Star of Eärendil
I’ve posted about the Lord of the Rings musical before, but I’m going to do it again. There are two parts to this:
The nature of adaptions, how “Star of Eärendil” brings out two themes I haven’t seen in other adaptions, and how that makes my heart sing
Justification as to why mispronunciation isn’t automatically a reason to categorically dismiss a LotR adaption, even when linguistics were important to the author
What is an adaption? What is a faithful adaption? Some series lend themselves to more “straight” adaptions than others, where it’s a matter of getting the events correct without making up too much stuff. Others are more prone to loose adaptions, whether due to gaps in the original story (intentional or otherwise), or just the sheer amount of stuff in the story. Some stories make full use of their native element and are just really hard to translate. (See Jill Bearup’s video on Wyrd Sisters and Discworld adaptions).
Look, it’s nigh impossible to capture what speaks to every reader in a single interpretation (and you’re bound to disappoint someone who likes what you omitted). So I think all a story can hope to do is choose which elements it wants to bring forward. Peter Jackson’s LotR movies were able to bring out a whole lot of the story! Were they able to capture everything? Not a chance! And it happens that certain character aspects and themes that drew me to the books weren’t represented in the movies.
Are they generally comprehensive? Yes. But that’s not necessarily what makes them good. When people talk about why they like them, they talk about the music, or how they can really imagine what it would be like in Middle Earth, or how relatable the Hobbits are, or how the camaraderie of the Fellowship is inspiring, or how the costuming, special effects, and makeup is really good, or some combination of various factors. The PJ LotR movies may be so good because they incorporate so many successful elements, but what makes each individual element good is not accuracy to the book, but faithful. It evokes some emotional response similar to that of the book. Making a good adaption isn’t about using every single element of the book, but choosing what you need to make the best story you can.
The 1980s BBC audio drama is another fabulous adaption of the books. I love it because it incorporates SO. MUCH. DIALOGUE. and I adore dialogue. All dialogue. Great bricks of dialogue that should maybe be called monologue. The Council of Elrond and the Shadow of the Past are two of my favorite chapters. The adaption keeps most major events, most major characters, and refrains from adding many new elements. Most new dialogue is to supplement the action since it’s harder to set a scene or describe a fight when you don’t want a narrator to spell it out and break the pace. Yet it also necessarily leaves stuff out and changes things from the book to better fit the format.
Does it include much imagery? Nope. Does it include Tom Bombadil? Also nope. Does it stick to the original structure of the books? Nope. Instead of keeping the half-and-half structure of the books, it integrates character perspectives and feels free to ignore the separation into 3-5 installments (occasionally to brilliant effect).
Yet while it is comprehensive, and that is part of its appeal, I don’t think including everything is the primary reason it’s a good adaption. As mentioned before, I like it for the dialogue. I love Ian Holmes’ Frodo, and I love the way his relationship with Sam is established (and it’s just heartbreakingly brilliant the way Frodo’s condition disintegrates upon entering Mordor) I enjoy hearing the walking songs and Saruman’s speech.
I would argue that the best adaptions tend to be comprehensive, but what really distinguishes them is how they represent their source material. Since none of them will ever be perfect, it’s good to have lots of adaptations that bring forth diverse elements of the story.
Not having seen the Lord of the Rings Musical, I can’t really argue whether or not it makes the most of its medium, or whether it brings forth enough elements to be called a good adaption. Yet I know it did some things really well. (I won’t get into the unearthly costume design for elves, or how fabulous it was to use silks in Lothlorien because they literally run around on tightropes when they’re lower down. Yes, I am also a fan of Turner Mohan’s designs).
I’m going to be going primarily off the music, since I haven’t seen it. So. Star of Eärendil.
Before I go off, feel free to give it a listen:
Star of Eärendil is a hymn. It’s a prayer. It’s sung with a purpose: to unite the wills of those present with each other and the divine, to strengthen wills, and to petition for divine strength and blessing. To my knowledge, it’s not borrowing any particular style of religious music, but you can still tell by the lyrics (and from what I’ve seen of the staging, it’s also reminiscent of a religious rite or holy procession)
Lead us ever onward
Our weary hope sustaining
Now strengthen our endeavour
Our purpose unite
Clothe us in your courage
Your hope become our armour
Your wisdom be our banner of light
It’s actually kinda weird to hear this in a musical theatre setting! Most prayers are individual and more like monologues, and most communal songs lack the petitioning element. (The only one that comes to mind is Sabbath Prayer, from Fiddler on the Roof, and that song absolutely wrecks me. 1:50 is when it escalates).
Note the “us” and “our.” This is a community-oriented song. It’s about uniting disparate wills so that an ultimate purpose can be achieved, and it’s that coordination which is crucial to the success of the ring-quest. Gondor and Rohan and Lothlórien, the humans and elves and dwarves and ents all working together in their own need in separate places but for the same endeavor, driven together by necessity but also in the hope that they will somehow succeed, despite evidence to the contrary.
