Columns > Published on January 7th, 2013

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'.

[video: align:center]

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.

[video: align:center]

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]

[video: align:center]

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.

[video: align:center]

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 (

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.

[video: align:center]

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.

[video: align:center]

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]

[video: align:center]

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

About the author

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: