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In The Silmarillion, in the chapter "Of Beren and Lúthien", we read of what can only be called a singing fight, at least if we take the account at face value.

I won't repeat it in its entirety, but here is a small sample of the text:

[Sauron] chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying
Sang in answer a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower...

I don't want this to become a rant, but suffice it to say that this is a very strange way of doing battle. I am wondering if the word "singing" is used metaphorically, and Sauron and Finrod Felagund were actually just casting spells on one another; however, that seems rather unlikely, considering how consistent Tolkien is in using words like "song" and "singing" throughout the passage.

Do we have any way of knowing whether the respective combatants were literally singing to each other? If so, why does it seem that this was the only "singing fight" in Tolkien's works?

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    Given in Tolkiens world the universe came into being because of singing, why is this an issue.? – user46509 Jun 20 '15 at 7:05
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    @CarlSixsmith - the difference is that the creation was beautiful, not aggressive or violent or militant. A battle isn't a thing of beauty, it is brutal and ugly. – Wad Cheber Jun 20 '15 at 7:19
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    @WadCheber creation was violent, Melkors themes of domination and violence were intertwined by Eru and made the world more beautiful than it would have been. It's part of the whole theme of the Silmarillion – user46509 Jun 20 '15 at 7:22
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    It is a little known fact that Tolkien was in fact the inventor of the rap battle. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 20 '15 at 13:04
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - I'm with ya, dog. "You come here to kill, you ain't got the skill, you think that I'm lyin' but my name is Sauron. Word." – Omegacron Jun 22 '15 at 14:20
51

I can find no prose version of this story; it didn't change very much across revisions, so it doesn't get a lot of treatment in History of Middle-earth (aside from the longer version of the Lay in The Lays of Beleriand, which is where the poetry excerpt in the published Silmarillion is taken from).

The nearest to prose I can find is the line immediately preceding the poetry, which reads:

Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian

The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

So that's something, but I have more. I would suggest that they probably are literally singing; Tolkien consistently writes a link between magic and song. There are an abundance of examples:

  • Yavanna. Yavanna sang to create the Two Trees:

    In that time the Valar were gathered together to hear the song of Yavanna, and they sat silent upon their thrones of council in the Máhanaxar, the Ring of Doom near to the golden gates of Valmar, and Yavanna Kementári sang before them and they watched.

    And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tail, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 1: "Of the Beginning of Days"

    And later on, after the Trees are destroyed, Yavanna's song coaxes a single flower from each of them, which would become the sun and the moon:

    Then Manwë bade Yavanna and Nienna to put forth all their powers of growth and healing; and they put forth all their powers upon the Trees. But the tears of Nienna availed not to heal their mortal wounds; and for a long while Yavanna sang alone in the shadows. Yet even as hope failed and her song faltered, Telperion bore at last upon a leafless bough one great flower of silver, and Laurelin a single trait of gold.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 11: "Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor"

  • Lúthien. I've expressed the opinion before on this site that Lúthien probably displays more magical power than any other character in the Legendarium - certainly the most of any Elf. Nearly every time we see her doing magic, it's explicitly through song.

    • In her introduction (emphasis mine):

      There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.

      The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

    • She sings at Sauron's tower (emphasis mine):

      In that hour Lúthien came, and standing upon the bridge that led to Sauron's isle she sang a song that no walls of stone could hinder. Beren heard, and he thought that he dreamed; for the stars shone above him, and in the trees nightingales were singing. And in answer he sang a song of challenge that he had made in praise of the Seven Stars, the Sickle of the Valar that Varda hung above the North as a sign for the fall of Morgoth. Then all strength left him and he fell down into darkness.

      But Lúthien heard his answering voice, and she sang then a song of greater power. The wolves howled, and the isle trembled. Sauron stood in the high tower, wrapped in his black thought; but he smiled hearing her voice, for he knew that it was the daughter of Melian.

      The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

      She goes on to destroy the tower with her magic, and though the book is non-specific as to how (so's the Lay, sadly) I would suggest it's probably also through song

    • And of course she does a lot of damage in Angband (emphasis mine):

      She was not daunted by his eyes; and she named her own name, and offered her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel. Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor. Thus he was beguiled by his own malice, for he watched her, leaving her free for awhile, and taking secret pleasure in his thought. Then suddenly she eluded his sight, and out of the shadows began a song of such surpassing loveliness, and of such blinding power, that he listened perforce; and a blindness came upon him, as his eyes roamed to and fro, seeking her.

