Lord of the Strings: The Influence of Tolkien on Heavy Metal Music

Why do metalheads love The Lord of the Rings so much? What is it about Tolkien's mythology that has inspired countless bands to sing about wizards and orcs and elves and hobbits? Fantasy has long been considered the literature of "nerds," and metalheads have a reputation for being antisocial-- hiding away in their hobbit holes, shunning visitors and practicing scales-- but there's got to be more to it than an overlap in the Venn diagram of geek culture. Tipper Gore would go all Satanic Panic and point her finger at the allure of evil, but there are plenty bands that side with the good guys in this epic battle. And ultimately, The Lord of the Rings is a story where good triumphs over evil, so let's not blame Old Scratch for this one.

There has always been an element of the fantastic in heavy metal, whether it's sword and sorcery, science fiction, or horror. The genre is all about allegory, symbolic stories that deal indirectly with the larger themes of modern times. So it makes sense that existing mythologies would influence those in the metal community, especially a mythology as popular as The Lord of the Rings.

It's also interesting to note the various times and places in which this music was produced: The US and UK during the 60s and 70s, Europe during the Cold War 80s, the wintry wonderland of Norway in the 90s, or anywhere near a movie theater in the aughts. This goes a long way to illustrating the broadness of Tolkien's appeal, if not its specific appeal to the metal enthusiast. But it's a good place to start.

So let's begin at the beginning, shall we? In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit... No, wait. That's not right.

The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954/55, but didn't really become part of the Zeitgeist until the counterculture movement of the late 60s. It was around the same time that the antecedents of modern heavy metal began to evolve, culminating in the formation of what many consider to be the first metal band: Black Sabbath. And from the very beginning, Tolkien and metal were intertwined.

In a 2005 interview with Metal Sludge, Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler had this to say about their song, "The Wizard" (Black Sabbath, 1970):

I was reading Lord of the Rings at the time, and I just based the lyrics on that. Gandalf.

Just Gandalf, Geezer? The song is about "a wizard who uses his magic to encourage people he encounters." You know who else travels around and uses magic to encourage people? Drug dealers.[1]

And before you naysay the analogy, remember: Gandalf smoked that weed, and was completely "Snowblind" when the Fellowship tried to cross the Misty Mountains. I'm just sayin'.

Although purists don't consider them metal, Led Zeppelin beat Sabbath to the punch by a year[2], and was one of the first heavy bands to incorporate elements of Tolkien's epic into their music. From "Ramble On" (Zeppelin II, 1969). Sing along if you know the words:

'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her

Mordor's not really the best spot to pick up women, but they do say love is found in the most unexpected places. Still, if your Girl So Fair runs off with a sleazeball and a sadist, don't say you weren't warned. Moving on.

Zeppelin's fascination with Middle Earth didn't end there. See also: "The Battle of Evermore" (the Battle of Pelennor Fields), "Misty Mountain Hop" (duh), and "Stairway to Heaven," which the band claimed wasn't Tolkien inspired, despite this:

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Other big rock acts of the 70s would soon follow suit, coming out of the Tolkien closet. There was the song "Rivendell" by Rush (Fly By Night, 1975), an acoustic lullaby about the enchanted Elven sanctuary; and the cheesily bombastic "Lords of the Ring" by Styx (Pieces of Eight, 1978), which for some strange reason swaps the plural and the singular of the title, and chooses to ignore any real Tolkien mythology.

But where Tolkien's influence really thrived was outside the mainstream, in the burgeoning metal scene of the 1980s and beyond. From the silly to the downright diabolical, these are just a few of the many examples.

Cirith Ungol: Named for the pass through the western mountains of Mordor, Cirith Ungol formed waaaaaaay back in 1972, but didn't release their first studio album until 1981. Frost and Fire took influence from Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, and Iggy and the Stooges, skewing 70s hard rock, but by the time the band released Paradise Lost in 1991, they were a full fledged metal band.

On their choice of band name:

Greg Lindstrom and I met at an English Literature class where the teacher was reading Lord of the Rings... and Greg and I read it and it had an influence on our music and feelings. In retrospect I wish we had picked something easier to remember because a lot of our trouble has been over our name. People couldn't pronounce it or remember it, but we figured once they did they wouldn't forget it!

— Robert Garven (drummer)

I remember some other possible band names we were considering: Minas Tirith, Khazad Dum, and Uruk Hai, all names from The Lord Of The Rings. Rob and I both liked J.R.R. Tolkien and Enzo Ferrari, so we knew our songs would cover both those subjects!

