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Old 03-21-2010, 01:21 PM   #1
Estelyn Telcontar
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Dark-Eye "An Impenetrable Darkness", Michael Cunningham

I have always been rather puzzled over the number of heavy metal recordings that utilize Tolkien's themes and lyrics, so I very much looked forward to reading this chapter in the book. Michael Cunningham concentrates on Black Metal music, especially in Scandinavia (Norway is the leading country for this segment of the music market) - a wise decision, avoiding the pitfalls that could have accompanied a superficial treatment of too much material.

The author includes personal interviews with a number of artists, who tell of their reasons for choosing Middle-earth as the backdrop for their songs. The connection between M-e and Nordic mythology is an obvious motivation, and in addition, the anti-Christian sentiments of many (predominantly young) people involved lead them to sympathize with Tolkien's villains, who have become their heroes. Melkor/Morgoth, Sauron and the orcs inspire them, and the element of darkness is an important theme.

I was not aware of the gaming background of many extreme metal musicians, who came to Tolkien not only through the books, but also through the role-playing games.

Various aspects of black metal are explained, such as the costumes and the "corpse-paint", comparing them with Tolkien's descriptions of his evil characters. The different directions that musicians have taken in the metal scene are mentioned.

This chapter was a real eye-opener, and no mistake! I learned a lot about a style of music which is almost completely unfamiliar to me, and found both the history and the personal motivations of the musicians fascinating to read about. I now can better understand the connection to Tolkien - though I rather imagine that he would roll over in his grave if he knew about the influence his evil characters have. Also, knowing a bit about his musical taste, I'm pretty sure he would be appalled if he heard the sound of black metal music!
'Mercy!' cried Gandalf. 'If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?' 'The whole history of Middle-earth...'
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Old 03-26-2010, 09:55 AM   #2
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I agree. Sometimes I wished we could have attached sound clips to the book as it's difficult to write about such things without illustrative samples.

I admit to not knowing much about Metal music, or to being especially interested, but I found Cunningham's article to be very approachable and even witty in places, while still doing justice to the topic at hand.
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Old 05-13-2010, 09:56 AM   #3
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I found this essay very interesting, but shocking!
Like Esty I knew next to nothing about this kind of music. I had no idea that Norway, a country of which I have many fond memories, is a center of Black and Death Metal. (And I hadn't heard about the church arsons either. I remember the beautiful ancient Fantoft stavkirke - what a barbarous thing to do!) Why this hatred of Christianity, I wonder? And how can one read LotR and not be inspired by the nobility and the goodness but by the enemies??

I was also reminded of the winner of the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest, the Finnish Heavy Metal Band "Lordi". In their costumes they really did look like orcs, Esty and other Downers who had also watched them thought immediately of orcs too.
What I didn't realize at the time was that there were bands that actually admitted to having been inspired by Tolkien's villains and wanted to emulate them!
I agree very much with Esty's statement about Tolkien:
though I rather imagine that he would roll over in his grave if he knew about the influence his evil characters have. Also, knowing a bit about his musical taste, I'm pretty sure he would be appalled if he heard the sound of black metal music
and having listened to some samples on You-Tube, I'd say that the Tolkien Quote (from LotR) used in the essay is spot-on:
Much of the same sort of talk can be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those whom only the squalid sounds strong
Yes! "wish-fulfilment dreams" we spin to cheat
our timid hearts, and ugly Fact defeat!

Last edited by Guinevere; 05-14-2010 at 09:27 AM. Reason: a typo
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Old 05-13-2010, 12:15 PM   #4
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I'm not a big fan of death metal, moreso of power metal. Though I do know that many power metal bands (Blind Guardian having done Nightfall in Middle-Earth) have a lot of Tolkien insparation, so this is not too suprizing to me. Though I can just imagine how aweful death metal sounds, it wouldn't be my first choice to wright a Tolkien-based song.

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Old 09-09-2011, 02:15 PM   #5
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After a rather long hiatus, I have picked up my copy of Music in Middle-earth again--a hiatus caused by the theft of my last copy (a sign of good taste, no doubt unintended by my otherwise rather undiscerning thief) and the summer-long wait before I got a new one--and I found myself at the start of the next section, Part D, with the topic of this thread as my next read.

And what a peculiar read it was for me. I should mention right away that this has rather little to do with Cunningham's essay and quite a bit to do with my own complete lack of Black Metal music--indeed, I should really say "Black Metal music, Heavy Metal music, Rock music, and indeed music popularly speaking." Insofar as I approach music on any sort of a knowledgeable level, I am most comfortable with Gregorian chant, hymnody, and classical music--hardly the sort of introduction appropriate to Black Metal! (As an aside, I am also among an ever-shrinking minority of 24-year-old North Americans who does not have an MP3 player, does not have an iPod, is not even sure he has headphones, and lacks the cultural norm generally of being a heavy listener to music... this fact may well correlate to my rather old-fashioned taste in music.)