      All his court were cast down in slumber, and all the fires faded and were quenched; but the Silmarils in the crown on Morgoth's head blazed forth suddenly with a radiance of white flame; and the burden of that crown and of the jewels bowed down his head, as though the world were set upon it, laden with a weight of care, of fear, and of desire, that even the will of Morgoth could not support. Then Lúthien catching up her winged robe sprang into the air, and her voice came dropping down like rain into pools, profound and dark. She cast her cloak before his eyes, and set upon him a dream, dark as the outer Void where once he walked alone.

      The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

  • Gandalf. Although it doesn't count as a battle, on at least one occasion we also see Gandalf use a spell that takes the form of a rhyming couplet, while attempting to open the Doors of Durin:

    'I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind. But only a few trials, I think, will be needed; and I shall not have to call on Gimli for words of the secret dwarf-tongue that they teach to none. The opening words were Elvish, like the writing on the arch: that seems certain.'

    He stepped up to the rock again, and lightly touched with his staff the silver star in the middle beneath the sign of the anvil.

    Annon edhellen, edro hi ammen!
    Fennas nogothrim, lasto beth lammen!1

    he said in a commanding voice. The silver lines faded, but the blank grey stone did not stir.

    Many times he repeated these words in different order, or varied them. Then he tried other spells, one after another, speaking now faster and louder, now soft and slow.

    Fellowship of the Ring Book 2 Chapter 4: "A Journey in the Dark"

    I included that last paragraph to point out that even with Gandalf's other spells, although we don't hear the words, Tolkien felt it necessary to point out that he was varying the rhythm and intensity, which is a very musical idea.

Music has a great deal of significance in Tolkien's mythology; there's a reason the creation myth is referred to as the Music of the Ainur.


1 According to SFF.SE's own BennyMcBenBen:

Gate of the Elves, open now for me!
Doorway of the Dwarf-folk, listen to the word of my tongue!

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    Always thought it was interesting to consider if Finrod might have won had his guilt and the Doom of the Noldor not drug him down. – Shamshiel Jun 20 '15 at 14:37
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    "Songs of power" sounds like a musical type of magic, to me. In your quote "and the song of Lúthien released the behind the walls of the world", is there an extra "the", or is that how it's printed? – Dronz Jun 20 '15 at 15:16
  • @Dronz Nope, that was me having a brainfart. Thanks for the catch! – Jason Baker Jun 20 '15 at 17:14
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    @JasonBaker - Check out the edit muru made and see if it reflects what you meant to say. – Wad Cheber Jun 21 '15 at 22:56
  • That makes sense. It sort of read like the "other" was a global other, and not the "other" in the quote. At least that's what I felt when I made the edit. – muru Jun 22 '15 at 14:54
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I'd like to point out that, in fact, such contests have sound historical precedent. For example, Flyting was a battle of wits often expressed in verse:

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. The root is the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel (from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation). Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The exchanges would become extremely provocative, often involving accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion.

Similarly, the South American payadores engage in such competitions:

The payada is competitive composing and singing of verses native to Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brasil, and parts of Paraguay, also called paya in Chile. It is a performance of improvised ten-line verse called Décimas usually accompanied by guitar. The performer is called a "payador", and in performances two or more payadores will compete to produce the most eloquent verse, each answering questions posed by the other, often insulting. The durations of these verse duels can be exceedingly long, often many hours, and they end when one payador fails to respond immediately to his opponent.

Finally, Rap battles are also examples of this theme:

In a freestyle battle, each competitor's goal is to "diss" their opponent through clever lyrics and wordplay, with heavy emphasis being placed upon the rapper's improvisational ability. Many battles also include metaphorically violent imagery, complementing the "battling" atmosphere. It is considered dishonorable or shameful to recite pre-written or memorized raps during a freestyle battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of "spitting" spur-of-the-moment lyrics. A live audience is key, as a large part of "winning" a battle is how an audience responds to each rapper. Appointed judges may be used in formal contests, but in most cases the rapper who receives the largest audience response is viewed as the victor.

I am guessing (but have no canon proof to back me up) that something like these customs was behind Tolkien's description of a battle of songs. As the other answers have shown, there was also probably actual magic involved, but the idea of such a battle is far from novel.

