When you think of black metal – if you think of it at all – you might think of death and darkness, misery and misanthropy. It’s been demonised by Christians, feared by parents, scorned even within the wider metal fandom. In many ways, that’s because all of the above works in reverse, with black metal fans and musicians often displaying as much disdain for everyone else as everyone else displays for them. The animosity is not unfounded. Those within the scene have been responsible for burning churches, hate crimes, torture, even murder. The documentary discussed in that link is fascinating and I highly recommend it even if it does suffer from a bizarrely toothless approach to criticising those involved.
Given all of this, the last thing you might think of is Lord of the Rings. If you have more than a passing familiarity with black metal, however, you can’t help but think of it. Beyond their preoccupation with nihilism and death, if there’s some common thread that connects vast swathes of black metal artists, it’s Tolkien’s legendarium. It’s more prominent in modern acts, many of whom consciously diverge lyrically as well as musically from the controversial adolescence of black metal, but Middle-Earth was far from absent in the genre’s earlier days.
It’s in plain sight too. Infamous black metal projects Burzum and Gorgoroth take their names directly from Tolkien’s work, to name just the most obvious examples from the earlier days of the genre. Burzum means “darkness” in Tolkien’s fictional Black Speech and early Burzum albums are liberally seasoned in reference to Tolkien’s fantasy world.
In many cases it’s not just referential. Contemporary acts like Eldamar and Ramihrdus take a great deal of inspiration from Tolkien. The most extreme examples are bands like Summoning and Emyn Muil, who derive almost all their lyrics and theming from all over Tolkien’s legendarium, from the Lord of the Rings books to the tales in The Silmarillion. There are many more bands that do the same to varying degrees; Durthang, Rivendell, and Mirkwood to name a few. Musically they’re often far removed from the caustic Satanic fury of their forebears in Mayhem, Darkthrone and the like; further still from the earliest pioneers in Venom, Bathory and Celtic Frost. Many lean harder on the fantasy element and have more consciously medieval and folk instrumentation. Even if the Middle-Earth obsession took some time to really take root, the seed’s been there a long time, a spellwoven thread that stretches back at least as far as the second-wave black metal acts of the 90s.
But why Tolkien? The author’s legendary fantasy universe and the nihilistic realm of black metal make for a puzzling collision of worlds. The preoccupation with Satanism and the occult makes plenty sense, omnipresent as that’s been since the first forays into heavy metal. The shared fascination with Norse and Germanic Paganism is even more obvious; practically every major black metal band in the 90s hailed from Scandinavia and just about all the rest from adjacent regions on the European mainland.
But Tolkien was a lifelong Christian, a devout Roman Catholic. He even described Lord of the Rings itself as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” You’d think such a man and his work would be anathema to a genre that’s typically trenchantly anti-Christian. He did work hard to bury it in symbolism, consciously omitting or removing overt references to religion. Sure enough, religion is conspicuous by absence in Lord of the Rings, more so when every other aspect of life in Middle-Earth is so thoroughly documented.
The connection with Norse myth goes some way to explaining the black metal fascination with Tolkien. The world of Middle-Earth wouldn’t exist without Tolkien’s own interest in the Scandinavian legends. Tolkien himself acknowledged the influence of Norse and Germanic myth in his writing, alongside Old English literature like Beowulf, which is itself based on those same myths. Middle-Earth is a direct translation of Midgard, which in Old Norse literally means “Middle-Earth.” It still translates to “midgard” in modern Norwegian. Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf is an Odin figure, a divine being traveling in the guise of an old wizard, often assisted by animal familiars. Tolkien’s dwarves might as well have sprung from Norse myth wholly; their writing is based on real-life runes and his dwarven names are lifted directly from the old legends. Magical rings also appear in tales of the Norse gods and while Tolkien was often coy about his exact inspirations, it’s difficult to imagine he didn’t base his rings of power at least in part on these myths. In the wider setting of Arda, of which Midde-Earth is only one part, the pantheon of divine beings Tolkien devised aren’t too dissimilar from the Norse pantheon, though there’s certainly elements of Roman and Hellenic tradition too.
It’s easy to see why a world drenched in the cultural memory of Scandinavia would be appealing to artists in a genre synonymous with Scandinavia; in a genre that itself is so enamoured of Pagan history. Lord of the Rings has been interpreted by some as critical of industrialisation. Tolkien dismissed readings of his work that were in any sense allegorical of any real-world events, but whatever else his famous trilogy might be, it’s undoubtedly a wistful paean to a sylvan world where what civilisation there is, is countrified and rustic. It’s difficult to argue it wasn’t in some sense a rejection of modernity.
It’s perhaps this sense of wonder in recalling a hidden magic world lost to time that draws so many black metal musicians to Tolkien’s work, just look at Summoning’s Old Mornings Dawn, an album infatuated with the enchantment of an old, forgotten past. In its own rejection of modernity, you could call black metal itself as reactionary as some of its most deplorable figureheads, though a majority of modern acts reject the bigotry and hate often associated with the movement. As a genre characterised by screeched vocals, abrasive soundscapes, subversive lyricism, and extreme ideologies, it has an uneasy relationship with normality that it seems is in some sense analogous to Tolkien’s mystical rebuttal to industrialised civilisation.
And outsider status can’t be discounted here either. After all, black metal isn’t the only genre with links to fantasy fiction and Lord of the Rings. You’ll find as many prog rock albums and folk bands with nods and winks to Tolkien as you will in black metal. You’ll also find it in dungeon synth, a youthful genre often linked to black metal. Projects like the French Balrog are good examples of this, although to pigeon-hole Balrog into dungeon synth would be a disservice to their breadth of instrumentation. Few of the musicians working in these genres are what you’d call the cool kids.
Unusual or less popular music is often the province of weirdos. Lord of the Rings might be one of the highest-selling books of all time, but it’s still associated with a certain quaintness and oddity; in short, with nerds. Black metal musicians might not be the first people you’d lump in with fantasy geeks, but you don’t write songs about Túrin, Son of Húrin or name yourself Count Grishnackh if you’re not intimately familiar with Tolkien’s legendarium. Similarly, you don’t dress in chainmail, cake your face in corpse-paint, and screech about winter if you aren’t a little bit weird. Black metal musicians are often famously insular and private, so direct evidence of this isn’t easy to find, but I’d bet a vast majority spent rainy childhood days shut up in their rooms reading about orcs and elves. Some of them might tell you it’s a respect for their heritage that draws them to Tolkien, but it seems a simple boyish fascination with wizards and dark lords is just as likely.
In the end it’s all of this that conspires to entwine the two. Eccentric musicians from all backgrounds are inevitably a little bit nerdy, but there’s a thousand fantastical worlds they could’ve read about that might inspire them – and unarguably do. Take Caladan Brood, a band named in reference to Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Tolkien’s legendarium just happens to be the best-known fantasy world, probably the best, period. It’s his evocative prose that sparks the imagination and precipitates the atmosphere of the music. It’s his careful mining from common myths and legends that provides the raw material for the lyrics. Like the music it inspires, it’s the oddity of it all that probably draws us in to begin with.