— Greg Lindstrom (bassist)[3]

Attacker: This little-known band formed in 1983 as Warlock before changing their name a year later. Their debut album, Battle At Helm's Deep, soon followed. This is pretty standard cheese-thrash with obvious fantasy overtones. Fun on a bun. From the title track:

Vandalizing the countryside
Goblins march in fearless pride
Through destruction they forge virtue
Hell rats are out to get you

Gandalf carries the magic staff
Divides the armies in half
In the deeps of helm's they engage in battle
So insane it'll make you rattle

Thunder roars wind howls
Demons sporting crimson cowls
Hobbits fight in desperation
The bloody war had no inspiration

Sadly, the original album art (seen above)-- which looked more like it was inspired by the video game Gauntlet than Tolkien-- was replaced with an image of Gandalf fighting the Balrog, which has nothing to do with Helm's Deep and does not reflect the silliness of the music nearly as well.

Blind Guardian: Formed in 1984, these German power-metallers wrote numerous songs inspired by The Lord of the Rings, including an entire concept album based on The Silmarillion, entitled Nightfall in Middle-Earth. They loved fantasy so much, they also wrote songs based on the works of Robert Jordan, Michael Moorcock, and George R. R. Martin. Nerd alert!

Hansi Kürsch, vocalist and lyricist, on the popularity of Tolkien in metal:

I think he fits the music, because those two create a new world. Tolkien on those grounds was a perfectionist; there is everything in his works: spirit, mythology, politics, languages and there's a corresponding variety in heavy metal, since every kind of it is a new world. What I know for sure is that I'm into Tolkien and I'm into metal. [4]

Blind Guardian is triumphant, Renaissance fair metal with a neo-classical edge that sounds like it was written by elves. I'm downloading Nightfall in Middle-Earth as we speak.

Burzum: The word "burzum" means "darkness" in the Black Speech of Mordor. Burzum the band (formerly known as Uruk-Hai), is the recording project of the notorious racist, church burner and murderer, Varg Vikernes, AKA Count Grishnackh (after the orc captain, Grishnákh). He is considered an important figure in the early Norweigian black metal scene. Black metal, for those who don't know, is a sub-genre categorized by screechy vocals, trem-picked guitars, and lo-fi production value. I find it unlistenable, but am fascinated by the culture. Norway, for those who don't know, is a Scandanavian constitutional monarchy.

Vikernes on his early attraction to Tolkien (burzum.org):

In my teenage interpretation I pretty much saw the Hobbits as children or simply boring. The dwarves reminded me too much of greedy capitalist-pigs and they too were pretty boring. Their rules were cool and Moria was a wonderful place, but I disliked their greed vehemently - and who wants to be short anyhow? The elves were fascinating, beautiful and especially their immortality and closeness to nature was cool, but they were kind of dull and they fought for the wrong side. Instead I felt a natural attraction to Sauron, who was the person who gave the world adventure, adversity and challenges in the first place... I could easily identify with the fury of the "dark forces", and enjoyed their existence very much because they were making a boring and peaceful world dangerous and exciting.

Somehow, I don't think Tolkien was trying to make evil look "cool" and "exciting."

Vikernes also identified with the Pagan themes and Norse mythology in The Lord of the Rings, despite Tolkien being a dirty, God-fearing Catholic.

Burzum released three albums and one EP before Vikernes was arrested for the arson of three churches and the murder of Mayhem guitarist Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth in 1994. He was released on parole in 2009, despite an attempted prison escape in 2003.

Gorgoroth: This Norwegian black metal band is named after the dead plateau of evil and darkness enclosed by the Ephel Duath mountains in Mordor. The band was formed in 1992 by the guitarist Inferno after he allegedly (according to the band's official website) made a pact with the devil. It's there in the band's bio, right next to all their high profile equipment endorsements.

Gorgoroth refuse to publish their lyrics, in print or online, so it's hard for a non-fan to tell if there is much of a Tolkien influence outside of the evil sounding name. They seem more concerned with satanic theatrics and provocation. In 2004, the band were investigated by the Polish police due to a Krakow concert that featured severed animal heads, lots of blood, and nude models on crucifixes. But for former vocalist Gaahl (know to his mom and dad as Kristian), violence was more of a reality. Available details are sketchy, but he has been convicted four separate times and served two prison sentences for "severe violence" and physical abuse. Accounts of the offenses bleed into one, but the most detailed allegation is that he was sentenced to a year in jail for restraining, slapping, squeezing the balls of, singing Norwegian lullabies to, and cutting a 40 year old man who attacked him at a party. The victim also alleged that Gaahl collected his blood in a cup and threatened to make him drink it. Gaahl claims it was to prevent blood from getting on his rug. It really tied the room together.[5]

As horrible as this all sounds, there is another side to Gaahl: a sensitive side. A few years ago it was revealed that he was in a relationship with modeling agent Dan Devero, with whom he launched a line of women's dresses. None of this has anything to do with Tolkien, but it makes for an interesting story.

Amon Amarth: This melodic death metal band from Sweden formed in 1992 and take their name from the Sindarin (elvish) name of Mount Doom. Despite taking their name from The Lord of the Rings, the band's lyrics deal mainly with Vikings and Norse mythology. As previously stated, Tolkien himself was influenced by Norse mythology. When he was young, he read and translated from the Old Norse on his own time.  He also co-formed a Viking club called Kolbitar as a teacher. So this makes perfect sense.