Look, there’s no guarantee anyone is going to survive this, let alone win! Why even fight when, odds are, you won’t even survive to see the reward? What this song gets at, to me, is that no matter how isolated everyone will get in the trials to come, they are not alone, and their success matters beyond their individual triumphs or failures.*
It’s through collaboration that there’s any hope of success; the gifts of Galadriel, the strength and support of Sam, the Battle of the Morannon, even the unwilling guidance of Gollum. There is a role for everyone, and small deeds tip the scales. Consider Háma’s decision to let Gandalf in to see Théoden with his staff, even when Háma was demoted in the process, or Ioreth’s commentary about athelas, or Farmer Maggot’s aid, or Barliman Butterbur’s willingness to help.
This is the spirit that lends Gandalf something of the moral high ground in his parting words to Denethor:
The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?
In the future, the fellowship will break; this song strengthens everyone against the onslaught to come. It’s like movie Aragorn’s reminiscent-of-St. Crispin’s Day speech:
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day!
This day we fight!
By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!
Except Star of Eärendil is not about battle or the glorifying thereof! Do you know how rare it is to see that in popular media? A song that’s about strengthening and uniting that’s not about fighting and conflict and us-vs-them? By leaving out the enemy in this song, it’s not just about winning, but hope for more beyond that. It’s about life. Omitting the enemy in this song is “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend,” embodied.
I think some of the song’s power does come because it’s written like a hymn. There’s a ritualistic in the way the song is sung.
I talked about the “us” and “our” in the lyrics. What I didn’t mention is that there’s no “we” in the song. It’s not about “us” getting what “we” want from a divine source, but about harmony between ourselves and the divine. Consider:
“We need this.” vs “Help us.”
Not only is the first sentence more about picturing a result (which is more than any sane person in Middle Earth can really hope for), but the second sentence has an element of assurance that the divine is listening and benevolent. It trusts that the source will be helpful, which comes in part because the petitioner is trying to align their own will with the divine. I think this is particularly prominent because it’s filtered through the perspective of the Elves, who’ve lived through so much and seen hope even in the middle of destruction, things that are simply history for most of the mortal cast.
Star of Eärendil, look down, hear our cry
Ever-shining, perfect light, emblazon the sky
Heed us as to thee we sing
Enlighten us in the hope you bring
Guide our way and aid us from on high
The song is named for and starts with Eärendil, who succeeded in a desperate quest to petition the Valar for help in the fight against Morgoth, the same Eärendil who bore the Silmaril that Galadriel gave to Frodo. The parallels are clear. What’s underneath the line about the stars is that light has not always been ever-shining in Middle Earth. The sun and moon will always be second-best light to those who saw the light of the two trees. Yet what I find most compelling about the Two Trees story is about salvaging a seemingly hopeless situation.
So I go absolutely wild when they hit the climax of the song:
Elbereth Gilthoniel, look down
Hear our cry
May the stars that you once kindled ever
Burnish the sky
Shining ever bright
Your hope and your healing light
Guide our way and aid us from on high
A moment’s pause.
Okay, this is a huge escalation. We originally invoked Eärendil, but while we start with a more saint-like figure, at the climax of the song, we go straight to Varda herself.
I adore the line about the stars. They’re given as evidence for trust in the Valar. They’re not just petitioning Varda, or Varda-who-made-the-stars. The stars are front and center, because the stars are the one light that’s never left Middle Earth, and Varda is being petitioned as the person who gave that light. There is trust there. No matter how dark things get, no matter how hopeless things seem, the stars are there as a reminder that not all is lost, and that even if the present situation is incredibly dark, so too has the past been dark, and yet light still persists.
The interference of the Valar in the affairs of Middle Earth, for lack of a better term, is a very very subtle theme in the book. If you’re not really looking for it, it’s easy to overlook lines like this:
“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.”
Or else Faramir and Boromir’s dream, or the convergence of events that led such a disparate group of political representatives of Middle Earth to end up at Elrond’s in the course of a few weeks/months without proper summons. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of thing, but I personally love it, because it just goes to show that living and surviving and resisting and even fighting is all a collaborative effort, that even the Valar are working together against forces like Sauron, and yet that it still requires each person to choose for themselves where they stand.
I don’t know if I’ve seen this kind of hope-against-hope highlighted in any other adaption, and I think it’s beautiful, especially because it seems to have faith that there is strength in community decision making and in working together (that even my favorite hopeful fantasy media seems pessimistic about...)
For fun, here are a few miscellaneous pieces on the perils of adaptions:
You can pry “Star of Eärendil” out of my cold, dead fingers.
Yes, I know the pronunciation is a little wonky. Yes, I know the emphasis is generally supposed to go on the second to last syllable, and that the e-a at the beginning tends to sound like “ya.” (no, it doesn’t bother me. the PJ LotR movies have their share of weirdness. Probably the best I’ve heard is the 80s BBC audio drama (glor-FIN-del!))
Yes, I know the spine of the whole project Middle Earth project is the linguistics of it.