With all this in mind, I don't find the use of the term song strange in this context. For one thing, as mentioned in the other answers, it is often used by Tolkien to describe a form of magic (The Ainur sang the world into existence, for example). For another, as I have shown above, such battles did and do actually occur in many human cultures.

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    Another good parallel would be to the Kalevala, in which the main character, Väinämöinen, does his magic through singing, and has magic/singing contests with various opponents. Indeed, I've often thought Tolkien's Elvish language seemed rather like Finnish... – jamesqf Jun 20 '15 at 17:54
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    Never thought I'd encounter parallels between Tolkien's works and rap :) – Maksim Jun 21 '15 at 10:15
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    there is also a parallel that can be found on Filipino culture. Balagtasan is a word fight where the two competitors outwit each other using rhymes and poetry. It has re-emerged in the modern Filipino subculture called FlipTop where two people trade insults by poetry, beatboxing, and rap. – gelolopez Jun 21 '15 at 12:52
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    Ditto on the Kalevala. The main character, Väinämöinen, did all his magic through singing, and was in fact an inspiration behind Gandalf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – ognockocaten Jun 22 '15 at 14:26
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    @jamesqf Quenya is explicitly modeled after Finnish. (Sindarin is modeled after Welsh.) – chepner Jul 29 '15 at 21:25
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This wasn't a literal battle, it was a contest, a battle of wills - for Beren and Finrod to keep their orc disguises, and for Sauron to strip them of it and reveal their true selves. The prose text surrounding the poem goes "Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery [...] Then Sauron stripped from them their disguise, and they stood before him naked and afraid. But though their kinds were revealed, Sauron could not discover their names or their purposes.

The poem comes from the Lay of Leithian, and epic poem which Tolkien worked on from 1925 but never finished. It offers some more detail about the encounter, such as:

"Then his flaming eyes he on them bent,

and darkness black fell round them all.

Only they saw as through a pall

of eddying smoke those eyes profound

in which their senses choked and drowned."

As this is an epic, romantic poem rather than the usual narrative prose we're accustomed to, I think we can allow for a bit of poetic license here. The tale of Beren and Luthien features other instances of "magical" singing and spellcasting, not to mention the transformations of Beren and Luthien into animal forms.

[Edit] There are some notes about the encounter, from History of Middle-Earth (at this point, Sauron was a wizard called Thu):

There may seem to be a difference between the outline and the Lay, in that the former says that 'after a contest of riddling questions and answers they are revealed as spies', whereas in the latter Felagund is overcome by song of greater power. In fact, the riddling contest is present, but seems not to have been fully developed. In the original draft my father scribbled the following note before he wrote the passage lines 2100 ff.: Riddling questions. Where have you been, who have you slain? Thirty men. Who reigns in Nargothrond? Who is captain of Orcs? Who wrought the world? Who is king &c. They show Elfin [?bias] and too little knowledge of Angband, too much of Elfland. Thu and Felagund ..... enchantments against one another and Thu's slowly win, till they stand revealed as Elves.

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    Great answer. I'm out of upvotes for today, but you'll get one tomorrow. – Wad Cheber Jun 20 '15 at 7:39
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this is a very strange way of doing battle.

Not really. Tolkien write mythically. As a lot of the above posts establish, duels of singing/poetry/chanting battle by song is extremely common in mythic tales all over the world, as well as in modern rap culture.

I am wondering if the word "singing" is used metaphorically

no reason why it would be.

there is a difference, in my mind, between a pretty lady singing about trees and boats in the woods, and two mortal enemies singing at each other in some form of combat

Don't be falsely lulled by Galadriel's beauty or the subject matter. If you read LOTR carefully you'll see Galadriel is one of the most dangerous creatures in Middle-earth - certainly not just "a pretty lady singing in the woods".

I think Luthien demonstrates this same quality just as strongly. It's easy to think "real strength" = having big muscles & whacking people with swords, or "real battles" = physical fights or else raw terror (such as the W-king or Sauron use as a weapon).

But if you read real world myths, big muscles are only one kind of strength, and often not the most important kind. Tolkien writes the same way. If you're only seeing the muscles, you're seeing less than half of what he writes about.

