The Music in the Words

Recently finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (loved it, by the way – highly recommended). In it, music and, in particular, songs play an important thematic and stylistic role in the tale. Among his many other achievements, Kvothe is a musician second to none and the Four Corners of the World are awash in stories and ballads, many of which are set to music.

You've got no idea what this sounds like.

You’ve got no idea what this sounds like.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a contemporary fantasy novel incorporate the lyrics of songs into the text, and I enjoyed it, in general. Rothfuss is far from the first to do this and will not be the last, but the inclusion of the song lyrics in the tale reminded me of an old frustration I had with this technique: I wish I could hear the music. To Rothfuss’ credit, he frequently describes songs rather than simply transcribe them and, when he does include the lyrics, it is usually because the lyrics are important in and of themselves – they illuminate aspects of the world, give us hints into Kvothe’s next move, and so on. It is, however, very difficult to hear the music, since music is not easily described. At best, what we can get is a sense of rhythm and, perhaps, be treated to particularly evocative poetry (though few fantasy authors are also fine poets). Music is, of course, something far, far beyond that. There’s nothing Rothfuss (or anyone else) can really do about that.

Take this classic example from Tolkien:

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,

By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!

Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

This song, taken from the chapter “Fog on the Barrow Downs” in The Fellowship of the Ring, has rhythm, has a degree of vivid imagery, but can you actually make a tune? Maybe, yes, but it’s a tenuous thing. You’re grasping at straws. You have no idea of key, tempo, or how the melodies and harmonies interact. It’s interesting, yes, but it’s also frustrating to me. I feel like I’m not in on the joke.

Now, I’m not proposing that authors need to provide sheet music or anything like that. I honestly like songs when they show up in fantasy – they give the world a life and vibrancy beyond the characters’ immediate experiences. I’m just saying that there’s an extra mile that can’t be traveled in text. This is why I’m unreasonably pleased that the upcoming Hobbit movie is going to include the dwarves singing “Far Over Misty Mountains Cold” and they appear to have given it the feeling of a dirge, which it is. Love it. I only wish all the music of those fantastic worlds could be given the same treatment!

In closing, and for no reason whatsoever than I find myself humming this song on occasion, is a song I wrote for my own fantasy setting, Alandar. It is a march, and is intended to be rhythmic and loud. Imagine a column of a thousand men braying it at the top of their lungs as they march in time down a long, dusty Illini road, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner at their head, their pikes set on their shoulders as they head towards the distant deserts of Kalsaar and, likewise, march to their glory.

Oh well, oh well,
It’s off we march to hell,
As war, they say,
ain’t never the way
Old Timer’s tell!

(refrain)
But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh my, oh my,
We’re marching off to die,
And none of us
will curse or ‘cuss
when in the dirt we lie!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh no, oh no,
It’s to our ends we go,
By bow or spear,
or a mage’s sear,
we all will be laid low!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

-Traditional Galaspiner Marching Song

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on December 3, 2012, in Alandar, Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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