The significance of songs in Middle-earth has long been established. By including poetry and verse into his books, Tolkien assigned different roles to them: transmission of historical information, telling of tales, giving messages. There are a lot of songs that give a sense of continuity and connect the events in Middle-earth throughout the times, linking the Ages of Arda together and showing how interdependent they are. A special place is given to the songs of challenge.
We do not see many verses in The Silmarillion, but there are constant references to the characters’ singing songs in different situations. Among many, there are several instances of what can be classified as a song of challenge, which, under the given circumstances, serve several purposes.
The first song of challenge, which is referred to, was sung by Fingon. After Maedhros was captured and hung by his right wrist from the precipice of Thangorodrim, Fingon went out in search of his old friend. He remembered their friendship in Valinor and wanted to heal the feud between the Noldor. Fingon’s quest was rather reckless from the very beginning: getting inside Morgoth’s stronghold to retrieve someone or something from there is shown as notoriously difficult or virtually impossible throughout The Silmarillion. While Fingon managed to climb unseen to the shoulders of Thangorodrim, we see even this valiant Elf despair when he noticed the “desolation of the land” and no passage which he could use to go within the fortress. In this desperate situation Fingon chose to challenge his enemy with the song:
Then in defiance of the Orcs, who cowered still in the dark vaults beneath the earth, he took his harp and sang a song of Valinor that the Noldor made of old, before strife was born among the sons of Finwë; and his voice rang in the mournful hollows that had never heard before aught save cries of fear and woe.
(Silmarillion, p. 124)
By doing this Fingon might as well have been looking for trouble, for should anyone have heard the song, the Noldo would have had a bitter battle to fight. The subject matter of the song itself is a bold challenge, too. Fingon recalled the times of bliss and “the song of Valinor” is open for a double interpretation: it could have been made in Valinor or be about Valinor. In any case, Fingon confronted the very dread of Angband with fair words and memories – the song that cherished beauty and friendship, happy and blissful times, standing in sharp contrast with the terror of Morgoth’s stronghold and power.
Despite this bold attempt, Fingon, nevertheless, drew Maedhros’s but not Orcs’ attention and was able to rescue his friend. Initially intended as a challenge and sung out of desperation, this song helped Fingon find what he had been looking for, and instead of bringing a battalion of Orcs on him, served as a signal to Maedhros, who sang in response and made his location known to Fingon.
More songs of challenge were sung by Beren. When awaiting his end in the dungeons of Sauron, Beren heard Lúthien’s song coming from above, and in answer he sang the “song of challenge that he had made in praise of the Seven Stars, the Sickle of the Valar that Varda hung above the North as a sign for the fall of Morgoth” (Silmarillion, p. 204).
When Beren heard Lúthien’s voice he thought he was dreaming but decided to try his luck nevertheless. His song, just like Fingon’s, challenged the power of Morgoth and praised the Valar and their power. The beauty of the stars also confronted Morgoth and his love of darkness with their light and the Sickle of the Valar constellation – with its implication. Beren’s song was heard by Lúthien, who then knew that he was alive, and together with Huan, the Hound of Valinor, they went on to save him from the dungeons.
However, it is not the last song of challenge that we hear from Beren. Sitting on the edge of Anfauglith and looking at Morgoth’s fortress Angband across the plain, Beren was preparing to venture inside to retrieve a Silmaril from the Iron Crown and, most likely, never to return back. There he made a song of farewell to the world and to Lúthien. What makes this verse unique is that the words of it, unlike those of the aforementioned ones, can be found in part in The Silmarillion, and in the full form – in The Lays of Beleriand. Here I give the beginning of the verse as it appears in The Lay of Leithian:
Farewell now here, ye leaves of trees,
your music in the morning-breeze!
Farewell now blade and bloom and grass
that see the changing seasons pass;
ye waters murmuring over stone,
and meres that silent stand alone!
Farewell now mountain, vale, and plain!
Farewell now wind and frost and rain,
and mist and cloud, and heaven’s air;
(Lays of Beleriand, p. 276)
Not only did Beren praise the beauty of the world in front of Morgoth’s fortress, but he also did this “very loudly, for he no longer cared if anyone should hear him: his desperation and hopelessness grew as he was gazing upon Morgoth’s stronghold” (Silmarillion, p. 210). Just like Fingon before him, Beren despaired in his situation and did not seem to care about the consequences of his singing any longer.
The beautiful sadness of this song is breathtaking: in the dark hour before he is about to meet his doom Beren recalls the grace of Lúthien and wonders at how fair and wonderful the world is. Undoubtedly, the beauty of nature is sensed even more keenly when the end seems to be so terrifyingly near. The manner and the topic of this song confront the very power of Morgoth and show that the world is a magnificent place even despite the evil in it. The words of Beren’s song directly oppose everything Morgoth pursued and his idea of how the world should be: the Man praised life before the very doors of Hell.
This song again helped Lúthien, who had secretly followed him, to find Beren. Just like in the dungeons of Sauron, Beren’s singing let her know where he was and thus a rather desperate quest to retrieve a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth became not so hopeless after the two joined together to fulfill it.
By singing the songs praising life and fair things in the world, Fingon and Beren confronted the power of the Dark Lord. The songs that might have caused death to them brought life instead: Fingon saved Maedhros and Beren did not have to fight for the Silmaril alone and together with Lúthien he succeeded where one could have failed. Sung in very dark places, these songs brought life out of imminent death and hope out of desperation.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lays of Beleriand; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
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