Among many powerful notions in the world of Arda few are more potent than music and language. Music is the essential element of Arda, its heart and soul, as the world was created and shaped by the majestic Music of the Ainur. And it was the word of Ilúvatar — Eä! — that brought the created vision to life.

The power of words in Middle-earth cannot be overestimated. If used masterfully, with subtlety and skill they can inspire others to do incredible things. It is especially prominent when words are put into verse: songs can become something a lot more potent than mere poetic recitals. I have already spoken about the songs of challenge in The Silmarillion: sung in the situations of dire need and despair, they bring hope and salvation against all the odds. A special place in the story is occupied by the songs of power. They are very effective verses able to create or destroy, be used as a weapon or for defence.

It is by means of a song that Yavanna brings to life the Two Trees of Valinor and, later, the last fruit and flower from them used for creating the Sun and the Moon after the Trees’ destruction. Finrod duels with Sauron on the songs of power. Lúthien sings an equally powerful song to make Tol-in-Gaurhoth tremble and be heard by Beren trapped in Sauron’s dungeons.

These songs are a truly mighty weapon. However, as we can see from the aforementioned examples, not everyone can use them with the necessary potency. There is a revered Valië, a mighty Maia, a daughter of a Maia and an Elvish King and a powerful Elf lord. All of these characters have a very special skill and, possibly, an inner power that allow them to use words with great effect, materialise them from the realm of spoken speech into the physical world. In the present essay I am going to have a closer look at one of the most dramatic and intense episodes of The Silmarillion — the song contest between Finrod Felagund and Sauron.

There is no actual text for the songs Finrod and Sauron use in their duel, but the rendering of the episode covering the main themes of their songs. The contest between the two became an ultimate battle for supremacy in one given scene with far-reaching consequences when Finrod stood to the defence of his, Beren’s and their companions’ lives. When we look at the duellists, the powers do not stand quite equal: an Elf, even though a powerful one, has to face a Maia, who was among the mightiest of his race. Nevertheless Finrod is ready for the challenge.

The first glimpse of the Elf lord’s powers shows when he changes his company into Orcs. Apart from using Orcish gear from their slain enemies, Finrod sings a spell “of changing and of shifting shape” (Lays of Beleriand, p. 226). This spell completes the transformation and makes the Elves and the Man unrecognisable. Finrod’s spell is so potent that it changes the company physically: their ears, mouths and teeth become Orcish. The words have a visible effect in the world, thus pointing at Felagund’s great skill with words and the songs of power in particular.

Still even such disguise cannot protect the travellers from Sauron’s (named Thû in The Lay of Leithian) notorious vigilance prominent already in the First Age. In Tol-in-Gaurhoth he watches “with sleepless eyes of flame” (Lays of Beleriand, p. 227) and notices a band of Orcs behaving strangely. By having them brought in front of him, showering them with riddling questions (note the subtle use of language again to trick the unwelcome guests) and surprised at their reluctance to swear blasphemous oaths for Morgoth, Sauron grows suspicious and turns to magical songs of power to deal with his visitors.

The renowned contest begins with Sauron’s attempt to bewilder his opponents with darkness, smoke and his “flaming eyes” “in which their senses choked and drowned” (Lays of Beleriand, p. 227). “A sorcerer of dreadful power”, Sauron is a mighty adversary to face:

He chanted a song of wizardry,

Of piercing, opening, of treachery,

Revealing, uncovering, betraying.

(The Silmarillion, p. 200)

Sauron’s main aim here is to discover the personalities of those in front of him. That is why the concept of revealing is so heavily present in the opening lines of the verse: it is emphasised by repeating the same idea using different words, topped up with Sauron’s key philosophy of treachery.

Finrod’s reply is aimed at hiding their personalities, keeping their true identities secret:

Then sudden Felagund there swaying

Sang in answer a song of staying,

Resisting, battling against power,

Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,

And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;

(The Silmarillion, p. 200)

Overpowered by Sauron’s presence and sorcery, Finrod has a hard battle to fight. Still even under such dire circumstances the Elf lord does everything to hide who he and his companions really are. First, he does not wish to give this information to their enemy and lay everything bare in front of Morgoth’s lieutenant. However, there might also be another motive at play. In mythologies knowing an opponent’s real name gives one control over them, including in a magical way. So Finrod is careful not to give this extra trump card to Sauron. He parries everything the Maia presents to him with opposite notions: trust against treachery, staying against revealing, freedom against thralldom.

The first part of the contest is very dynamic. Tolkien uses words or short word combinations instead of full sentences to create the picture of a song shooting to and fro, flying between Finrod and Sauron as quick, piercing darts.

The tone then shifts dramatically when the duellists begin exchanging imagery. Word combinations turn into sentences and the poem runs more smoothly. Finrod uses all his power and might to bring light into the darkness of Sauron’s fortress:

Softly in the gloom they heard the birds

Singing afar in Nargothrond,

The sighing of the Sea beyond,

Beyond the western world, on sand,

On sand of pearls in Elvenland.

(The Silmarillion, p. 201)

In his song Finrod puts everything avert to darkness and gloom against Sauron: the delicacy of nature, pearly beaches, the eternal majesty of the Undying Lands, the unspoilt beauty of the Elven realm beyond the Sea. Finrod’s song is so powerful that the singing of the birds and the sound of the Sea are actually heard in Sauron’s dark tower. His masterful command of words again materialises the notions the Elf is singing about and makes them come alive in the gloom of the fortress. The darkness gives way to light and the victory seems so near. Unfortunately, Sauron has a counter argument which is far more powerful:

Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing

In Valinor, the red blood flowing

Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew

The Foamriders, and stealing drew

Their white ships with their white sails

From lamplit havens.

(The Silmarillion, p. 201)

Sauron’s move is cruelly effective. There is no way the Noldor, who persisted with their march to Middle-earth following the Kinslaying at Alqualondë and the Prophecy of the North, can escape from the shadow of the horrible deed.  Even those who did not take part in slaying of the Teleri are under the Doom of Mandos and it is to haunt them in Middle-earth for years uncounted. Finrod, too, is under the Doom and in the present situation of dire need it costs him a dear price. The reminder of the Kinslaying drains all the power from his song and the gloom returns more potent than before. It becomes real and ousts the light, silences the birds, the Sea and eventually overcomes Finrod: “Thunder rumbles, the fires burn—And Finrod fell before the throne” (The Silmarillion, p. 201).

The rhythm of the poem in those final moments shifts again and becomes abrupt, the sentences — short and reminiscent of heavy blows: The wind wails, The wolf howls. The ravens flee (The Silmarillion, p. 201). The tone conveys the nearing outcome so that even before reading the final lines we know that Finrod cannot win this duel with the Kinslaying as Sauron’s deadly argument.

Even though he lost the song contest and the tragic fate befell most of the company afterwards, Finrod fought with Sauron the Maia as if they were equals. No Elf of ordinary disposition, Finrod had a great power with words which showed in how he used them in the songs of power to create physical effects in the world by the power of songs.

Further reading:

On Lúthien’s power of singing
On the songs of challenge

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lays of Beleriand; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

16 thoughts on “On the songs of power.

  1. Thank you, that was a both interesting and entertaining read. I just recently read the Beren and Luthien edition that came out last year where some of this figures in as well, and thought then that I need to re-read the related passages in The Silmarillion… Your post enforced this! 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      It’s a powerful episode. Everything connected with it is so evocative, so dramatic. I love its treatment in The Lay of Leithian in a fuller and very expressive manner.

  2. As your title says, the songs have power, as much as the singer. Bombadil said, “I know the song for him!” So Finrod wasn’t crazy to challenge Sauron, as long as he thought he had a sufficiently powerful song. But Sauron was awfully good at songwriting, himself.

    It is said that elven universities don’t have football teams, but on a Saturday afternoon the two student bodies assemble in a stadium and sing their fight songs at each other.

  3. Of course that is the point. Sauron is an accuser and Finrod is implicated in the kinslaying, which, in part at least, was Feanor’s intention. He wanted to make all the Noldor a part of his rebellion. Sauron knows that even the noble Finrod is not able to claim innocence and just as he did not make a convincing orc neither can he match one for whom power is the only thing that matters. Luthien on the other hand has a purity of life and of desire that Morgoth cannot fathom. But Finrod’s noble defeat is not in vain and that is something that Sauron cannot understand either.

  4. I enjoyed your essay very much. Tolkien wrote so much into his books that it is difficult sometimes to see the full scope of what he wrote. Using song for a duel is an inspired notion from a master.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you did!
      Right. His application of songs, their importance and role in Middle-earth are hard to overestimate. They are an essential part of that world, much more than mere story-telling or information sharing.

  5. I think the part “Then the gloom gathered…” is not Sauron, but Felagund. First Felagund conjures the memories from Valinor and then he cannot prevent the memories of the kinlsying arising. Sauron just has to lean back and wait for Felagung destroying himself, because Felagung cannot live with his own guilt. In the end Felagund is killed and Beren saved. By giving his live for Beren Felagung is cleared and can live again in Valinor.
    Thank you for your work!

    1. Thank you for reading!

      I see this part about gloom as a not-so-friendly reminder from Sauron of the deeds of the Elves, of the Kinslaying. In my view Sauron, knowing of what happened in the Blessed Realm, just conjured up those images to destroy Finrod quicker, to defeat him fully.

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