Hearing Halos

Giving the Elves a Sonic Soft Focus in The Lord of the Rings

by Meggie Weithman

The essence of a character does not come strictly from their makeup, costuming, or even lines of dialogue. Character is also how they sound. This does not necessarily mean their voices; a character’s “sound” can be  created through sound effects, such as confident or weary footsteps or even the rustle of expensive or worn-out clothing. This is something Peter Jackson considered when adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings into his monumental cinematic trilogy. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular fantasy tales of the 20th century. Part of what makes Tolkien’s stories so popular is his extensive creative imagination. Jackson’s trilogy is populated by  a plethora of mythical creatures both familiar and re-imagined. Of particular prominence are the elves—tall, beautiful, cunning, and immortal creatures that inhabit Middle Earth. Their cinematic portrayal only furthers this mysterious yet awe-inspiring quality.  Soft focus and lighting help render their mystery and beauty.  But there is also music. Howard Shore’s underscore  paired with the lighting and soft focus create halos both sonic  and visual around the elves. Let’s take a look at and a listen to the audiovisual representation of the female elves in the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring to see how sound can conceive not only character but also fashion fantastical creatures.

An hour into the film, Arwen arrives to rescue Frodo after having been stabbed by the Nazgul. She’s first present as  a bright light reflecting on Frodo’s face accompanied by  the faint sound of a chorus of female voices singing in Tolkien’s elvish. When we see her, she is backed by a soft yet bright light that obscures her appearance entirely,inspiring a great deal of mystery and fear shown on Frodo’s face. As she moves toward Frodo, her likeness is revealed yet still surrounded by the halo, evoking an angelic image. Her voice is soft and calming with a slight reverb again, adding to her divine aura.  

As she comes closer, male voices join in harmony with the female voices. The long drawn out notes sung by the otherworldly choir mimic that of a medieval church ensemble, furthering the elves’ ethereal vibe. 

To be sure, Howard Shore hardly invented the sound of otherworldly voices. To someone familiar with choral music, Arwen’s underscore sounds very similar to  Eric Whitacre’s  immensely popular “Lux Aurumque” which is the setting of quatrain about angels singing to the new born baby Jesus. Both use the musical topic of angelic voices which originates with invisible nuns singing from choir lofts.

Arwen, while beautiful and initially mysterious, does not embody all that Tolkien intended to portray with the elves. In the novel, she is described as  soft, beautiful and weightless, in the way that people tend to imagine an angel. It seems, however, that Tolkien intended the elves to be more like biblical angels whose power is unknown, making others afraid and even suspicious of their power and intentions. As Susan Carter notes, Galadriel, embodies Tolkien’s ideal elves epitomizing  “a figure who belongs in the forest or wood, startlingly pure, and yet tainted with suspicion because she is both authoritative and elusive” (72). Galadriel represents the elves as creatures who possess a great deal of mystery. All other creatures are suspicious of her as they do not know the extent of her power. 

We are first introduced to Galadriel  as an acousmêtre (a character or being who is invisible, often offscreen). The acousmêtre, as Michel Chion suggested, is endowed with certain powers; “The powers are four: the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words, ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipresence” (24). Galadriel is known by all others as one who posses the power to see all that was, is, and will happen. By introducing her as an acousmêtre, her power and omniscience is foreshadowed. Her low, whispered voice is a sound only heard in Frodo’s mind as she communicates with him telepathically about the evil he brings with him into the forest. Already, Galadriel is introduced more mysteriously than Arwen. Unlike Arwen, the underscoring precedes Galadriel’s appearance; her musical halo can be heard despite not yet being physically present. Just as hearing her voice indicating her more immense power, her musical halo does the same.  When she descends a large staircase minutes later, we see Frodo’s face again is illuminated by the bright light emitting from behind her; his face filled with curiosity. The faces of the others in the company exhibit fear, wonderment, and reverence. 

Galadriel’s musical halo follows suit: she descends the staircase with a  melody sung by the female voices descending in half steps creating a haunting and mysterious tone less like that of the church and more like that from a supernatural horror film, with shrill strings backing the haunting melody of the female voices evoking  a more uncanny feeling. Indeed, unlike Arwen, the light emanating from behind Galadriel is not a bright white. The green undertones of her halo reflect the darker side of the power of the elves and hint at the moral ambiguity that complicates her power. 

A later interaction between Frodo and Galadriel exemplifies this ambiguity. In this scene, Frodo offers Galadriel the ring. As she speaks, her face is only half lit exemplifying the duality of the nature of elves. Galadriel does not deny that she has long desired the ring as it would bring her great power. Her thundering voice pounds, “In place of a dark lord you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair.” As she speaks, her voice deepens and the lighting turns a dark green; a bright light continues to show from behind her but the shadows grow over her face. The music shifts to thunderous percussion and horns that match the size of her voice and stature. 

Immediately both her visual and sonic halo turn menacing: a threatening deity rather than a mysterious angel. After she passes her “test” and refuses the ring, the horns diminish, softening her sonic halo; the soft white glow she had before, returns and she is once again Galadriel. Her essence as extremely powerful, however, remains in the tone and reverb of her voice even though she has returned to her original beauty. 

Tolkien’s elves inspired wonder, reverence, and a great deal of fear in creatures unfamiliar with them, such as the hobbits. Peter Jackson’s filmic representations evoke on these feelings by giving them a visual and musical aura. The use of these halos furthers the angelic good nature of the elves but can also be used to blur their divinity by exemplifying their conflicting powers. The halos created with soft focus, light, and most importantly, music, are ultimately what bring Tolkien’s ideas to life.