Ephel Duath: The Ephel Dúath or "the Outer Fence" are a range of mountains that make up Mordor’s western and southern borders. It is also the name of a progressive metal band from Italy formed in 1998. They are known for incorporating a range of genres into their music, from jazz to blues to punk. In their 14 years as a band, the only consistent band member has been guitarist and songwriter Davide Tiso. Even though I don't have much Tolkien related to write about them, I wanted to include them because their music is interesting and different from most of the other stuff on this list.

I could go on forever, but I won't. Countless other metal bands have taken their names from The Lord of the Rings, including, but not limited to:

Mordor (Switzerland), Sauron (there's like half a dozen of them), Gandalf (the death metal one, the 80s glam one, and-- even though they aren't metal-- the late 60s psychedelic one), Aglarond (Mexico), Akallabêth (Sweden), Almáriel (Russia), Amon Din (Serbia), Anarion (Australia), Arda (Austria), Cirith Gorgor (Netherlands), Dol Amroth (Greece), Izengard (sic) (India) as well as Isengard (Darkthrone side project), Fangorn (Germany), Gollum (USA)[6]

Christopher Lee: I would be remiss in my reportage and subject to geek ire if I did not include an album recorded by an actual Lord of the Rings character-- or, at least, an actor who played one. I'm talking about the one and only Hammer Horror veteran, Christopher Lee, better known to you youngsters as Saruman, the White Wizard. I know, it seems crazy, but bear with me.

Lee, a classically trained singer and a huge Tolkien fan, released Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010 at the ripe-old age of 88. It tells the story of Charles the Great, Emperor of Rome. Classified as symphonic metal, it is more symphonic than metal, but how many 88 year-olds rock balls this hard? "The album's promotional MySpace page garnered over 20 million hits from around the world. The album features 2 metal bands, a 100 piece orchestra and a number of guest vocalists playing the different roles in the story."[7]

If that's not badass enough for you, Lee announced the release of a new single, Let Legend Mark Me As the King, in 2012, on his 90th birthday. And it appears as if he's dropped the "symphonic", because this new material sounds straight-up metal, complete with downtuned harmonic squeals, odd time signatures, and breakdowns. Let's start this pit!

He also released an EP of Christmas covers this past December, featuring The Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night. That's right. Old men like metal and so does Baby Jesus.


So many metal bands wear their love of Tolkien on their sleeve (even though most of them wear sleeveless shirts), yet so few have taken the time to articulate exactly what it is about his work that inspires them. Except for that racist pyro-murderer. Why is he the most astute of the bunch? Regardless, for the most part it is left to the fans to interpret. For some bands it's merely Tolkien's use of scary-sounding proper nouns. For others, it is the social and political parallels they find within. For Blind Guardian, it is a way of life based on a love of fantasy fiction. Some of them have just done a lot of drugs.

But this doesn't just describe metalheads, it describes all of us. Because metalheads are people, too, people. Sometimes we forget that. And even though we as Tolkien fans might be separated by decades, oceans and cultures, we are all ruled by the One Ring. So it makes sense that The Lord of the Rings has seeped into all aspects of popular culture.

It also helps that metal is the perfect soundtrack for beheading goblins and slaying dragons.


[1] Black Sabbath, Wikipedia

[2]  Although they were both beat by the incomparable (and decidedly NOT metal) Leonard Nimoy: "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"

[3] Cirith Ungol, Wikipedia

[4] Hansi Kürsch interview, Metal Hammer

[5] True Norwegian Black Metal, VBS.TV; Top 10 Worst Crimes Committed by Black Metal Musicians, Metal Injection

[6] Middle Earth in Popular Culture

[7] Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross,Wikipedia

Image of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (the Hobbit / the Fellowship of the Ring / the Two Towers / the
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Price: $23.99
Publisher: Del Rey (2012)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 1728 pages
Jacey Cockrobin

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor.com. He has also written for the popular film site Screen Anarchy and for ChuckPalahniuk.net, the official website of 'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk. He is the author of 'Kanye West—Reanimator.' His short fiction has appeared in Zetetic, Motherboard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Dark Moon Digest, Pantheon Magazine, and multiple print anthologies. More info at joshuachaplinsky.com.

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Comments

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week January 7, 2013 - 2:34pm

Now, Saruman has a mind of metal.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer January 7, 2013 - 2:35pm

If Gollum can steal a woman from you, you never had her in the first place.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson January 8, 2013 - 11:05am

Haha, very true, Jack.

TomMartinArt's picture
TomMartinArt from Amherst, MA January 8, 2013 - 1:59pm

That anyone calls that Charlemagne symphonic stuff metal makes my skin crawl off my body and up the chimney.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson January 8, 2013 - 2:32pm

Try this on for size: Let Legend Mark Me As King