When John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first published The Hobbit in 1936, little did he know that the book would serve as one of the pillars of rock’n’roll history, and help spawn entire genres related to the author’s colorful fictional world of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs ― and of course, Hobbits.
While Lord of the Rings quickly gained cult status after it was first published in 1954, a whole generation of future hippies felt enchanted by its allure.
The Elven kings and queens, the bearded, pipe-smoking wizards, laid-back, fun-loving Hobbits, and other creatures corresponded well with the Flower Children, who sought out to reconnect with nature in a rather romantic way, rejecting the aggressive, industrialized world they were brought into.
But the books and their legacy mat not have been launched into a full-scale revival of interest if they weren’t actively promoted by one of rock’n’roll’s greatest bands ever to come on stage ― Led Zeppelin.
Although the band’s first album didn’t feature songs directly inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Jimmy Page who was initially the principal songwriter pushed Robert Plant to pursue his own lyrics.
Both Page and Plant were fascinated with various European as well as Middle-Eastern mythologies, influences of which could be heard in some of their greatest hits like “Immigrant Song” and “Kashmir”.
However, as the band delved more and more into the subject, their focus shifted from folklore to the oeuvre of the man who single-handedly fathered the literary genre of High Fantasy.
Tolkien’s influence on the lyrics of Robert Plant first appeared on the band’s second album, titled simply Led Zeppelin II, in which the singer alluded on the beginning of Frodo Baggins’ journey in the song “Ramble On”.
While it begins with quite vague associations with the world of Middle Earth, the song climaxes with the line:
“T’was in the darkest depth of Mordor/ I met a girl so fair, / But Gollum, the evil one crept up/ And slipped away with her.”
In 1971, Led Zeppelin’s songwriter decided to pursue his passion towards Tolkien’s oeuvre once again with the track titled “Misty Mountain Hop”, where he uses cryptic references to the first chapter of the The Hobbit in order to enhance his description of a young man’s first experience with mind-altering substances.
This peculiar homage comes as no surprise, for many saw Tolkien’s saga as a visualization of hallucinogenic experience which exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1971 album, usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, features yet another song inspired by Lord of the Rings, alluding to the epic Battle of Pelennor Fields that takes place in the final book of the saga.
Following the “Misty Mountain Hop” example, Robert Plant once again tried to produce a functioning mixture of elements to achieve a poetic synthesis of his own authorship and that of his favorite fantasy writer.
The song titled “The Battle for Evermore” was Plant’s attempt to merge the mythology of Middle Earth with the traditional English and Scottish folklore, with lines like “The dark Lord rides in force tonight, juxtaposed with I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon.”
While the fourth album might just be the band’s most iconic offering, Tolkien’s influence can be found in Led Zeppelin’s later work, like the song “Over the Hills and Far Away” from the 1973 album Houses of the Holy.
The song’s title was taken from the writer’s 1915 poem, which also serves as a pre-text of Bilbo’s fictional journey in the The Hobbit. In it, Plant refers to several events taking place in the book, one of them being a riddle game played by Bilbo and Gollum. Another important link featured in “Over the Hills and Far Away” is that the Ring is referred to as a woman, which is compliant with Tolkien’s vision of the mysterious device.
In the saga it was often described by Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and other characters as a “beautiful lady,” while Gollum famously calls it “my precious,” expressing a deep and pathological relationship with the ring, as if it was a living being.
Therefore, the legacy of Led Zeppelin owes much to the creator of the Lords of the Rings, for his characters and stories are the fabric from which their lyrics are sewn.
However, their gratitude goes beyond their music, for they spawned a legion of ardent readers who looked for clues in Tolkien’s books, guided by the dedicated hand of Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant also decided to pay personal homage to the writer by naming his beloved pet dog Strider, after Aragorn’s pseudonym early in the Fellowship of the Ring.
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Plant was known to shout his name in concerts after specific songs, as if it was a battle cry of some sort. Apart from the singer’s decision to name his collie after Aragorn, the band’s whole image was also deeply involved with mysticism, mythology and the occult, with their album covers often featuring hidden meaning and hermetic symbols that encouraged fans to decipher them.
Among their most puzzling covers is the one made for the 1971 classic album Led Zeppelin IV, which shows a picture hanging on a ragged wall. In the picture is a man, bent by the load of branches which he carries on his back. According to Robert Godwin, author of the book The Making of Led Zeppelin’s IV, the image represents the struggle between nature and society ― just as Tolkien pictured it. In his book Godwin comments on the strange album cover:
“He takes from nature and gives back to the land. It’s a natural circle.”
Tolkien, on the other hand, cared little for the newly-established reign of Led Zeppelin on the pop charts. However, it is safe to presume that he didn’t mind providing them inspiration, as he noted in one of his letters addressed to Carey Blyton, a British composer who asked the writer for permission to write his Hobbit Overture:
“You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wished based on The Hobbit. … As an author, I am honored to hear that I have inspired a composer.”
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We’re guessing his reaction wouldn’t differ much if he learned about the inspiration he had given to Led Zeppelin, as well as many others who sought ideas in his writings, from Rush to Iron Maiden.