions of stories can be told. Metal requires up-to-11 cosmic drama to justify its awesome feats of power, volume, endurance, and speed–all the better if there are immortals, gods, demigods, fallen angels, wolves, dragons, abject warrior-slaves, regal towers, ancient curses, fatal oaths, kingly destinies, accursed undead, black magic, and lots and lots of swords. (You wouldn’t set an episode of Friends to Wagner, would you?)
Take the song “Gorthaur Aulendil,” by the Russian band Rakoth, on their newly remastered and reissued 1999 album Planeshift (Earache). “Feel yourself different, never felt home here / Always a stranger, you’re fire in snow” the band sings to the minor god who would one day become the Dark Lord Sauron. “See–they’re afraid of you, you always scared them / Seeds of true vision, in hearts and minds you will sow.” Once it has expressed sympathy for the outsider, “Gorthaur Aulendil” extols a certain stubborn purity: “You achieved mastery in the art of forgery / But your first creation was dagger of steel / Never made stillborn golden flowers that others did / You prefer iron, the metal that’s real.”
Or take Nightfall in Middle-Earth, the 1998 album by the German progressive-metal band Blind Guardian, which tells several key Silmarillion stories of defeat, exile, and despair from the point of view of different characters, including the proud craftsman Feanor, done in by his rash oath of revenge against Morgoth: “My vision’s so clear / In anger and pain / I left deep wounds behind / But I arrived / Truth might be changed by victory / Beyond the void but deep within me / A swamp of filth exists / A lake it was of crystal beauty / But Arda’s spring went by / I’ve heard the warning / Well curse my name / I’ll keep on laughing / No regret…”
The artist as outcast is an idea that sunk its tendril into the culture during the Romantic period, when Europe also experienced a powerful resurgence of interest in national mythologies and ancient literature. It was in the 19th century that the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, was compiled from old traditional songs; the 19th century also saw the old tales of the Norse and Saxons and Celts reimagined and reissued in sparkling new editions. And it was as the 19th century tumbled into the 20th that W.B. Yeats penned his Celtic Twilight manifestoes and poems; in that same spirit (with a scholarly eye to the Old English), a few decades later, Professor Tolkien wrote his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which made the case for reading that epic as a breathing work of literature, not just a dry record of a dead language.
The reawakening of the old powers can be risky business. In an artist’s hands you get soul-of-a-nation masterpieces; in others you get, well, the SS’s grotesque appreciation of Wagner. Tread carefully, some say. But like Melkor before him, Sauron didn’t. And like both those nasties, metal doesn’t either–at least in its dreams. The discordant music that Melkor contributed to challenge the harmony of creation was bound to prick up some ears–a sort of primordial Diabolus in Musica with the power to alter the fabric of existence, or perhaps a primal, self-aggrandizing power chord. Because the inspiration of Melkor and Sauron is so grand, so proud, the devil’s advocates insist, it allows us to break away the petty tyranny of the everyday.
Most rock is very much of the moment. Indie rock lyrics, in particular, stripped of all blues myths and psychedelic dreams, are about as flat-footed as prosody gets: my roommate, my party, my girlfriend, my shit job, my anxieties, even m-my generation, stuttered more shyly than defiantly. It’s as if there were a dread of acknowledging a world that might have existed before the protagonist was born–why, that might mean the world will exist long after he or she is gone. Words like mortality or eternity, which metal warriors can’t proclaim loudly enough, are rarely uttered in the Shire of indie rock. This tiny world of ambivalent romance and polite solipsism has no room for the sort of night terrors and cosmic eruptions the romantics among us imagine our ancestors experienced regularly. Here queer folks who go having adventures are gossiped about by those whose meager spiritual needs are met by a good pint and a pleasant meal. Even if we tried to fashion a mythology for such a place, it might look…well, kind of like the Kia commercial with Ringwraiths pursuing the soccer mom in her SUV.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.