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