J.R.R. Tolkien - Lord of the Rockers

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- Peter Jackson’s massively successful Lord Of The Rings film trilogy underscored the far-reaching influence of Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien. Though Tolkien’s presence in popular culture never has been as widespread as it is today, it has appeared in rock music since the late 1960s. Drummer Ian Wallace, who was active in the European music scene during the ‘60s, recalls, "Lord Of The Rings was huge in the late ‘60s. Everyone was reading Lord Of The Rings."

That includes Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant, who left behind some of rock’s best-known Tolkien-isms in "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Ramble On." Here is one lyric in which Plant took a bit of artistic license: "in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair/but Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her."

During the same era, Tolkien also proved inspirational to the music of such hardcore evangelicals as the All Saved Freak Band, one of the first groups to emerge from the Jesus rock movement. After reading The Lord Of The Rings, band pianist Larry Hill sensed the Christian underpinnings in the work. Eager to determine the author’s spiritual background, he discovered in his research that Tolkien was born to a Christian missionary in Africa. (Read the essay "The All Saved Freak Band & J.R.R. Tolkien")

Middle Earth and Narnia, the fantasy worlds constructed respectively by Tolkien and his contemporary C.S. Lewis, had an especially profound effect on progressive rock, a highly literate style that incorporates elements of the fictional and the spiritual. "There’s something very ‘proggy’ about Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings and C. S. Lewis’s stories," says Steve Babb of Glass Hammer, a band that has displayed affection for Tolkien on more than one recording, including 2001’s The Middle Earth Album. For Babb, there’s a personal connection among fiction, faith and his music of choice. "I was drawn to Christ through literature, and drawn to prog as a way of expressing it."

Kerry Livgren, founder of the prog-rock quintet Kansas, cites The Lord Of The Rings author as a loose touchstone to describe his current band, Proto-Kaw. Of himself, Livgren says, "I would wear the Christian label proudly, if it’s appropriate." Still, he maintains, "Proto-Kaw is not, as a band, a ‘Christian band.’ I would say our approach is more like Tolkien’s."

Livgren doesn’t elaborate, but Glass Hammer’s Babb sheds some light. "It is widely acknowledged that J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the greatest Christian authors, and that The Lord Of The Rings is one of the greatest pieces of Christian literature ever written," Babb says. "Yet before the success of Peter Jackson’s movies, you would not have found the good professor’s work on the shelves of Lifeway or Family Christian Stores, and I am not sure Tolkien would ever have referred to himself as a ‘Christian’ writer."

Babb’s comment underscores a commonly held misunderstanding about Tolkien, whose literary objectives and spiritual themes are often seen as interchangeable with those of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s The Chronicles Of Narnia and particularly The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are straightforward Christian allegory in which, for instance, Aslan the lion’s sacrifice and resurrection mirrors that of Christ’s. Conversely, The Lord Of The Rings is grounded in a foundation of moral and spiritual absolutes - that is, good is good and evil is evil - but its story makes no direct symbolic connection to a biblically based God. Tolkien, in fact, was critical of Lewis’s allegorical approach despite his friendship with Lewis. Babb uses his band’s last two albums as another example of a Tolkien-like artistic philosophy. "(The album) Lex Rex tells the tale of the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ. Lex Rex is something like a ‘fairy story,’ as Tolkien would have called it, that embodies the greatest story of all - that of the death and resurrection of Christ. Taken song by song, you really can’t see it. Taken as a whole, the thing becomes a ‘Christian fantasy’ of sorts," Babb says. "The latest album, Shadowlands, really has no central Christian theme at all. But there are moments of Christian musings on Shadowlands. The title itself is borrowed from C. S. Lewis."

In an essay available on the aforementioned All Saved Freak Band Web page, Tolkien explains in his own words how a literary work such as The Lord Of The Rings could evoke in readers a sense of spiritual truth. In the essay, he contends, "probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘is it true?’ The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels - peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving. It is not difficult to imagine the excitement and joy that one would feel if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be primarily true. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is the same kind. But this story is supreme, and it is true. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. History has met and fused."

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Read Part One - The Radio and Record Revival: Hippies, Hit Songs and Heaven

Read Part Two - Musical Michelangelos: Rock’s Ascension to Art Form

Part Three - Merging Music, Message and Method: The Challenge of Christian Progressive Rock

Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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