The influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on metal is so wide and deep it has become almost cliché. There are countless Tolkien-themed songs, albums, band names, and an entire subgenre of Tolkien metal in which the fantasy master’s work has become “the foundation,” as Loudwire writes, that such bands “have built their persona upon.” After all, “the doomy hellscape of Mordor is a setting that rivals hell itself, making it the perfect fodder for lyrical brutality.”
Of course, there’s more to the fascination than doomy hellscape. Mysticism, magic, and mythology; “themes of friendship, adventure, betrayal, greed, and mortality.” The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy fold literary richness and depth into a fully realized alternate reality full of swords and sorcery, goblins, orcs, and walking trees. What metalhead can resist? Even those who might want to have a hard time getting away from Tolkien.
He’s in the source code of the genre, in its classic rock chromosomes. The most prominent precursor of Tolkien metal, Led Zeppelin, really loved Tolkien. As Robert Plant put it in a later interview, “when I read those books, they kind of dissolved into me.” In the short video above from Polyphonic, we get a survey of the number of Tolkien references not only in Zeppelin, but in Genesis, Rush, and other proto-metal prog-rock bands.
One key feature of Tolkien that makes his work such great material for epic songs is that the novels are already full of epic songs (and poems, in Elvish and other languages). “Music plays an integral role in the very founding of Middle Earth.” Tolkien references crop up in Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and dozens of 70s progressive rock bands whose influence exceeds their fame.
One band the Polyphonic video doesn’t mention, The Beatles, aren’t often thought of as Tolkienesque, or as having much influence on heavy metal. But they were massive Tolkien fans and even approached the author in the 60s about making a Lord of the Rings film, with John as Gollum, Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and George as Gandalf. McCartney even approached Stanley Kubrick to direct.
Reportedly, when McCartney told Peter Jackson the story, the director replied, “It’s the songs I feel badly about. You guys could have banged out a few good tunes for this.” Tolkien himself didn’t think so and turned them down immediately. We don’t have any record of his thoughts on the 70s rock bands who enthusiastically adopted him, if he even knew of their existence. But we do know that he didn’t like The Beatles.
Does this mean he wouldn’t care for any of the classic rock and metal to whom he has inadvertently given so much? Probably. But one commenter in a discussion thread on this very question imagines another reaction Tolkien might have to hearing “Ramble On,” etc.: “I believe he raised a fist into the air and extended the index and little fingers in imitation of a horned creature, while vigorously, emphatically nodding his head back and forth, tossing his hair to and fro like a fishing boat caught in a raging storm.”