The Road Goes Ever On

The Road Goes Ever On is a 1967 song cycle that has been published as a book of sheet music and as an audio recording. The music was written by Donald Swann, and the words are taken from poems in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth writings, especially The Lord of the Rings.

The Road Goes Ever On: a Song Cycle
First edition (Houghton Mifflin)
AuthorJ. R. R. Tolkien (lyrics & main text)
Donald Swann (music)
IllustratorJ. R. R. Tolkien (page decorations)
Genresheet music & commentary
PublisherHoughton Mifflin (USA)
George Allen & Unwin (UK)
Publication date
31 October 1967 (USA)
14 March 1968 (UK)[1]
Media typeprint; in audio as Poems and Songs of Middle-earth
Preceded byThe Tolkien Reader 
Followed bySmith of Wootton Major 

The title of this opus is taken from "The Road Goes Ever On", the first song in the collection. The songs form a song cycle, designed to fit together when played in sequence.

Swann performed the cycle for Tolkien, who approved of the music except for the Quenya song "Namárië"; he suggested it should be in the style of a Gregorian chant, which he hummed; Swann used that melody for the song.


With Tolkien's approval, Donald Swann wrote the music for this song cycle; much of it resembles English traditional music or folk music. The sole exception is the Quenya song "Namárië", which was based on a tune by Tolkien himself that has some affinities to Gregorian chant. In his foreword to the second edition, Swann explains that he performed the song cycle to Tolkien in Priscilla Tolkien's garden; Tolkien approved of the music except for the Quenya song "Namárië", and hummed its melody; Swann used that for the song.[2]

Non-musical contentEdit

This book has been valued even by those uninterested in music, since it helps Tolkien's readers to better understand the cultures of the various mythological beings presented in Middle-earth, and helps linguists analyse Tolkien's poetry. For example, it contains one of the longest samples of the language Quenya (in the song "Namárië"), as well as the Sindarin prayer "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" with grammatical explanations.

The book's introduction provides information about the First Age of Middle-earth that was not otherwise publicly available until the publication of The Silmarillion.[3]

Publication history (book and audio recordings)Edit

The first edition of The Road Goes Ever On: a Song Cycle was published on 31 October 1967, in the United States.[4]

An LP record of this song cycle was recorded on 12 June 1967, with Donald Swann on piano and William Elvin[a] singing. Side one of this record consisted of Tolkien himself reading five poems from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The first track on side two was Tolkien reading the Elvish prayer "A Elbereth Gilthoniel". The remainder of side two contained the song cycle performed by Swann and Elvin.[6] This LP record, entitled Poems and Songs of Middle Earth, was released by Caedmon Records (TC 1231).

The second edition of The Road Goes Ever On, published in 1978, added music for "Bilbo's Last Song." This song was also published separately.

The third edition, published in 1993, added music for "Lúthien Tinúviel" from The Silmarillion, which had earlier appeared in The Songs of Donald Swann: Volume I. The third edition of The Road Goes Ever On was packaged with a CD that duplicated the song cycle (but not Tolkien's readings) from the 1967 LP record. The CD also included two new recordings. The third edition was reprinted in hardcover in 2002 by Harper Collins (ISBN 0-00-713655-2); this had the same text and CD as the 1993 edition.

On 10 June 1995, the song cycle was performed in Rotterdam under the auspices of the Dutch Tolkien Society, by the baritone Jan Krediet together with the chamber choir EnSuite and Alexandra Swemer on the piano. A CD of this concert was published in a limited edition.

List of songsEdit

The song-cycle, on LP and CD, consists of the following:

Song Cycle
No. Title Book Language
1 "The Road Goes Ever On" LOTR, Book 1, ch. 1 "A Long-expected Party" and ch. 3 "Three is Company" English
2 "Upon the Hearth the Fire Is Red" LOTR, Book 1, ch. 3 "Three is Company" English
3 "In the Willow-meads of Tasarinan" LOTR, Book 3, ch. 4 "Treebeard" English
4 "In Western Lands" LOTR, Book 6, ch. 1 "The Tower of Cirith Ungol" English
5 "Namárië" LOTR, Book 2, ch. 8 "Farewell to Lórien" Quenya
6 "I Sit beside the Fire" LOTR, Book 2, ch. 3 "The Ring Goes South" English
7 "Errantry" The Adventures of Tom Bombadil English

The following songs were added to the CD (but not the LP) after the first edition, but do not form part of the song cycle:

Additional songs
Title Source Language Book
"A Elbereth Gilthoniel" LOTR, Book 2, ch. 1 "Many Meetings" Quenya 3rd Edition
"Bilbo's Last Song" Given to Tolkien's secretary, Margaret Joy Hill, after his death English 2nd & 3rd Editions
"Lúthien Tinúviel" The Silmarillion, ch. 19 "Of Beren and Lúthien" Quenya 3rd Edition


The scholar of music Emily Sulka notes that the song cycle was created because Swann and his wife liked Tolkien's writings, and set six of the poems to music. Tolkien liked five of the settings, but proposed a melody similar to a Gregorian chant in place of the sixth, for Namárië. She notes too that Swann wanted them to be performed as a group without applause between the songs. In her view, the cycle has the theme of travel: the walking songs launch into an adventure to unknown lands, but returning home; "In the Willow-Meads of Tasarinan" speaks of Treebeard's travels in many lands, from spring to winter; "In Western Lands" in contrast begins with Sam in despondent mood, but ends with a feeling of hope. "I Sit Beside the Fire" portrays a traveller, Bilbo, reflecting on his journeys; it ends with a quotation of the melody of "The Road Goes Ever On", a poem that recurs (adapted to each context) in The Lord of the Rings. Sulka thus sees Tolkien and Swann using the poems and music to link the story of the novel with "the road always continuing, even when one's individual travel is finished". She finds Swann's account of Tolkien's poems "highly effective".[7]


  1. ^ William Elvin was born in Turriff, Scotland in 1945. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music and sang as a soloist with Scottish Opera and then the Royal Opera House.[5]


  1. ^ Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, 'Chronology' volume, pp. 710 & 721; ISBN 978-0-618-39113-4
  2. ^ Swann, Donald (2002) "Foreword to the Second Edition", The Road Goes Ever On, HarperCollins, p. 5
  3. ^ Foster, Robert (1971). A Guide to Middle-earth. Mirage Press.
  4. ^ Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, 'Chronology' volume p. 710; ISBN 978-0-618-39113-4
  5. ^ "William Elvin". Opera Scotland. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  6. ^ See the scans of the LP jacket here and here, as well as the list of tracks here.
  7. ^ Sulka, Emily (2017). "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Music of Middle Earth". Channels. Centennial Library. 2 (1): 111–118. doi:10.15385/jch.2017.2.1.6. ISSN 2474-2651.

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