1

The Magic is in the words, words are weapons and words are creative. In one of the Hindu myths the world was sung into being. Judaeo-Christian-Islamic thought posits the power of speech/the spoken word. "in the beginning was the Word & the Word was with God and God said "Be" & it was so." Rough paraphrase here. Runes were not just seen as ways of naming things/concepts, but as having imbued power. Odin was a rune-caster. Magic enacted through song is a form of Spell-casting. A spell is simply a collection of letters combining into words (i.e Spelt Out) making meaning & significance, ascending to become greater than the sum of the parts. It is not the only form of magic in LOTR. There is the Wild/Earth Magic of Tom Bombadil, the water magic of Goldberry (a water-nymph/sprite if there ever was one), the earth magic/growth/life/fertility magic of Radagast. The air magic of Gandalf. The Fire magic of Saruman. There is a great case to be made that there is an idea of magic of elements: fire, earth, wind (air), water & the quintessence (fifth element) which reigns over/connects the four into the Holism. It is telling to me that the Istari numbered five. Sauron is named as a 'Necromancer" which involves death magic & yet it seems he has no power over the dead except for the Nazgul, and them only because their souls were somehow captured through the power of the rings, and he controls them and they exist only through the rings/one ring's power. Beorn has the shape-shifting magic that apparently the elves have lost. Smaug seems to have some kind of magic. The Arkenstone seems to have some kind of magical power. Certain swords seem to be imbued with magic eg. Sting, Narsil. So things could be imbued with magic at/in their creation whether in natural creation or by artifice.

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    I can't even read this. Can you please put some paragraph breaks in? – Wad Cheber Jun 22 '15 at 6:28
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And here I may add Galadriel's song from "Farewell to Lorien":

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew.
Beyond the Sun, beyond the Moon, the foam was on the sea,
And by the strand of Ilmarin there grew a golden Tree.
Beneath the stars of Ever-eve in Eldamar it shone,
In Eldamar beside the walls of Elven Tirion.
There long the golden leaves have grown upon the branching years,
While here beyond the Sundering Seas now fall the Elven-tears.
O Lorien! The winter comes, the bare and leafless day:
The leaves are falling in the stream, the River flows away.
O Lorien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore
and in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.
But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
Whats ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?

So the first lines seem to say that Galadriel sang of golden leaves and wind and golden leaves and wind resulted. I imagine that the golden leaves were on the mallorn trees that Glasdriel grew in Lorien, copied from the golden tree which stood near Elven Tirion, and the wind may have been the wind which blew her ship across the seas to Middle-earth.

And the last lines seem to indicate her doubt that singing for a ship to return to Eldamar would work.

So this song seems to show Galadriel, the most magical elf then in Middle-earth, casually implying that her magic was largely musical, singing songs of power for her desired results.

For some reason I always remembered the last lines as:

If I sang now of a ship to carry me back
across so wide a sea,
would any ship come for me?

  • Good answer, +1. But again, there is a difference, in my mind, between a pretty lady singing about trees and boats in the woods, and two mortal enemies singing at each other in some form of combat. If Sauron sang in the LotR movies, he wouldn't be as scary. – Wad Cheber Jun 21 '15 at 3:51
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    Unless he sang in the Black Speech using a really sinister tone of voice. – M. A. Golding Jun 21 '15 at 5:37
  • Ah... Touché... – Wad Cheber Jun 21 '15 at 10:08
0

In Old English literature we find references to battle-runes and fighting-runes. Runes are not just the characters but the speech-act. A rune can be a chanted song/spell.

It also brings in the scalds and their poetry contests.

Speech is a secret weapon.

0

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford for a long time. He was actually the guy who translated Beowulf. So a lot of what he created had roots in Viking/Norse myth. In said myths there is a kind of Magic called Galdr said to involve singing, Tolkien actually wrote a paper speculating about it.

The Chapter specifically stressed that they were fighting "Songs of Power". And elsewhere in his work Tom Bombadil Chased off a Wight with a song. It's also alluded to several other times that magic and music are linked in the series. So yes the High King of the Elves and Sauron got into an exceedingly long magic song fight. At the end of which Sauron gained mastery.

And whoever said the creation was beautiful and battle isn't Tolkien said battles were beautiful and terrible at the same time, more than once. Also Melkor caused a discord tree times during the creation meaning there was song fighting during the creation too.

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