Music has always possessed the air of mystery around it. Enjoying a long history and a special charm of its own, the harp is, probably, the most enigmatic instrument ever played by people. The harp has often been ascribed magical qualities which are reflected in various myths, legends and tales featuring this ancient instrument. Though several races in Tolkien’s Middle-earth are mentioned as playing the harp, it is the Elves who are mostly associated with it: an otherworldly thing in its own right, the harp perfectly emphasises the Elves’ fairy nature. Let us begin the journey into the enchantment of the harp by looking into the tales and legends of old. The harp is an ancient stringed instrument — among the oldest ones in the world: various sources date the first harps to as early as 3500 B.C. Its shape is believed to have been developed and based on a hunting bow and its music on the sound of a bowstring.

For a long time the harp was the instrument of aristocracy, so its music could only be played and heard in noble houses or in the king’s court. Those who could harp were highly esteemed in society. During the Middle Ages the harp was a very popular instrument among minstrels and troubadours. The mediaeval harp was a rather small instrument (about 30 inches), so it was rather easy to carry around even for wandering minstrels. 

On various occasions harps were assigned magical qualities and they were considered an almost supernatural instrument. Kings took harpists to battle with them and usually the harpists escaped the battlefield unscathed as no one dared touch them because of their mysterious reputation. Expert harpists could play on humans’ emotions and feelings: sadness, joy and sleep were the three main states that they were supposed to be able to evoke. These properties of the harp music found their reflection in tales and legends.

In The Story of the Volsungs Gunnar manages to postpone his death by playing the harp. He is cast into a pit with venomous snakes, but Gudrun secretly brings a harp to him. Even with his hands bound, Gunnar plays the harp with his toes. So excellent is his harping that very few heard its like and so skilled it is that the music sends all snakes to sleep, save one. It is the worm that later casts a deadly bite to Gunnar. 

In the tale of Sir Orfeo King Orfeo is described as being a skilled harpist:

He played so well, beneath the sun

a better harper was there none;

no man hath in this world been born

who would not, hearing him, have sworn

that as before him Orfeo played

to joy of Paradise he had strayed

and sound of harpers heavenly,

such joy was there and melody.

(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 129)

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot – Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Wikimedia Commons)

It is his skill in music that helps Orfeo win his abducted wife Heurodis from the King of Faërie. Having ventured into the palace and found Heurodis there, Orfeo offers to play for the King in exchange for any boon if his music pleases the ruler. A gifted harpist, Orfeo does manage to impress the Faërie King and his court greatly, which wins him his wife back. Back to his kingdom it is Orfeo’s harp and exceptional music that help the steward he long ago left in his stead to recognise the ragged and worn man as King Orfeo.

The presence of Fairies and their great delight in Orfeo’s music is rather significant in the tale. In various mythologies Fairies are closely associated with the music of harps which are believed to be their chief instrument. Welsh legends mention various occasions of Fairies playing the harp or feature harps possessing magical qualities which range from making hearers dance while the music lasts to the instruments obeying the commands of those playing them.  

John Duncan – Riders of the Sidhe (Wikimedia Commons)

Celtic mythology introduces the people of the Goddess Dana a supernatural race, whose “harpers could make music so enchanting that a man who heard it would fight, or love, or sleep, or forget all earthly things, as they who touched the strings might will him to do” (High Deeds of Finn)God Lugh is a proficient harpist, and the harp of god Dagda, where he wove his music, can make those who hear it laugh, weep or sleep. Being the chief instrument of the Sidhe or the Fairy Host in Celtic legends, the harp can be heard all day from their dwellings. So unlike the music created by humans, the sound of the Fairies harping is best described in the episode when Finn hears the sounds of the fairy harp: 

Never such music was made by mortal hand, for it had in it sorrows that man has never felt, and joys for which man has no name, and it seemed as if a man listening to that music might burst from time into eternity and be as one of the Immortals for evermore.

(High Deeds of Finn)

In Middle-earth the wonder of the harp begins with the creation of the world. As the choir of the Ainur starts the Music which is to shape the future world Ainulindalë  the first instrument that the voices of the Ainur are compared with is the harp closely followed by its cousin the lute. 

The ability to play the harp in a very enchanting way is prominent in Tolkien’s Elves. Galadriel accompanies herself on the harp as she sings her Song of Eldamar and the Elves of Lothlórien say that their “hands are more often upon the bowstring than upon the harp” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 456). As Elrond is preparing to depart from Middle-earth, he carries a silver harp with him. In his search for Maedhros in Thangorodrim Fingon sings a song of challenge and plays his harp. Fëanor’s son Maglor is described as a skilled harpist. His mother-name Makalaurë is usually interpreted as ‘forging gold’ which is a poetic reference to the Elf’s wonderful harping often described as ‘golden’.

The Wood-elves of The Hobbit also play the harp as their instrument of choice: as Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves are walking through Mirkwood and find the feasting Wood-elves, it is the harp music that they hear. Later, hiding in the Lonely Mountain and surrounded by the armies of the Men and Wood-elves, Bilbo falls under the enchantment of Elvish music:

There was the sound, too, of elven-harps and of sweet music; and as it echoed up towards them it seemed that the chill of the air was warmed, and they caught faintly the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring. Then Bilbo longed to escape from the dark fortress and to go down and join in the mirth and feasting by the fires.

