Category Archives: books

Elves and hobbits still sing.

tolk-ens-4-cdOn my last night with my family in Colorado, I took a turn along with their parents to read aloud to the children a chapter of The Hobbit. They had all been enjoying the book together before Christmas visitors and pastimes interrupted their usual routine, and the chapter we read that night took us suspensefully close to the end of the tale. 

 What a joy it was to read more of J.R.R. Tolkien’s sublime storytelling; I was uncommonly grateful to be a narrator of his prose, and by that means to take part in the culturally lifesaving work of telling good and true — and fun! — stories.

Since then I have been hoping to post something related on Tolkien’s birthday, but I almost missed it again — it is today! Instead of trying to come up with something new, I am re-posting this article that I wrote a few years ago about the Tolkien Ensemble: 

I feel a bit foolish, having written in my last book review that I had been put off from “all things Danish.” The fact is, I was that very week exulting in what I had forgotten was a Danish phenomenon, the Tolkien Ensemble and their achievement of composing and performing music for all of the songs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It was a blog discussion of poetry that alerted me to the existence of this group, founded in 1995, and their recordings on four CD’s. I’m surprised that I never heard of them in the last fifteen years. As a mom reading the trilogy aloud to my children 25 years ago, I vaguely remember feeling inadequate when we came to one of the many songs in the novels. Tolkien’s verse has meter, and the poetry is affecting, but they are songs to the hobbits and other characters, and one longs to really sing them. I am not good at composing tunes on the spot; I wonder if Tolkien hummed appropriate melodies as he was writing? [Update: evidently he did!]

A 4-CD set was compiled after all of the recordings had been made over several years. There seem to be slight variations in the different editions and collections, but I have all four CD’s now, totaling 69 tracks, which I bought separately and mostly used. I’ve listened to some of songs many times, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of the music, and how each song is fitted with a composition that seems to me to be just right for it. I admit to being an amateur music critic, but I’m going to plow on ahead. If any of my readers are familiar with these recordings and know more about the field of music, maybe you can further instruct or correct me, or just tell me what are your favorite songs.

tolk-2000
Tolkien Ensemble 2000

Caspar Reiff, one of the composers, founded the Tolkien Ensemble in Copenhagen when he was in his late 20’s and studying guitar at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. His former guitar teacher and “multi-musician” Peter Hall joined as co-composer, along with fellow students from the music academy. They are a convincing advertisement for that school.

The Ensemble manages to create a fitting expression for every mood and activity that was put to verse in these books. The song of “Tinúviel” captures the urgency and enchantment of Beren who falls in love with an Elven maid and chases her through the forest and the seasons, calling achingly, “Tinúviel! Tinúviel!” until she in turn falls under his spell, and in her eyes “The trembling starlight of the skies/He saw there mirrored shimmering.” The drinking song Frodo sings at the Inn of Bree is a lot of fun, with accordion and fiddle, spoons and dishes. There are riddles, laments, and even a bath song. We have a hearty upbeat walking song as the few Hobbits are starting out bravely:

Farewell we call to hearth and hall!
Though wind may blow and rain may fall,
We must away ere break of day
Far over the wood and mountain tall.
To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

With foes ahead, behind us dread,
Beneath the sky shall be our bed,
Until at last our toil be passed,
Our journey done, our errand sped.

We must away! We must away!
We ride before the break of day!

Contrast this with Frodo’s more melancholy mood when he sings alone the song he learned from Bilbo. Update: “Old Walking Song”  It seems like the theme song for the entire tale:

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.

Many of the songs are sad. The whole story is rather bleak, of course, with the growing and unrelenting awareness that the former glory of kings and elves is fading fast and can’t be regained. The unhurried drama enacted in a lumbering musical conversation between the separated Ents and Entwives is heartbreaking, but it is one of my favorites.

They call to one another in their stately Ent voices that convey their tree-like, large physiques and great age. The Ent sings stanzas in a beautiful but heavy tone, with the refrain, “Come back to me,” and she replies, “I’ll linger here,” until the last verses when he says he will come to her, and then they sing in unison of a time when they will converge on a journey to where their hearts may be at rest.

The Elf Legolas sings a “Song of the Sea” that I didn’t like at first, I think because it put me off balance, as though I were on a ship being buffeted by the waves. But after a few times through, I got my sea legs and began to enjoy the feeling of the moist wind in my hair, and the sense of adventure.

The women of The Tolkien Ensemble have lovely voices that one imagines might be heard among those “misty glades” where Elves dwell and sing. They use them to good effect in several tracks about the lands and heroes of these wise and ageless creatures.

