This is one in a series of posts where the content is provided by a guest who has graciously answered five questions about their experience as a Tolkien reader. I am very humbled that anyone volunteers to spend time in this busy world to answer questions for my blog, and so I give my sincerest thanks to Phillip and the other participants for this.
To see the idea behind this project, check out this page
I want to thank Donato Giancola for allowing me to use his stunning portrait of J.R.R Tolkien as the featured image for this project. If you would like to purchase a print of this painting, they are available on his website!
If you would like to contribute your own experience, you can do so by using the form on the contact page, or by emailing me directly.
Now, on to Phillip “SilmFilm Composer” Menzies’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was first introduced to Tolkien by my Year 8 English teacher in 1977 when I was 13. Our English class was in the school library, it was the last day of term and about to start two weeks of holidays. I told Mrs. Barran that I had finished the class novel and I had nothing to read over the holidays. She disappeared into the library and came back with a book, The Hobbit. She told me the class was going to read it next term and I could get a head start. I borrowed it and quickly devoured it, following it up quickly with local library copies of the Lord of The Rings trilogy. The following year I read The Silmarillion only a year after it was published, not knowing what an important book it was. The only disappointing part of the story is that my English class never ended up reading The Hobbit.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
Identifying my favourite part of Tolkien’s work is difficult. The best way to identify this would be remembering when I was studying in the years after school. As a form of procrastination, I would pick up my favourite books off my shelf and read a chapter. I often found myself picking up either the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or The Lord of the Rings. I remember reading the chapters in Moria again and again. I think I found irresistible the immense age of the mines, the mystery behind the disappearance of Balin’s company, and the terror of the revelation of the balrog along with the fall of Gandalf. These passages are such a rollercoaster to read and I never tired of them. I also found myself mesmerised with the Ainulindale, and I was excited to find that my two favourite authors at the time Tolkien and Lewis both used music to create their imaginative worlds.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
I recently rediscovered a forgotten experience on Youtube. A video was recommended due to my viewing history and was a track from Bo Hansson’s Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. It took me back to the early 1980’s when I was at university and the library had a relaxing area where you could listen to records wearing headphones. This record was part of the university’s collection and I would listen to this during my lunch breaks. It is very dated with a strong 1970’s sound, but I remember the distinctive artwork on the cover and staring at it for ages trying to work out how the images related to the book as the images are very abstract. Even at that time I was drawn to the idea that a book could inspire music and the music could draw images in your mind.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012 I was lucky to be able to see the three Lord of the Rings movies at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing the scores. This was absolutely amazing to hear the music being played live and also began a journey for me to plunge into the music of the films and to develop a deeper understanding of how music was used by Howard Shore and other composers to convey themes and characters in Middle-earth.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
My approach to Tolkien has changed dramatically over time. I have always held it apart from other works of fiction, particularly other fantasy novels. I identified very early that The Lord of the Rings contained a depth that other novels did not have. All other fantasy novels seemed to be two dimensional with very basic backstories with little detail. These novels always tied up everything nicely and there were no lose ends. Tolkien’s works were not so tidy with references to things that were never explained, a bit like real life. This led to a great dissatisfaction with other fantasy writers as I was expecting the same level of detail that I was getting in Tolkien’s works. Over the years as I have tackled the History of Middle-earth series (which I have still not finished) and I have been more forgiving of other writers, understanding that Tolkien worked his whole life on integrating these stories into each other and it is something that he never completed. Listening to the podcasts of the Tolkien Professor has also helped me to gain a greater insight into Tolkien’s works and also to change the way I read, paying greater attention to what is written and slowing down and taking it in rather than hurrying on with the story.
Recently through my involvement with the Silmarillion Film Project I have started to write music based on The Silmarillion. This has opened up the Silmarillion even more to me as I try to make sense of how musical themes can interact with each other to indicate relationships that might not be visible to the hasty reader. My understanding of the Ainulindale, Tolkien’s creation story has leapt forward. In tackling an adaptation of The Silmarillion and the Ainulindale, many people go from, first there was Eru straight to the playing of the music and the three themes because that is the name of the story, “the Music of the Ainur”. My careful reading has informed me that lots of things happen between Eru and the “music” being played and I have made it my challenge to write this in music in a way that it has not been done before. Many of the attempted adaptations of the Ainulindale into music do not show the complex interweaving of the music to my satisfaction. My latest revelation musically in The Silmarillion was reading “Of Beren and Luthien”. The song that Luthien sang to Mandos for the release of Beren after his death is described thus, “For Luthien wove two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men.” For me finding links in the music is important if I am going to write it. I came to the conclusion in this passage that what could move Mandos to release Beren was no less than the third theme of the Ainulindale as stated “For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone (Iluvatar); and they came with the third theme and were not in the theme that Iluvatar propounded at the beginning”. To me, the great, glorious, sad third theme of the Ainulindale expresses the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men. When writing music using Leitmotifs I am always looking for relationships. In my piece “The Hiding of Valinor” I needed some music to represent the creation of the Enchanted Islands, so I looked at the enchantment, not the land masses and came to the conclusion that the enchantment that causes you to fall into an everlasting slumber and to dream must come from Este and Irmo, so I used their themes, albeit in a warped way, to depict the islands. So, my interaction with Tolkien’s worlds has moved from just enjoying stories to looking deeper and becoming a sub creator myself.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
I always recommend Tolkien’s works. I can’t contain my love of his works and I find myself talking about them often to people who will listen and even to those who won’t listen. Once you find something that inspires you it is hard to restrain yourself. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies have been a great springboard for me to engage other people and I recently visited New Zealand and was able to visit some of the filming locations which was another great way to engage other people with the worlds of Tolkien. I was able to take the tour guide to a deeper level by explaining the bird imagery on the Rivendell set and engage with other tourists who like me were looking for the Twelve Mile Delta site where Frodo and Sam saw the mumukil. At the same time, I am very aware that for many people, the Lord of the Rings books and movies are just like any other book or movie and hold no special significance and therefore I tend to choose my audience. I will geek out on Twitter where I have connected with other Tolkien fans, but not on Facebook where I have family and old school friends who just don’t understand.
You can find more from Phillip Menzies on YouTube!