(The Hobbit, p. 303)

Official catalogue of the Illinois Woman’s Exposition Board (1893) – Wikimedia Commons

Elvish harping here is so magical that resisting it is not an easy task. The music has so much power that it can alter the atmosphere, the mood, the very quality of the air. Together with Bilbo, some younger Dwarves are touched by the sound and wish there were no bad blood between them and the Elves. 

A similar to Bilbo’s enchantment is experienced by Bëor’s people in The Silmarillion. When Finrod discovers the new race of Men in their night sleep, walks among them and takes one of their harps to play, the sound is so fair that the Men have never heard anything like it before. Being as if in a “fair dream” the Men hearken to Finrod’s song and are enthralled by the beauty of the music: their hearts grow wiser as they interpret Finrod’s song each according to their own measure. 

The ancient harp is not an ordinary instrument. As tales and legends show, people have been fascinated with is for hundreds of years not without a reason: the sound of the harp, which is a store of enchantment and beauty, can leave no one indifferent.

I express my deepest gratitude to Old Badger-Brock for putting me on the right path to this essay and Troy from Knight of Angels for his immense help in answering my questions and clarifying certain aspects for me.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo translated by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2006.
  5. T. W. Rolleston – The High Deeds of Finn and Other Bardic Romances of Ancien Ireland; Didactic Press (Kindle Edition).
  6. William Morris (transl.) and Eirikr Magnusson (transl.) – The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs; (Kindle Edition)

Images credit: Wikimedia Commons

19 thoughts on “Harp the magical.

  1. What a beautiful essay!
    I was especially struck by the story of Finrod taking his harp with him when he went among men for the first time. There certainly seems to be a link between music and wisdom in Tolkien’s thought. For those who have taken the path to darkness it only seems to be able to offer some kind of restraint as in Morgoth’s fall into sleep under the influence of Lúthien’s song. For those whose hearts are still open beautiful music has a beneficial impact.
    I recently heard the British composer and musical scholar, Michael Berkeley, talk about how singing in a cathedral choir as a young boy shaped the way he thought. I did not have that opportunity although I loved to sing and I still do. But I am very grateful both to my father and to my primary school headteacher, Graham Platt, who introduced me to so much beautiful music. I am convinced that, as with Berkeley, it taught me a way of thinking. Perhaps the drawing of the mind into the heart as the old spiritual guides put it.

    1. Thank you!
      In fact, it was one of the Men’s harps that Finrod took, and I find it even more fascinating, as it was a rude harp — definitely executed differently from Elvish instruments — and Finrod was still able to play fair unearthly music on it. Music indeed means a lot in Tolkien. I think it’s no coincidence that it can change the way people think and that Tolkien uses it in his writings. Music can influence us greatly! You were really lucky to be introduced to great music as a child!

  2. Thorin played a mean harp, himself. If he hadn’t been such an important dwarf, he might have tried the Sir Orfeo strategy to get out of the Elven-King’s prison. In my imagination, the elves would have been fascinated. I was in that position when I heard an Italian play a flat-picked guitar, sounding like he’d grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    1. Totally! Thorin and Co didn’t know their folklore at all. The white deer were lost upon them, too. Otherwise they would have prepared for the encounters of fairy kind and Thorin could have rehearsed a bit to harp more impressively.

    2. There’s nothing better than some old-fashioned picking! E.g. ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ from Earl Scruggs There’s a whole queue, sorry line of them. Get the Chinese guy at 1:10!

      I have a theory about plucked instruments such as the harp and banjo. The magic is because the loudest part of the sound is the very start, after that it’s an exponential decay. The sound is in your brain quicker than conscious perception can work (about 0.10-0.15 seconds). It seems to fall on you from some magical place

      1. It made me want to get a harp and start learning how to play it, too. Maybe this winter. Do you play the harp, or what prompted you to research the harp and its magical qualities in this manner?

      2. What a great idea! I think it’s a wonderful instrument to learn.
        Unfortunately, I can’t play any instrument at all. It was first the Finrod passage in The Silmarillion that got me interested in how he could achieve such an effect with his harping. Then I read Sir Orfeo and Orfeo’s ability to harp intrigued me. And finally, as I was re-reading The Hobbit in the summer, the passage with the Wood-elves’ harping added up to the previous interest and inspired me to look into some tales to research the harp’s properties in details.

      3. That indeed adds up. Sir Orfeo’s story sounds very fascinating. His name reminded me of Orpheus, obviously, and the story too, to a degree. Just another example of recurring themes in myth, I guess.
        Thorin and his “beautiful golden” harp, and how the dwarves’ music put a spell on Bilbo, also came to mind while reading your piece, even if the harp there is only one of many instruments.

      4. It’s in fact the Middle English retelling of part of Orpheus’ story: slightly changed and covering only the Fairy King part.
        Indeed! The Dwarves could enchant, too.

      1. Ahhh, the harp!
        For your pleasure, the Webb sisters performing the Master Leonard Cohen’s “If it be your will” in concert:

        Wonderful essay, I loved it. Thanks for your labor of love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.