For literature enthusiasts and film enthusiasts alike, there is one story with which everyone is more or less familiar: The Lord of the Rings. It’s a tale of good versus evil that has withstood the test of time and remains one of the leading fantasy stories in fiction to date. J.R.R. Tolkien uses successful literary devices to bring his characters and story world to life, and Howard Shore utilizes musical techniques to expand on these ideas.
Outside the Story
Shore uses musical leitmotifs to create an ambiance, in lieu of literary techniques. Suspension of disbelief, narrative voice, and character and plot development come as a privilege for literary storytelling, and they are crucial to Shore’s contribution.
Many themes that appear in The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s score serve literary purposes. With so many pivotal characters in The Lord of the Rings, it is all too easy to lose track of characters and their motivations, so Shore adapts specific tools within the score using musical elements. Character development, for example, is illustrated through shifting settings of a character or place’s theme. Even the decision of where to put each theme can change the entire tone of the film, a good example of which is the musical cue “The Shire: Pensive Setting.”
“The Shire: Pensive Setting” is a theme that encapsulates the heart and soul of the narrative. The story revolves around Frodo, who lives in the peaceful Shire. To capture the carefree happiness that the Shire represents, Shore created a simple eight-bar melody often heard either in full orchestration, solo whistle, or clarinet (Adams 23). The instrumentation creates an innocent and carefree feel, which is highlighted at the beginning of the film, when Frodo is ignorant of any danger.
While the Shire itself is only shown in the film at the very beginning and very end of Frodo’s journey, the idea of the Shire is prevalent throughout and plays a pivotal role in many characters’ motivations. The Shire theme is memorable in its simplicity, and “Pensive Setting” follows Frodo wherever he goes.
If you listen closely to the scene near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, you can hear the Shire’s sweet theme in the background as Sam declares his loyalty to Frodo. The more hopeless the situation is, the simpler and sweeter the version of the theme becomes. It stands as a reminder of why Frodo has become a hero and what is at stake.
The Seduction of the Ring
As Frodo loses himself more and more to dangerous situations and horrifying enemies, the memory of the Shire always rests in the back of his mind. And while the Shire represents innocence, the One Ring, on the other hand, represents corruption.
The One Ring’s importance in the story is highlighted by its strong musical character. Often at the center of attention, the One Ring appears in many places in the tale and has varying effects on different people, most of which are manipulative.
Much like every other character, the Ring has a distinct voice and personality and may debatably be considered as one of the major villains in the series, considering its constant malevolent presence and connection to many of the core characters. Unwaveringly loyal to Sauron (the villain who represents pure evil), the Ring itself is perhaps the most active antagonist on screen as well as on the page.
It makes sense, then, that the Ring would also have one of the most “proactive” themes in the musical score (Adams 14).
Because of its wide-reaching influence, the One Ring’s musical identity is split four ways, each exploring different facets of its power: history, evil, fate, and seduction. “The History of the Ring” exposes the truth of the Ring’s background in its inherent evil and is used in the Prologue scene as Galadriel narrates the birth of the Rings of power.
“The Evil of the Ring” presents the Ring as completely evil and hints at growing corruption. As Frodo journeys nearer and nearer to Sauron, this musical idea becomes more prevalent. “The Fate of the Ring” discusses the One Ring’s destiny and includes triumphant chords as the heroes begin to show a bit of optimism. A moment like this appears in The Return of the King when Gandalf points out that even though Sauron is sending his army after them, Sauron still does not know where the Ring is (Adams 19).
But perhaps the most well-known Ring theme and the one that has the greatest impact on the characters is “The Seduction of the Ring.”
The “Seduction” theme is possibly the most consistent theme in the score. It carries a single, seductive line that represents the Ring’s most merciless temptation: the power to fulfill one’s greatest desire, whatever it may be.
