I do not indicate sources or pretend that this is more than something that just fell out of my head – despite the grandiose title it’s not a proper research article in any way.
Search Google for ‘led zeppelin tolkien’ and you’ll get over 238.000 results. Even taking into account some search peculiarities that may allow for duplicate entries, that’s plenty of references on the internet. It is no secret that Robert Plant is (was?) a fan of Tolkien and some of Led Zeppelin’s songs openly reference names from Lord of the Rings (‘Gollum and the evil one’, ‘the Ringwraiths ride in black’, for instance, from ‘Ramble On’ and from ‘The Battle of Evermore’, respectively).
I started being a fan both of Led Zeppelin and Tolkien at about the same age (oh distant 16). While the former might have garnered me some ‘cool’ with a certain type of boys, the second garnered me nothing, as even today Tolkien is deeply uncool around my part of the world. Of course I was aware of the Zeppelin references to Tolkien, and found them utterly charming but to me those were feeble connection points to wildly different creative forces. No one would ever imagine Page or Plant or Bonham delicately making love with their socks on (sorry, English people, stereotypes and all; sorry too, Jonesy but I can picture you), while well, I don’t want to consider what the Professor might have done to generate his four children any more than I want to consider how I came to be.
But when I started this piece suddenly there was something in common between the gentle Professor and the rowdy rockers – both take what is not theirs, appropriate it, and transform it into something exalted. Let me clarify – there is no shortage of articles on how Tolkien found inspiration in Norse mythology, and he himself freely admits to it in many of his writings. It is widely accepted that the novelty and genius of Tolkien’s world is the depth and breadth to which he created a rich new world, highly original but with references to existent mythology. He is often lauded for that triumph of imagination more than he is for his actual prose.
Led Zeppelin do the same with blues music. It is no secret that many Zep songs started out from riffs or lyrics from Muddy Waters, Jake Holmes, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Some of these songs are the most emblematic of the band and are the founding stone of much of today’s modern rock. Countless singers cite Plant as their influence, countless guitarists aspire to reach Page’s level, Bonham is still recognized as the greatest drummer of all time and Jones is widely respected for his virtuousness as a musician with the band and as a producer in his solo career.
Despite the immense appreciation for their music and the acknowledgement of so many renowned contemporary artists, Page and Plant are often criticized (and even sued) for shamelessly stealing other people’s work. It’s true. Go on, listen to their early work, especially bootlegs, discarded recordings, etc, and you’ll see it plainly – they were covering the blues. They, themselves, openly admitted to such in many instances, although they did not list the original authors in the songs' copyrights. The result of this appropriation, however, much like Tolkien’s work, is something fiercely original, inspiring and lasting. (Tolkien, however, did not have copyright problems given the nature and date of the works inspiring him.)
Even after decades of fantasy works and or rock songs, both Tolkien and Led Zeppelin’s work come across as rather fresh, compared with many of their less inspired followers, and seminal and important, when compared with their true heirs. So, this piece, which was supposed to state things such as “oh, notice how Led Zeppelin also favours the same mythology in unrelated context” (The Immigrant Song) or “is ‘Ramble On’ fanfiction” (it is – it’s Frodo’s story but Plant puts a girl in it – bloody hell, he was doing it before us all; or it could be the One Ring, as some put it, but I'm not convinced), or even “is The Battle of Evermore the battle of Helm’s Deep or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields; is the Queen of Light Galadriel (yes!) or …owyn (absolutely not!)”, turned instead to the similarity of the creative process between people of very different backgrounds and paths in life.
Notice that I do not refer to Led Zeppelin’s Tolkien songs, for which Plant received much derision from critics (although ‘The Battle of Evermore’ is one of the most appreciated songs among fans). This is because, while I love those references, I think they are widely overstated. In a in catalogue of over 100 recorded songs in ten years of activity, Led Zeppelin has four songs which are generally accepted as containing obvious Tolkien references. These are:
- The afore-mentioned ‘Ramble On’, which clearly names Gollum, and fairly describes Frodo’s need to leave, while mixing in references to a loved woman;
- ‘The Battle of Evermore’, which describes better, in my opinion, the Battle of Helm’s Deep than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This song makes an open reference to ringwraiths. It also references, oddly, the apples of Avalon. While this puzzles many people, I would not blink before calling this a crossover. Deal;
- ‘Misty Mountain Hop’. Personally, I think the title and the expressed desire of heading for these mountains, are suggestive of Tolkienesque mythology, but that the song in itself is not about the characters or events of Lord of the Rings, although there are other interpretations out there;
- ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ is another song with a title that is very reminiscent of Tolkien’s work. What Tolkien fan can read that title and not think of some situation of the sort in all of the three ages of Arda? Yet, the lyrics are not easily pried for specific Tolkien meaning. Some say it is about Sam. Honestly, I think that is reaching a little too far.
While I do believe that the ‘when I look to the West’ line in Stairway To Heaven’ to be highly suggestive of Tolkien, even more because of the established interest of Plant in Tolkien’s work, the band has stated it is not related, so…
Curiously, none of these songs exhibit in a too-blatant way the blues influence that became Led Zeppelin’s trademark (all right, ‘Ramble On’ and ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ have the chords but not in the much more recognizable way of ‘The Lemon Song’ or ‘Dazed and Confuzed’, for instance). I make a parallel with Tolkien, again, who writes the stories as they need to be told, from the approachable, almost playful tone of ‘The Hobbit’ to the distant, quasi-biblical quality of ‘The Silmarillion’. It goes a long way in showing how inspiration comes in many guises and how expression is flexible and wide-ranging when there is unbound talent behind it.
Let me finish, with a fanwork resulting of the mixing of a Tolkien fanwork with a Led Zeppelin fanwork, both by professionals in a professional context.