All that being said, I was still somewhat vaguely aware of the connection between Scandinavia and the rediscovery of its pre-Christian mythology on the one hand and Black Metal on the other and I was sort of vaguely aware that an attitude appreciative of Tolkien could be found in there too--don't ask me *how* I come by such an awareness... it is lost in the leaf-mould of the mind. This being the case, Cunningham's essay was not did not catalogue an unexpected phenomenon, but it did reveal that it was much broader than I had expected. I was also somewhat surprised at the extent to which it was the Nordic aspect of Middle-earth (the "northern air" as Tolkien put it) that was directly associated with anti-Judeo-Christian thought by Black Metal artists.

Obviously, this identification makes for some amusing reading if one has the other extreme of turning Middle-earth into a Christian allegory and Galadriel and lembas into the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist in mind--amusing, and yet highly illustrative of Tolkien's ability to avoid allegory and write stories. At the same time, however, I can't help but think that the Black Metal artists (as far as they are from my own mentality and views on Tolkien) are a wee bit closer to Tolkien's own views than the Christian Allegorists. Even though they quite patently reject his views, including those of eucatastrophe and heroism, by siding with Morgoth and Sauron over Elvendom and Gondor, they still seem to be a lot more willing to examine Middle-earth on its own terms rather than coming at it allegorically--though I don't want to press this intuition too hard, because I feel one could say that identifying Gondor with Charlemagne's Christiandom and Sauron's orks with pagan Vikings might be straying very close to allegory.

The most peculiar thing in the whole essay, though--and this is not a peculiarity of Cunningham's so much as of Black Metal--was that it only saw "Norse-ness" in the black parts of Middle-earth. Admittedly, this is a judgment being made by artists in a genre that is referred to as Black Metal, but I can't help but noticing they ignore completely all the "light" derivations from Norse mythology. In this respect, I am indebted to Marjorie Burns' essay "Gandalf and Odin" (in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on the History of Middle-earth, for those who are interested), which chronicles Tolkien's use of Odin in his legendarium, including his use of Odinic qualities in both good and evil--both Manwë and Melkor, both Gandalf and Sauron (and Saruman). Indeed, a quick glance at the pantheon of Ainur ought to show that it bears a strong resemblance to pagan pantheons, and perhaps moreso to the Norse pantheon than to the Graeco-Roman.

In other words, it seems to me that Black Metal artists have to selectively read Tolkien to only find Norse material in his dark characters--although, I should admit, I don't believe Cunningham actually says that they don't acknowledge a wider borrowing on Tolkien's part; only that they draw their inspiration from the dark selections. The fact that I find this a bit myopic might simply be a reflection of the fact that I don't "get" Black Metal (or, as listed above, Metal or Rock in general...).
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Old 10-19-2011, 06:01 AM   #6
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Good post Formendacil.

I believe that the "emenies" or "bad guys" in Tolkien are not specific to any culture or manifestation of any culture but are a mixed bunch drawing on all the types of enemies Tolkien could imagine. Going back to the mindset of mediaevil Europe we find different enemies (I'm not talking allegory here, more cultural influnece). There were enemies from the South, such as Arabs and Turks, and such tales as El Cid and Roland, or closer to Tolkien's own sory, the Gates of Vienna, are depply ingrained in European storytelling. In Tolkien we recognise these most of all in the peoples of Harad and Rhun. They are not all evil, in fact Tolkien portrays them with some respect, but they are enemies nevertheless.

Then going back further in time we have enemies from the East. The Huns and Goths and other barbarians that attacked the Roman Empire. We think of the hordes of Jhengis Khan and on this one Tolkien is more subtle. The people of Rohan are fierce horsemen, barbarians by the standards of Gondor, but they have been pacified and are now on the "good" side.

The Vikings of course were also enemies of old Europe but Tolkien, being a fan of everything Nordic, couldn't put it that way. So they get away with a mixed treatment. The dwarves for example are not wholly good nor wholly evil (as indeed they are in Nordic myth with red and black dwarves)

And then we have the inner enemy. Superstitious belief in evil being dwelling in mountains and forests, some of whom actually turn out to be good (Ents for example) whereas other are not.

Sauron has managed to dfo the worst thing possible and unite all these enemies into a common army. Enter the Orcs who combine the worst attributes of all these groups into a new fighting force, and the the Uruk Hai who are one up on even the Orcs.

So whereas sympathising with say, the men of Rhun, because the reader is maybe a Muslim, is legitimate IMHO, sympathising with the Orcs, who are not from a single culture but are a mix of all the different ones makes less sense. The enemy of my enemy is also my enemy. I don't think the people of Rhun like Orcs for example. They had to put up with them because Sauron made them do it. But the Orcs are not friends of anybody and neither do they represent any positive cultural traits (in contrast to say, dark dwarves). This makes it difficult for me to follow why anybody would like them to the extent of wanting to claim they were in the right and the others were wrong.
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