While all other incarnations of the Ring’s musical identity are clearly presented as evil, “The Seduction of the Ring” presents the object as something innocent and beautiful with its simple melodious line, perhaps even lulling the audience into a hypnotic lure.
Shore drives the point home with the inclusion of a boy’s chorus, which is usually related to innocence or purity (Adams 17). This is how the Ring chooses to present itself to its victims. The Ring’s temptingly beautiful self-image is a consistent trait throughout the story. The other Ring themes constantly shift and change to suit the needs of the story because they inherently represent more than one person or object and consequently change as the people and story develop. The One Ring, however, has a quality that will never change as long as the Ring exists.
To express this, “The Seduction of the Ring” remains much the same throughout the film, so much so that it appears in its original form throughout most of the story, foregoing even key changes and variety of orchestration (Adams 17).
Because of its strong grasp on weak-minded mortals, the Ring inserts itself into characters’ minds to subconsciously influence them to do its bidding. Even the Fellowship doesn’t escape this influence. One important aspect of the Ring’s role in the story is to cause dissension, which nearly upends the Council of Elrond, when the rulers of Elves, Dwarves, and Men cannot come to a decision on what to do with the Ring.
Here, we first meet one of the Ring’s most well-known victims: Boromir of Gondor.
Boromir is the prime example of good intentions gone corrupt, as the “Seduction” theme clearly illustrates. One of two human members of the Fellowship, he loudly and frequently voices his opinion on what should be done with the Ring. Instead of destroying it, Boromir argues that the Ring should be used as a weapon against Sauron to protect Gondor, his beloved kingdom.
“I ask only for the strength to defend my people,” Boromir says in frustration towards the end of the first film. This pure desire becomes his Achilles Heel, as the Ring is a master of manipulating even the most innocent of motivations.
The “Seduction” theme plays as Boromir picks up the Ring which Frodo has dropped in the snow, and his prolonged look of twisted longing foreshadows the Ring’s eventual victory over Boromir’s mind.
I ask only for the strength to defend my people.
– Boromir of Gondor, The Fellowship of the Ring
Even when not outwardly causing the group to turn against each other, the Ring is responsible for the journey to Mordor as well as the initial forming of the Fellowship. Because of this undeniable connection, “The Seduction of the Ring” theme appears in the Fellowship theme many times, and they tend to share the same melodic contour in their first few notes. The Ring becomes the focus of everything and everyone, even when it is not directly causing trouble.
If “The Seduction of the Ring” is the one of the simplest musical ideas with strong emotional impact, then “The Fellowship” theme is perhaps the most complicated.
Many of the themes first appear in near-entirety, but the “Fellowship” theme subverts this pattern. The importance of character to the story’s music is most apparent, as the “Fellowship” theme becomes more complete with each new character that appears on the screen.
The first inkling of this heroic theme comes when Frodo and Sam reach the edge of their known world. A literary moment like this would be called Into the Unknown, the point at which a character leaves the Ordinary World and chooses to embark on the adventure. When Sam stops in a Shire cornfield and declares that this is, “the farthest from home I’ve ever been” (Jackson 2001), he is announcing a crucial moment. Because the true adventure begins here, the “Fellowship” theme is introduced and begins to build on itself in such small increments that one might not even notice until the entire theme has come together.
At this point in the story, the Fellowship does not exist, and only two members make up the company journeying with the Ring. Because of this fragment of what is to come, the “Fellowship” theme is also fragmented, giving the musical idea the feel of something only half-formed.
As Act I of The Fellowship of the Ring progresses, bits and pieces of the same theme are interwoven.
A hint of heroic tones sound as Gandalf rides to Isengard.
Aragorn’s first appearance as “Strider” marks the beginning of a triumphant resistance against Sauron.
Little by little, the rest of the Fellowship come together: Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir join them at the Council of Elrond. And it is at the council that the first full orchestration of “The Fellowship” is heard as four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard stand together to proclaim that they will bear the Ring to Mordor and destroy it. Here, as the horns blare in triumph, Elrond announces that they are the Fellowship of the Ring.
