J.R.R. Tolkien (poems) and Donald Swann (music), The Road Goes Ever On — A Song Cycle

1E6F559E-2EB8-40C4-AFEB-D16D64A87766The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say

Really odd stuff shows up here in the Kinrowan Hall Library if you’re not exactly looking for it. I was looking for the BBC recording of The Lord of The Rings that we had reviewed, but didn’t find it. I suspect that one of the staffers putting together our all-Tolkien issue has it out for listening right now. (The card catalog refuses to tell me who’s got it. Nor will it say why it won’t tell me.) What I found instead is a quaint remnant from an earlier, less driven-by-commercial-interest society where quality of production was higher than it is today. This artifact, The Road Goes Ever On — A Song Cycle, comes from an earlier age, the Sixties, when readers were madly obsessed with Tolkien and his work. Here in this book composer Swann gives Tolkien characters Bilbo, Treebeard, Samwise Gamgee, and Tom Bombadil tunes for their ballads of the road. Tolkien approved of this and added a tune of his own, along with a glossary of Elvish terms and lore.

Now before you run out as a Tolkien fan and purchase the 2002 edition which was released only in Britain by Harper Collins (with a CD of the songs to boot!) be advised that this is mostly sheet music, something that even most of the regular members of the Neverending Session would find boring. Really boring. But if you’re interested in a relatively practical look at how some of Tolkien’s poetry is as song, this is the book for you.

The title of this book comes from the song with the same name which I’ve used as the review header here, where verses of it are sung at various places in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. An extract from it was sung in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Gandalf in the opening scene, and also as Bilbo leaves Bag End. If hobbits really existed and they could carry a tune, this is likely what they would sound like — sweet but wistful.

The second edition of The Road Goes Ever On, published in 1978, adds the poem ‘Bilbo’s Last Song,’ which I have included at the end of this review. The edition I found in our Library is this edition — a thin green book with a light tan dust jacket. The book’s more attractive shorn of the dust jacket than it is with it as the DJ has too much text on it whereas the book itself says simply The Road Goes Ever On with some Elvish script for decoration. It looks very much like a book that a singer would toss in his or her satchel to study over a cup of Earl Grey tea. Certainly some groups have taken these songs to heart — the Tolkien Ensemble, to name but one group, has made excellent use of this material. (The third edition of this is likely the last one, with ‘Lúthien Tinúviel’ which was originally on The Songs of Donald Swann: Volume 1 added, and also a CD with recordings for the entire song cycle.) Me opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this is the sort of source material that role-playing geeks with too much spare time on their hands will really want, or fan boys with a pressing need to get a life, but the rest of us more sane folk would sleep easy not knowing about The Road Goes Ever On. (Before I get a letter from you claiming that I hate Tolkien, please note that I have lots of both his fiction and various books about him and his fiction. Whole shelves to be precise.) All the text of the songs can be found elsewhere including online — just Google ‘road goes ever on’ + swann + tolkien’ to find them. Now I do look forward to the updated edition arriving so I can hear what they sound like when sung, but I’d lying if I said that I expected them to sound all that great.

I leave you with the verses of ‘Bilbo’s Last Song’ which demonstrates very, very nicely that the Tolkien was a master craftsman. Savour it please!

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship’s beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.
Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I’ll find the heavens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above my mast!

(Houghton Mifflin, 1978)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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