The Road Goes Ever On – JRR Tolkien and Donald Swann

The Road Goes Ever On by J.R.R. Tolkien, Donald Swann
Also by this author: The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, The History of the Hobbit, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Story Of Kullervo, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by HarperCollins on October 21, 2002
Genres: Non-Fiction, Tolkien
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Available for the first time in 25 years, this book of songs and sheet music, a collaboration between J. R. R. Tolkien and the composer Donald Swann, will delight Tolkien fans everywhere as the book to stand beside their copies of Lord of The Rings, the essays, poems and calendars. Includes a bonus CD containing performances of all the songs.

In this song book the composer Donald Swann gives Tolkien characters Bilbo, Treebeard, Sam Gamgee and Tom Bombadil tunes for their ballads of the road.

Professor Tolkien approved of this and added a tune of his own, decorated the book in his own hand and added a glossary of Elvish terms and lore that appears nowhere else.

The Road Goes Ever On was published in 1968, during JRR Tolkien’s lifetime, in collaboration with composer Donald Swann. It’s quite the testament to Tolkien’s popularity that people wanted to hear the songs come to life. The first edition contained six poems from The Lord of the Rings and one from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien also included notes on the text, some illustrations, and translations of two Elvish songs “Namárië” and “A Elbereth Gilthoniel.” Twelve years later, in 1978, a second edition was published, adding a new foreword by Swann and “Bilbo’s Last Song.” In 2002, a third edition released in English, adding the classic “Lúthien Tinúviel” from The Silmarillion. That third edition quickly went out of print and remained as such until receiving a new printing in September 2023.

I am no musician, so I cannot comment very much on the quality of the songs from a technical perspective, but I can say that I was surprised by how classical they sound. It wasn’t quite what I expected. They felt fancier to me than what I would have envisioned. (Do they even have pianos in Middle-earth?) But Tolkien liked and approved, so I shall not complain.

The book is also of note for linguists, as it contains one of the longest samples of Tolkien’s Elvish language Quenya in the form of the song “Namárië”—which also appears in Tengwar (Tolkien’s script for his languages) on the front cover. There’s also the Sindarin prayer “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” with grammatical explanations. And while it’s no longer a spoiler, when it first released, The Road Goes Ever On continued information about the First Age that would not be otherwise available until after Tolkien’s death and the publication of The Silmarillion.

If you love Tolkien, you’ll like this book. If you love Tolkien and music, you’ll love it. The nine songs included in this third edition are:

  1. The Road Goes Ever On – Originally sung by Bilbo in the last chapter of the Hobbit, Tolkien adds a third verse for Bilbo to sing in the closing of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a song that is about adventure, the uncertainty of the future, and the ever-flowing movement of time. A beautiful song.
  2. Upon the Hearth the Fire is Red – Bilbo’s walking-song, sung by Frodo, Pippin, and Sam as they begin their journey by hiking through the Woody End. This song has an aura of adventure about it as well, saying that “Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread.” Frodo will repeat this song as he prepares to go to the Undying Lands, making the song a thematic journey into eternal life.
  3. In the Willow-meads of Tasarinan – A song sung by Treebeard, the cadence of it as fairly hasty for an Ent, but I’ll forgive it. Treebeard sings this song as he walks through Fangorn Forest, reliving his history.
  4. In Western Lands – Possibly written by Bilbo, but sung by Sam in the Tower of Cirith Ungol as he searches for Frodo. This is a song of perseverance, part of fighting what Tolkien would come to call “the long defeat.”
  5. Namárië (Farewell) – Also called “Galadriel’s Lament,” this is the longest Quenya text in The Lord of the Rings. If you dig around, you can find audio of Tolkien himself singing it. Let’s just say that Tolkien was good at many things, but not everything. This is a song of Galadriel recognizing that many of the elves are leaving Middle-earth and saying goodbye to them. The song concludes: “Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!”
  6. I Sit beside the Fire – Sung by Bilbo in Rivendell the day before the Fellowship sets out on their quest. It’s a contemplative piece about an old hobbit recalling past adventures: “I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago and people who will see a world that I shall never know.”
  7. Errantry – A poem, rather than a song, this is maybe the oddest entry but also the most delightful. It’s also a huge tonal shift from the more serious and somber songs included and made me wish that some of the more lighthearted aspects of Tolkien’s poetry had been included. The poem has a complex metre, and fits the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Tolkien called it “the most attractive” of his poems and he’s right. This one’s a banger. It was first published in the Oxford magazine in 1933 (way before The Lord of the Rings!) and revised and extended in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
  8. Bilbo’s Last Song – Originally written in Old Norse, this song was unearthed by Joy Hill, Tolkien’s secretary, as she was helping him set up a new office. Tolkien gifted Hill the poem, along with all rights to it. It was illustrated by Pauline Baynes (who illustrated many Tolkien books, not to mention The Chronicles of Narnia) and published as a poster in 1974. In 1978, it was included in the second edition of The Road Goes Ever On, before being turned into a standalone book in 1990.
  9. Lúthien Tinúviel – The third edition of The Road Goes Ever On added this song to the list. It’s also called the “Song of Parting” and was Beren’s farewell to Lúthien, sung by him in the Lay of Leithian in The Silmarillion. As a farewell song it’s a fitting ending tribute for the book.