What might be called a Thinking Song, “Bilbo’s Song,” is one that he sings meditatively. The guitar accompaniment reminds me very much of the way my own mind can go round and round on a subject, ruminating. The strings are plucked in a quick and repetitive rhythm, perhaps with a drone note coming back frequently.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

tolk-2007
The group in 2007

gl-rivendell-i-ii

At right is the cover of the set of two disks I first bought, to find out if even liked them. It’s hard to find samples of the music online; you might pull up one or two on YouTube, and then you might find them taken down the next minute. If bought separately, the disks in order of production are:

1 An Evening in Rivendell
2 A Night in Rivendell
3 Dawn in Rivendell
4 Leaving Rivendell

But don’t worry – not all the action takes place in Rivendell. Those are just the disk titles, and the songs included on each disk are not necessarily in an obvious order, either.

I immediately found so much to love in those first two collections that I shopped sources for the other two disks. And after listening for a day or two, it was clear: I must read the trilogy again to put the newly appreciated songs in their context. That had been my desire after watching Peter Jackson’s film interpretation that was so disappointing, but I hadn’t followed through. So I dropped all my other Currently Reading books to read The Fellowship of the Ring. Now I am on to The Two Towers, still in the Company!

When I am listening to the recordings, and now reading the novel again, I often think about those days when I had my children gathered around me and we were all vicariously traveling across the mountains and wastes of Middle Earth. If it had been only ten years later, we could have paused at each song as it appeared in the story to play the companion track on a CD, and let the music sink into our consciousness and draw us deeper into the story. That kind of enrichment would have raised the quality of our literary immersion a notch, to be sure. The Tolkien Ensemble gave their final concert in 2008, but I’m confident that the fruits of their project will continue to give joy to Tolkien-lovers for a long time.

Update: At the time of the original posting of my music review, I couldn’t find any samples of the music to share, but just now I found the songs compiled on YouTube. Now you can listen for yourselves! 

middleearthlargelargerstill

Snow, rocks, and stories.

I’m still in Colorado, a little longer than planned, because of a change in my airline ticket; I decided to rebook with a different airline for my return trip, to reduce the risk of being affected by the recent spate of flight cancellations and chaos at airports. My new reservation is for a later date.

The family here is happy to have me a couple more days, and I’m quite content to be pampered by the family generally, to have extended cuddling, reading and game time, and two outings I’d otherwise have missed. Plus, we watched the TinTin movie together tonight. Laddie and I sat together scrunched into a recliner, with the kitten Clyde occasionally jumping on the back and trying to get us to play.

It was an action packed film, of the sword fighting, metal crashing and body-flinging sort, and little Clara worried at times for the safety of Snowy and TinTin especially, but she was too brave to want to leave and go to bed.

The three boys are very fond of their collection of TinTin books, and enjoyed seeing favorite characters and story elements recombined in the movie. Last week, shortly after Kate arrived here, I found her animatedly reading the Spanish version of this rare tale of Tin Tin en el Congo to Raj, found on the shelf here. I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire story of TinTin from beginning to end, but all my children became fond of them over the years, and we have become a multigenerational TinTin fan club.

Yesterday I went with Soldier and the boys on one of their favorite short hikes, to the Siamese Twins rocks up the mountains from Colorado Springs. The boys have favorite places to scramble there, and I found plants my Seek app was able to identify: Colorado Pinon, Utah Juniper, and Rocky Mountain Juniper.

Rocky Mountain Juniper

Soldier pointed out to me that you can see Pikes Peak through the gap between the Twins.

We woke this morning to a new, thick blanket of snow, much more than had fallen last week. I actually helped Joy and Liam to shovel the driveway clear, and then Soldier and I took a nice walk up the hill where the trees are tall and thick.

In the afternoon Joy and I took the boys to the neighborhood hill that is most famous for good sledding. Brodie and I made a snowman, and all the boys hiked up and sledded down the several runs for a couple of hours. It was fun to watch them from a place under pines where scattered slushy drops blew down from the trees on to my head. When the sun went down along with the temperature, we went home and ate popcorn.

Every day we spend hours reading aloud, and the boys all read to themselves, too. When Brodie unwrapped Old Yeller on Christmas morning he started in right away and hasn’t stopped. Liam received several volumes in the Redwall series which he is devouring.