Will I be offended if you don’t like it or can’t get into it because it trips the “wrong!” voice in your brain? No, not at all. Feel free to strongly dislike it on those grounds.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that mispronouncing names in LotR is not the worst thing you can do to the story, no matter how key the language was to the author. No, I think the worst thing you can do is to twist the themes so that they are incoherent or unrecognizable.
If you want justification from the author’s words, I’ll bring up these two passages from the Foreword to the Second Edition:
For I wished first to complete and set in order the mythology and legends of the Elder Days, which had then been taking shape for some years. I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of‘ history’ for Elvish tongues.
When those whose advice and opinion I sought corrected little hope to no hope, I went back to the sequel, encouraged by requests from readers for more information concerning hobbits and their adventures. But the story was drawn irresistibly towards the older world, and became an account, as it were, of its end and passing away before its beginning and middle had been told.
Undoubtedly, language, linguistics--these things drove Tolkien and he loved them. Yet, he didn’t stop at The Hobbit. He continued working on the saga, and wrote a story that he knew others would care about, even if it might not have been the story of chief interest to him.
The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault.
So it’s okay that the readers might desire something different than the author. The languages and history of Middle Earth were a guide to the author, but they don’t have to be the reason you like it, as a reader. While it’s always cool to be able to flex your linguistic muscles and show how much you know about the language, it’s also okay to read LotR and love the story with absolutely zero interest in languages.
Language is the inspiration for the story, but there’s so much more going on in the story. Lots of things can take a reader out of the story, and if language is one of those things for you, that’s perfectly fine! But before going off on an adaption (the pronunciations are all awful! It’s horrible!), consider if those things are why you don’t like it, or if they’re a reason the majority of audiences would have reasonable reason to dislike it.
In other words, is it an issue of personal taste, or just generally bad execution? You’re perfectly fine to dislike it, but if you hold up “x is like this so you (and everyone else) shouldn’t like it,” it better be a strong reason. And I don’t think Tolkien would require all of his readers to be linguistic purists, though I do imagine he’d want adaptions to try and be as faithful as they could be.
I’ve argued as to why I don’t think “it mispronounces the names” falls into the second category. Now I’m going to go into what I think is perhaps a greater flaw: wrangling the themes into a form alien to them.
What did Tolkien go off on in the introduction? Allegory. What seemed to bother him most chiefly was wresting the story to neatly fit a current events narrative it was not intended to tell. He specifically calls out a tendency to make the story about something it was not about.
As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical....
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Yet he also defends what I refer to as the ‘slipperiness’ of a story, a story that resists attempts to nail it down to One True interpretation.
So I’m going to defend my ability as a reader to read into themes as I will. Yet I have read interpretations that make my eyes burn because even with the freedom to interpret, they skew into the “frankly wrong” territory (such as the one that argued LotR was bad because Tolkien didn’t like democracy...and that we should be praising Saruman. Fun fact, the author conflated dislike of democracy with mistrust of commercialism and didn’t even seem to notice. Talk about a strawman argument. Yes, this was a professor writing.)
I know sometimes we take mispronunciation as a sign that the person hasn’t really paid attention to Tolkien’s work, and that they must not really care about the story, but as I discussed with Star of Eärendil, there’s plenty of very Tolkien-esque stuff that’s not mainstream. There’s a lot about Galadriel and the elves in the three songs they get (which is more songs than anyone else gets; going off the songs, the LotR musical is about elves and some hobbits), which takes some of the “backstage” appendices things and brings them forward. In other words, you can still like Tolkien and care about certain aspects of his work and do a pretty good job overall and still botch some elements of language. The PJ LotR movies did it. People will continue to accidentally do it. That’s okay.
Part One TL,DR: Adaptions are about choosing elements from a story and putting them together in a way that makes full use of the new format. A good adaption might necessarily leave out some aspects of a story people are attached to, so it’s useful to have multiple adaptions that highlight different elements. Star of Eärendil highlights the communal nature of the Ring Quest’s success and the hope of the future independent on present views of the situation, which is facilitated by the choice to write it as a hymn sung together by the ensemble petitioning the divine for assistance at the beginning of the quest.
Part Two TL,DR: While linguistics were important to Tolkien, he also cared deeply about storytelling and was aware that people might enjoy reading his stories for different reasons than he told them. Mispronouncing things may not be the cardinal sin some readers feel it to be, though there’s nothing wrong with having suspension of disbelief broken by mispronunciations. Fundamentally misinterpreting a theme or wresting the story to conform to a specific, outside-the-story narrative seem to be worse “fandom sins,” though again, you’re within your right to do that. So before writing off an adaption as complete trash and assuming everyone will do the same, consider what others may be seeing in this adaption that you don’t.
*(Somewhere there’s a post or article talking about how collaborative decision-making is in LotR, and in this regard is much less cynical towards communally made decisions than nominally democratic books. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten where it is. Let me know if you know where it is...)
11 notes · View notes