Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Like Music in general, song is often deployed by modern fantasy writers – but often to very little effect: generally Bards and Minstrels are, at least in Genre Fantasy, merely stock characters. There are many examples, however, of song being a more important aspect of a text: one notable case is in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), where the various songs act not as mere distractions but as a way of commenting on or carrying forward the main events of the text. The inset songs in John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949) are both catchy and sometimes functional, like the one whose compulsive rhythm urges oarsmen to do their utmost. Songs are given a similar function, although the technique is vastly different (for a start, the songs are generally existing pop/rock songs quoted in part), in many of the works of Stephen King – especially in his Far-Future Dark Tower series, where what would be by now archaeologically old numbers by The Beatles and others not only comment on the text but link it to our own age.

In Mythology/Legend there are several examples of magical song, including the irresistibly alluring song of the Sirens. Directly analogous is the Teutonic tale (> Nordic Fantasy) of the Lorelei, a water nymph who inhabited the St Goar Rock in the River Rhine, and whose singing lured boatmen to their deaths; this legend was first set down by the German folklorist Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) (> Folklore). Richard Wagner took this further in the Ring cycle when he deployed the Rhinemaidens. William Shakespeare mixed fantasy and song in most of his relevant plays.

Song, for obvious reasons, lies at the very core of tales based on ballads, like Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer (1990); the Damiano series by R A Macavoy is likewise much concerned with the magical nature of song and minstrelsy. The Kill Riff (1988) by David J Schow (1955-    ) mixes Contemporary Fantasy and Horror in describing a man's obsession with a rock band and its songs. The title of Peter S Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song (1993) speaks for itself; likewise John Grant's Heroic Fantasy Albion (1991) is framed as a song, and the latter author's "The Glad who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea" (1995) treats, in Faerie terms, the Universe as a song-founded structure. But arguably the novel that comes closest to capturing the fantasticating, Magic-effecting power of song – although her Star Dancer (1993) has much to say on the subject as well – is Fay Sampson's Taliesin's Telling (1991): like other texts based on the legend of Taliesin (> Mabinogion), this is much concerned with the minstrel's ability to ensorcell crowds through the power of music and song, but Sampson uses the cadences of her prose to convey the trans-natural experience of being able to produce this effect.

Numerous examples could be produced of songs that tell fantasy tales, from traditional ballads (which are really Folktales) onwards. In passing we can note Loreena McKennitt's setting, in The Visit (1991), of "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892); also, many fantasy songs were produced by The Beatles, Earth Opera, Forest and other groups – most especially The Incredible String Band – who flourished in the hippie era. Fantasy songs are reasonably common today in the (largely amateur) blend of folksong and sf/fantasy known as filk, although often these are intendedly humorous. [JG]

see also: Opera.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.