This anthology of Christmas stories from Plough, Home for Christmas, has blessed us immensely. Last night while others were cooking dinner, I read “The Christmas Lie,” and could barely finish for choking up. Joy read “The Empty Cup” aloud at the breakfast table this morning; it is a story about a particular “Rachel weeping for her children” at the time of Christ; the Rachel in the story did find comfort. I have also read to the children “The Guest” and “The Chess Player,” both of which are stories of hearts changed by divine Love, so that they can enter into “the Spirit of Christmas.”

In the collection are selections from Henry Van Dyke, Elizabeth Goudge, Madeleine L’Engle, and Pearl S. Buck, in addition to many writers I was not familiar with before. I haven’t read half of them yet, but every one has pleased.

Likely this is my last post from Colorado, this year. By the time I get back to this site, it will be 2023. Dear Readers and Friends: Happy New Year!

In Colorado, the stars above my bed.

In-between December days.

The first half of the week was a flurry of activity: First a Santa Lucia Eve procession that I was invited to, with a few families I have been getting to know because of my involvement in a homeschool group. With the eldest girl wearing a wreath studded with candles, we processed through the neighborhood singing “Santa Lucia” in Italian — I admit I was only humming the tune because I haven’t become that involved to have learned the words in Italian or even English. Then back at the house, we added “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in the original German. Tea and Santa Lucia buns in their delicious quintessential selves finished out the evening’s simple program. I took the picture three days later so the greenery is a bit dried out.

The next night our women’s book group at church got together. Originally that meeting was to be a soup dinner for 10 at my house, but the time and place got changed because of a funeral; it was a big relief for me, because as soon as December arrived, I couldn’t imagine getting ready for a party at the same time I was getting ready for a trip, which this year is the case: I’m headed to Soldier and Joy’s for Christmas.

At the first part of the funeral, in the evening.

I made split pea soup, and we had a very festive group and evening, eating fish chowder, pumpkin soup and lentil tomato soups as well — plus accompaniments. Of course, cookies and vegan brownies, too! I don’t think I mentioned before what books we have been reading this time. They were Strength in Weakness by Archbishop Irenei Steenberg, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’d been wanting to gather my thoughts on The Secret Garden for about five years, so this was the impetus I needed to buckle down. I’ll share more about my resulting amateur analysis in the new year.

By Julia Morgan

Thursday I attended a tea party of about a dozen ladies and girls, several of whom I was meeting for the first time. Many of them are very accomplished, cultured and educated, and there was lots of fascinating conversation about our personal histories, world events, information about our local towns and the architecture of particular houses that were built by a relation of the woman sitting next to me. She was the only one there who is older than I, and she has been involved in our town’s history from way back, and continuing.

It was while this talk was flowing around me that the name of Julia Morgan, architect, made me pay closer attention; a bit more information about the time frame in which she worked, and I began to wonder if my grandfather was one of the contractors that she worked with in the San Francisco Bay Area; she designed more than 700 houses in California. I will be doing more research on that, but in the meantime I show you these photos of the Berkeley City Women’s Club building, in which my grandmother (on the other side of the family) was very active, and where she took us swimming when we visited her. That building has been called a “little Hearst Castle,” referring to the real (huge) Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, the estate that Morgan designed with William Randolph Hearst.

Since the tea party I have switched gears and stayed home, slowly working on wrapping presents, packing bags and organizing my thoughts in preparation for my departure. One by one little things that need to be done come to mind and I do them, or write them down. It is not very systematic, and the whole process seems to require frequent attention to everyday tasks like building the fire and tending the frozen fountain. I guess it’s because I’m not systematic that I require banks of time for the creative flow to happen. As I am fond of quoting G.K. Chesterton:

“I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind
that makes me unaware of everything else.”

Even things I’ve been procrastinating on for months must be put off no longer, whether or not they have anything to do with the trip — like making a phone call. My daughter Kate says everyone does the same at the end of the year, finally sending in reports or contacting loved ones, I guess because they don’t want to come back from Christmas break with “old business,” whether it’s work or family related, dutiful or joyful.

Now that I’ve procrastinated enough to get another unnecessary thing done, the writing of this post, I will have to hustle a little bit and fold the clothes I laundered, to figure out what to take with me. Before I know it, these in-between days will have ended and I’ll be boarding an airplane and on my way to a happy reunion with several of my dear family. I hope that on Christmas Eve we will sing “Stille Nacht.”

Life pouring in, every moment.

 “…the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.”

I’m sure I don’t know all the reasons, but my mind has often been overfull, or numb, or empty — or all three?? — of late, while as a whole embodied person I have been awfully busy, so much so that I also haven’t had time to be about the typical documentarist, analytical or musing business. I do feel that I am changing, which is to be expected, and is normal…  As I get older I often think, Who knows when I will wake up one morning without the strength to do ___ ? I better take my opportunity now!

