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Talking about Singing

In novels, song and verse are, or can be, a kind of dialogue that elevates the piece. In real life throughout human history we have sung. Some books say we may have even sung or hummed notes before we had words. Songs carry emotion with them inherently, and when song or poetry is used in a novel, they can be used to express the emotion of a person, the history of a place or the lore of a land. They do so with what is effectively monologue, or group dialogue if sung in a chorus.

As an example of all a song can be in a novel, specifically in fantasy where we need to do heavy lifting in our writing to explain the world, they can express a lot in a short space. I will start with the most widely quoted song I know of from literature. A walking Song, by Tolkien: (Many versions of this song being sung can be found on YouTube, one of my favorites is linked here.)

The 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.

 

This is perhaps the most common version of the song because this is the version which appeared in part in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy movies. Let’s start here. What does it say about the singer? It gets to say in a single verse “I live in a small place, far from other bigger places.” It sets a stage for the idea of the local protagonist going out onto the bigger world. It is pretty, it begs the question of the quest or the travel tale. But more interesting are the other versions of the song which appear in the hobbit and the novel.

Let’s look at another verse / version.


Roads go ever ever on,

Over rock and under tree,

By caves where never sun has shone,

By streams that never find the sea;

Over snow by winter sown,

And through the merry flowers of June,

Over grass and over stone,

And under mountains in the moon.

 

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

And trees and hills they long have known.

 

Now we really start to have a lot to unpack. “By caves where never sun has shone,” is perfect evocative imagery, of an unexplored cave that torchlight has never illuminated. It tells us this is not our world. This is a world that is unexplored with mystery that remains. “By streams that never find the sea,” is equally beautiful because it states the impossible. Almost all rivers find the ocean eventually, which we all intuitively know. The imagery used of a river so long, and a world so large that it can meander forever across the landscape and never find the sea, tells us the scale the person signing it feels about the world. It is large they are small.


This is an example of being able to use more lyrical words than people would usually say, to express something. It is not just a song to be a song in the world it brings about more meaning.


The second verse similarly tells of a person who has seen conflict and true war of “fire and sword,” but wants to go home now.


Songs can be sung by their originators, or can be used to be prophetic, as this was here, as this was sung in the hobbit long before the singer witnessed combat. Interesting in the same book, songs can also evolve. Unlike released and controlled recordings of today, songs were able to be modified on the fly more in past years, in the living traditions of jazz today. Here for example is another verse sung later in the Lord of The Rings after all the protagonists have seen is done, and we are in the denouement portion of the tale’s telling:


Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though I oft have passed them by,

A day will come at last when I

Shall take the hidden paths that run

West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

 

This is sung by Frodo as he is preparing to move on to the reward of his afterlife. It is unlikely this is a common refrain for the song, sung by people just out and about. It is a new version of the same cadence and old verse, sung to himself. It allows the author to use the familiar to tell something new, and say it in a beautiful way at the end of a book that the hero is getting his deserved rest. “West of the Moon, East of the Sun,” is an ancient use of terminology which historically meant somewhere you cannot normally get to.


Tolkien was well known for use of poetry in his stories, and this is one example. What can a poem or a song say in your writing that a character perhaps could not otherwise speak? What kind of world building or backstory could a song put into your prose?

Consider giving them a shot in your own writing. They are hard to do well, but very rewarding when pulled off. Most importantly, never forget, writers write.

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