Tolkien’s Death Metal

Tolkien the Metal, by J. Longo
Tolkien the Metal, by J. Longo

I am back at The Toast this week with a new piece about J.R.R. Tolkien, this time a list of “The Most Metal Deaths in Middle-earth, Ranked,” from Gollum’s fall into a volcano to Fingolfin’s epic battle against the Dark Lord himself in single combat. The editor’s intro also lists me as “The Toast‘s Tolkien correspondent,” which makes me deliriously happy.

Like my previous Tolkien Toast piece, “How I Defeated the Tolkien Estate,” this one is accompanied by incredible illustrations from J. Longo. Seriously, you have not yet lived until you’ve seen Professor Tolkien astride a field of bones with a bloodied sword, or, perhaps even more badass, shredding on a guitar in front of a wall of amps.

Unlike my previous Tolkien Toast piece, I assume this list will lead to fewer questions about whether or not any of it is a true story–though, for myself, I will never not think of the sun as a Good Balrog (okay, technically, a piece of divine fruit being piloted by a Balrog).

The inspiration for the piece lies in the weird fact that a conservative, deeply religious Oxford linguistics professor managed to inspire countless songs and albums screamed by long-haired, heavily tattooed metal bands (to wit, the author photo on the back of my mother’s copy of The Lord of the Rings literally shows Tolkien wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe in some ancient Oxford quad). That unlikely influence isn’t anything new, actually: The Lord of the Rings became a bestseller and cultural icon largely because it was popularized by hippies in the 1960s.

Literary influence fascinates me, particularly the way it spreads in seemingly unlikely directions and takes unlikely shapes. Like the way Jane Austen’s novels have spawned a cottage industry of adaptations, from officially published sequels like Death Comes to Pemberley to YouTube series like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to genre mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Or how allusions and references to Tolkien’s stories can be found everywhere, from Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to Megadeth’s song “This Day We Fight!”

What I hope my list of metal deaths does is show how that influence isn’t as unlikely as it seems, that Tolkien’s books are chock full of awesomely badass moments, and that art–be it shrieking black metal or ethereal high fantasy–is never better than when it describes a shining elf warrior grappling a demon-lord into an abyss.

After all, we need look no further than Saruman himself for how well those influences can come together. The late, great Sir Christopher Lee was many things (actor, horror icon, secret agent, Nazi hunter), but above all he was a devoted Tolkien fan (he read The Lord of the Rings every year, and even got the Professor’s personal blessing to play Gandalf) and a metalhead.

Sir Christopher both played Saruman in blockbuster movies and recorded metal albums well into his 90s. Boromir, Gandalf, and Fingolfin may not have been real, but Christopher Lee was, and he was metal enough for our earth and Middle-earth.

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