So many of those opportunities keep coming my way, one after the other, cascading through the weeks. I am very thankful. In between, when I stagger into the house and drink my tea, read a few blogs and fall into bed, I feel incapable of putting thoughts together in writing here. Which is okay, because, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says,

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Even the things that are new to us as individuals are not new to humanity, and whatever I might think and write about has been said before. Maybe I myself even said it before! That is the case with the quote at top, which was part of a post I “wrote,” or assembled, to put it more accurately, several years ago. I was surprised and pleased to come across it today,  when WordPress was giving me fits and caused me to stay longer at my computer, when I ought to have been out shopping for Thanksgiving menu items. The old blog post helps me think about things I’ve been reading recently.

One of the opportunities I had this month was to participate in a newly formed local book group that was reading Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. I had been wanting to read something by Percy for at least twenty years; two or three books by him had come and gone from my shelves without being read. So I tackled the Cosmos book and joined the group, in large part to meet the other readers who were interested in such a book.

Walker Percy

I didn’t love the book, I think mostly because I have watched so little TV in my adult life, and was not familiar with the many references to shows and personalities; I missed the allusions by which I would have accessed the humor. In preparation for our group discussion I read a review of Lost in the Cosmos by Alan Jacobs, who claims that Carl Sagan is the main (unmentioned) character in the book, and that Percy is writing partly in response to the 1981 PBS series “Cosmos” (by Carl Sagan), which opens with Sagan’s narration, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Jacobs gives us his take: “‘Cosmos’ was not about science, but about allowing us to observe a scientist with an attractive personality as a substitute for thinking scientifically.”

The middle section of Lost in the Cosmos is a lesson in semiotics, and it was my favorite part, once I put my mind to it. I have wanted to learn about this field of study which someone has described as “an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated.” So that was another opportunity not to pass up.

If you remember watching “Cosmos,” or are interested in how modern man has lost himself, and what it all has to do with semiotics and television, you might want to read that review by Jacobs, or even read Lost in the Cosmos. A few people in our discussion group said that they like Walker Percy’s novels better than this ironic “self-help book”: The Moviegoer, for example. I hope I will get around to reading one of them.

The article that prompted my post of eight years ago, “Space is the womb of life,” was by Michael Baruzzini, in Touchstone magazine, titled “Lost in Space.” I had forgotten that Carl Sagan had ever been referenced on my blog, but in that article Baruzzini compares Carl Sagan’s view of “space” to that of C.S. Lewis’s character Ransom in the Space Trilogy (the “he” in the quote at top).

Baruzzini traces the development of modern man’s concept of the heavens to the point where Sagan could authoritatively tell us, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” He then shares some of what fills the heavens, revealed by modern scientific instruments — such as the “glowing background of radiation left over from the early moments of the universe,” and the invisible particles that show up in the aurora borealis.

One thing Sagan evidently gets right is how we are made of stardust! My readers are likely more aware of these discoveries than I am; as I said, I have watched little TV, and read few scientific articles or books. Still, I find it easy to get lost in browsing Hubble photos. More from the Touchstone article:

“[A]ll of the particles that make up our bodies and the familiar world around us are the products of reactions deep within stars. The same reactions that turn simple protons into the rocks and waters of planets also form the complex elements in living things, starting with the indispensable element carbon, which makes up the backbone of all organic molecules.”

A caption on the above photo reads: “This image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows the area around the Lagoon Nebula, otherwise known as Messier 8. This nebula is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.” The empyrean ocean! How did Lewis know?

Surely his understanding grew out of the richness of his Christian world view, which informed his knowledge of philosophy, theology and literature — something like Baruzzini describes:

“From the readiness with which medieval Christianity accepted the nested order of the Aristotelian universe, to the progressive cosmic orders of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and even to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation myth, which speaks of the habitation of man as nestled far within the ‘Deeps of Time,’ the idea of a universe of meaningful immensity and density has been amenable to the Christian mind. Man finds himself not lost in the cold, but placed precisely in a life-giving realm, not too unlike a developing infant folded deep in the tissues of his mother, or a vibrant reef enveloped in the nourishing flows and currents of the ocean.”

Flaming Star Nebula

The “meaningful immensity and density” is not only a quality of the material world: the earthly and heavenly things we can see, whether with the naked eye or modern instruments, are reflections of spiritual realities. The heavens declare the glory of God to a degree, but they speak of a personal God who wants to reveal His glory in the realm of the human spirit. Let us fall down and worship.