The theme marks a turning point in the story, transforming a moment in the course of events into a truly astonishing scene that gathers bits and pieces of what came before it into a fully-realized moment, the beginning of adventure. It is here, during the Council of Elrond, that the Fellowship feels hole: here, “Fellowship” appears in its entirety for the first time.
It is interesting to note that the “Fellowship” theme carries as much tonal weight as it does thematic weight. The nine-note theme (Adams 82) reflects the nine members of the Fellowship, and the number nine bears much significance in folklore and mythology.
Nine appears again and again across different ancient legends, from the nine Greek muses to the nine worlds of Norse mythology, the reason being that nine is “a trinity of trinities” (Adams 82). Tolkien inserted this trope into his own world-building, taking from past legends to bring his own myth to life. Even before the members of the Fellowship are born, Sauron gives nine rings to each leader of Man, a “gift” that eventually transforms them into the ghostly Ringwraiths.
Much later, the Fellowship is formed with nine members, therefore reclaiming the significance of the number to mean resistance instead of a fall from grace (reclamation, as we see later, is also one of the driving themes of the trilogy). To build on these narrative contrasts, Shore brings the number nine’s significance to life: the “Fellowship” theme declares its presence with a solid nine-note melody.
The “Fellowship” theme also emphasizes moments filled with tension, using the meaning that has been attached to the musical idea to signal a moment of suspense or importance. Its significance becomes more intelligible in the Moria scenes and highlights the tension-filled heroic plot points. Their mountain pass blocked by a blizzard, the group decides to pass through the dwarf mines. This, unfortunately, only adds more danger to the heroes’ journey: the Moria mines are overrun with monsters from the deep.
One such example of “Fellowship” used to heighten tension is the escape from the Balrog, the fire demon who now lives in the mines. Just as Aragorn and Frodo make it to the other side of a wide chasm to join the others in the flight, “Fellowship” signals this moment as a strong milestone for the group. This same scene also uses the absence of music to highlight a moment of shock and tragedy. Their seemingly successful escape is overshadowed as Gandalf falls to his death in near-silence.
Fly, you fools.
– Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring (as he becomes a meme)
Setting aside the use of nondiegetic music in a storytelling sense, music appearing inside the world of the story can serve as a tool for deeper immersion, even while the credits roll. In many films, the music during end credits keeps the same tone as the rest of the film, yet Shore adds a new dimension to this idea as a reminder of the story’s heart. He returns to “Bilbo’s Song” at the end credits of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings, a callback to The Hobbit, the book that began this entire literary journey. This is an interesting choice, as it reflects the idea of the literary flashback, a break from the present storyline to remind the audience of a specific moment in the past.
“Bilbo’s Song” engages the audience in a sense of nostalgia of what they have just seen and heard, a fitting reflection on the story in its entirety. In literary terms, this tool would be called the epilogue, a portion of text that typically extends story for a few breaths longer than needed in order to slow the pace down to what feels like an organic end and let the impact of the story linger in a reader’s mind. The epilogue tool that Shore uses takes text directly from Tolkien and conveys a feeling of quiet contemplation. Since the entire journey for the Ring began with Frodo’s merry uncle, Bilbo, it is fitting that the journey would end with Bilbo’s calm ramblings. The lyrics are not imbued with a great amount of meaning; as Bilbo reflects on his adventures in the past and the world he once knew, he also looks to the future in search of the next adventure (Adams 358).
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.
“Bilbo’s Song” subtly identifies Bilbo’s journey as the beginning and end of the story, creating an elegant organization to the structure of the tale. The song’s purpose is twofold: it establishes the end of the film trilogy with the correct tone, and it finishes a character arc that is only briefly touched upon throughout the trilogy.
Previously: A Brief History of Musical Storytelling
Next Time: Examples of Diegetic Music