“Where words fail, music speaks.” This quote is attributed to Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th century author of fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “Thumbelina.” He’s saying that for all its precision and utility, language has its limits. There are times when words are not enough, when what seems inexpressible in words alone can only be expressed in song. That’s a very humbling thing for a writer to admit. You might think Andersen would privilege the written word above all else. But you don’t have to call yourself a musician to understand the truth in his statement.
We know that we need music. I once heard a public talk about pseudoscience and mental health from a psychiatrist at university. His whole lecture was basically an attack on things like anti-stress colouring books, fidget spinners, and other products that people push while claiming they have mental health benefits, even if there is little evidence to back up their claims. Having thrown out nearly everything under the sun, the psychiatrist concluded that science does back the importance of at least two activities which contribute to our mental well-being. Exercise was one of them. The other was hearing music. (Personally, I would add a few things to that list, like reading, writing, community, and service, but then again I’m not an intensely skeptical psychiatrist, so what do I know?)
When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring movie and heard the opening seven notes of the Shire theme, composed by Howard Shore, I was transported. It wasn’t the visual effects that brought me to director Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth. It was that score. I was there with Sam as he lamented the departure of the elves into the far west, with Arwen and Frodo on the desperate gallop to escape the hooded Ringwraiths, and with the nine members of the Fellowship as they rested in the hallowed woodland of Lothlórien. The Lord of the Rings movies are indeed wonderful adaptations, though they don’t measure up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. And yet I’ve often thought that for all the changes the filmmakers made, it was worth it to have these films made if only because we got that musical score.
Life is a series of choices. Some are big choices, like who to get married to. Others seem small, like what to have for breakfast. Porridge? Or perhaps an egg-free tofu omelette. All these choices, big and small, have led you to this moment. They’ve had on impact on your education, career, health, and relationships. One choice leads to opportunities for more choices and pretty soon you can look back on your life as a long string of decisions. This is your story, almost as if you were a character in a book. And it all starts somewhere. But before each stage of your story can really begin, you must make an important choice. It's the choice of how to respond to what Joseph Campbell entitles "the call to adventure."
In Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey, the call to adventure is where everything takes off. Our main character receives a revelation. Perhaps they discover that a whole other world exists, an unknown world "of both treasure and danger." It’s an exciting place, but also unpredictable. And so like Neo in The Matrix, they come to a crossroads. The blue pill or the red pill. It is the choice of whether to continue being comfortable with what they know, or to take a chance and step out into the unknown.
Why would anyone ever leave what they know in order to be uncomfortable? That doesn’t sound very relaxing. Or safe. And more importantly, what would the neighbours think? Bilbo Baggins deals with those exact concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The Bagginses are seen as "very respectable" in large part "because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected." But when Gandalf and his throng of dwarves show up on the doorstep for an evening of telling tales about the battles and treasures of faraway lands, something awakens inside Bilbo’s heart. He realizes there’s more to life than tea, buttered scones, and seed-cakes at Bag End. There’s a whole other world out there, and it starts at the little road just outside his front door.
David Raphael Hilder
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