Harrison Middleton University

Modern Day Chorus: Lord of the Rings and Ceremony

Modern Day Chorus: Lord of the Rings and Ceremony

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 10, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know/ Silence like a cancer grows/ Hear my words that I might teach you/ Take my arms that I might reach you”/ But my words, like silent raindrops fell/ And echoed/ In the wells of silence/ And the people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they made/ And the sign flashed out its warning/ In the words that it was forming/ And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/ And tenement halls”/ And whispered in the sound of silence
~ “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel

Having a degree in Comparative Literature means that I often think in terms of patterns. I like to explore similarities between unlike entities, which is how today’s blog came about. While re-reading Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, I noticed how many songs are involved in the story. Having also, serendipitously, re-read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko recently, I noticed the power of song. In both cases, songs can be chants, incantations, spoken, whispered, light-hearted entertainment, and more. They are not simply entertainment, however. The poetic lyrics provide the reader with additional detail in the form of history, plot, and character development. They speak of feuds or the founding of peoples. They speak of sacred beings and creation. They speak of destruction, change, and worship.

Outside of song, these novels discuss rituals and the power of good versus evil. They both revolve around a journey through great darkness and sacred space. Moreover, these novels are not unique. Rather the idea of ceremony or song, of good versus evil, and of the power of the will enters literature from all cultures. Therefore, it only makes sense to pair the work of very different authors, steeped in their own traditions, for a greater understanding of such important questions. The following list briefly identifies similarities between these two books. Many more exist. Hopefully these notes spark further ideas for those who may use a pairing such as Lord of the Rings or Ceremony in their own classroom.

1] Ceremony cannot be performed anywhere and everywhere. Though there are rules, the rules are fluid and depend upon the situation.

Lord of the Rings: As the Hobbits begin their journey with Strider into Rivendell, Frodo begins to tell a tale of Gil-galad, but Strider sharply cuts him off. He says, “I do not think that tale should be told now with the servants of the Enemy at hand. If we win through to the house of Elrond, you may hear it there, told in full.”

Ceremony: Old Betonie tells Tayo: “The people nowadays have an idea about ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slip-up or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed. … That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing.”

2] Language is alive and powerful. Language is about becomings.

Lord of the Rings: Tom Bombadil is able to be called by song. His response wakes the Hobbits and saves them from the darkness and drives out the evil. He sings: “Old Bombadil is a merry fellow,/ Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow./ None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:/ His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”

Lord of the Rings: On the trail to Rivendell, Strider speaks of Gil-galad. The Hobbits are unfamiliar with him, except for Sam who recalls a partial lyric of the event, which ends with Mordor. Strider asks them not to speak the name of “Mordor” so loudly.

Ceremony: “It is a matter of transitions, you see, the changing, the becoming must be cared for closely. You would do as much for seedlings as they become plants in the field.”

Ceremony: “Old Betonie might explain it this way – Tayo didn’t know for sure: there were transitions that had to be made in order to become whole again, in order to be the people our Mother would remember; transitions, like the boy walking in bear country being called back softly.”

3] Forces of destruction often tamper with cultural memory. Often, the self is lost in the face of this overwhelming force.

Lord of the Rings: After Frodo and the travellers leave Tom Bombadil’s, they are attacked. Frodo hears their voices chanting: “Cold be hand and heart and bone,/ and cold be sleep under stone:/ never more to wake on stony bed,/ never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead./ In the black wind the stars shall die,/ and still on gold here let them lie,/ till the dark lord lifts his hand/ over dead sea and withered land.”

Ceremony: “I will tell you something about stories,/ [he said]/ They aren’t just entertainment./ Don’t be fooled./ They are all we have, you see,/ all we have to fight off/ illness and death.// You don’t have anything/ if you don’t have the stories.”

4] These journeys question how the self (or the will) interacts with evil. Does the self invite evil in? Or can evil forces infiltrate into an individual’s soul on their own powers? Moreover, physical places reflect the treatment of individuals and communities. All physical spaces are acted upon by the forces of good and evil. Therefore, geographical features are often associated with goodness or evil, as is the individual’s body.

Lord of the Rings: Boromir wants to use the ring as a weapon for good. Boromir says, “Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!” But others including Gandalf and Elrond dissent, knowing that this raw power steers its wearer toward darkness. Elrond replies: “Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. … as long as it is in the world it will be a danger to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.”

Ceremony: “The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing. The snow covered mountains remained, without regard to titles of ownership or the white ranchers who thought they possessed it. They logged the trees, they killed the deer, bear, and mountain lions, they built their fences high; but the mountain was far greater than any or all of these things. The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love had outdistanced death. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones; Josiah and Rocky were not far away. They were close; they had always been close. And he loved them then as he had always loved them, the feeling pushing over him as strong as it had ever been. They loved him that way; he could still feel the love they had for him. The damage that had been done had never reached this feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.”

5] The “cure” involves many, often a group of disparate beings.

Lord of the Rings: “The Company of the Ring shall be Nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders that are evil. With you and your faithful servant, Gandalf will go; for this shall be his great task, and maybe the end of his labours.
“For the rest, they shall represent the other Free Peoples of the World: Elves, Dwarves, and Men.”

Ceremony: “His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything. … [T]hings which don’t shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth.”

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