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"Battle Harp", by Himring

Author: Himring
Title: Battle Harp
Rating: PG (for canonical violence)
Theme: Art's Desire (February Challenge)
Prompt: Rohan Icons created by Oshun for the July 2012 Art Challenge: Miniature.
Author's Notes: Oshun comments on the icons: "It is part of my own personal, perhaps AU, canon to imagine that the Rohan as an oral culture made use of harps, including battle harps." The icons, which depict riders and a harp, are here: http://www.lotrgfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=2184&chapter=1
Summary: An early encounter between Gleowine the minstrel and the battle harp--and  also between Gleowine and his future king, Theoden, son of Thengel.
Word Count: c.630 words



The battle harp was smaller than an ordinary harp. The frame was carved in a way that allowed the rider to wedge it securely between neck and  shoulder. The sound of its strings was piercing rather than mellow and resonant. Playing it inside was discouraged.

Young Gleowine, in the first year of his apprenticeship, was only just beginning to try it out. He sat astride a low wall in Edoras, before the doors of Meduseld, and tentatively plucked a few notes, trying to gauge the right strength and volume. But already his gaze was far off in the distance; in his mind, he was a rider grown, following his chosen lord valiantly into a skirmish in the Eastemnet.

He was brought back to the present with a jolt by the awareness that he had acquired listeners--and from among King Thengel's children, no less! Erkenhild, Thengel's eldest daughter, stood to his left, with her younger brother Theoden beside her. She listened to the sound of the battle harp, frowning, chewing her lower lip, while Theoden merely looked curious and interested.

Erkenhild's clothing was a mixture of the styles of Gondor and Rohan--a reminder that it was not so long ago that the family had arrived from Lossarnach. They spoke the speech of the Rohirrim fluently, but with a strong accent that was only just beginning to fade, although Theoden was losing his quicker than Erkenhild.

Maybe that was because he was younger, mused Gleowine.

'You play this instrument in battle?' Erkenhild asked. By 'you', she clearly meant the Rohirrim as a whole, Gleowine recognized, not just Gleowine or rather Gleowine and his master, Uncle Gleomund. 'You sing as you ride in battle, not merely on the march or in a ceremony beforehand?'

The idea was clearly very strange to her. He guessed they would never do such a thing in Lossarnach--perhaps not in the whole of Gondor.

'We do,' he answered her politely. 'It strengthens our spirits--and it helps keep the riders together, to coordinate the troop.'

Erkenhild looked sceptical. Gleowine was sure that she could tell he was quoting his uncle and had never been near a battle. And, of course he was inexperienced, a mere beginner, he could not deny that--but was that itself enough reason to disbelieve him and show it so clearly?

He felt disconcerted and looked at Theoden, hoping for a friendlier reception, a less critical ear. And Theoden did not disappoint him. He leant in closer, inspecting the harp.

'Could you play some more?' he asked.

The wind swept up from the plain to where they stood, up high, unfurling the royal banner above them and ruffling Theoden's golden hair.

'This one is a Rohir,' thought Gleowine, gratefully. 'Maybe his sister is too Gondorian to fit in or maybe she is just being superior because she is older, and a girl. But Theoden is already a true Rohir.'

***

All the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City as they overran well nigh all the northern half of the Pelennor.

Gleowine faithfully followed his Lord southward in the charge, playing as they sang. But at the last, as they reached the road from the Gate to the River and Theoden, in white fury, rushed headlong at the Black Serpent, Gleowine tore the harp from his neck and hurled it before him, straight into the onset of the Haradrim, and rode after, by no means the least of the knights of the royal household in the great clash of that meeting.

And they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest.


A/N: The final passage is of course adapted from Chapters V and VI of Book V of LotR. Oshun quotes some of the earlier part together with her icons.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamflower02
Feb. 21st, 2017 10:45 am (UTC)
Oh, I love this brief glimpse of a young Gleowine at the beginning of his career, whom we only see at the end in the book. Seeing a young Theoden, already a "true Rohir" in spite of his beginnings is also delightful.

I am sure that Erkenhild's response was because she was older; it must have been hard for the family to return after their long sojourn in Gondor!

I also like the idea that the Battle Harp could also be a weapon.
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much, Dreamflower!

I'm glad you liked this glimpse of their youth! I think Gleowine's use of the harp as a weapon might be just a bit unorthodox--but after all it was the great battle of their time, a moment of crisis!

Erkenhild, sadly, finds it much harder to adjust after the move to Rohan than Theoden. I wrote a separate ficlet trying to explain her point of view for a different challenge over at SWG.

shirebound
Feb. 21st, 2017 04:31 pm (UTC)
This is beautifully written.
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much, Shirebound!
heartofoshun
Feb. 21st, 2017 05:58 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed this story so much, as I have the others in this series of yours (you are really making me want to write more about Rohan). Thanks for crediting my remarks about battle harps and the little picture as inspiration. I appreciate your interpretation that these instruments are reserved for the battlefield only and not brought inside of the hall. A very interesting concept and could be true in real history. I did some cursory research years ago and don't recall that.

Allow me to indulge myself: the reference to young Gléowine here--be still my heart!! Priceless!! (You made me cry!) Tolkien's prose relating to the Riders of Rohan and their traditions is among his best and most heart-wrenching.

Then the Riders of the King’s House upon white horses rode round about the barrow and sang together a song of Théoden Thengel’s son that Gléowine his minstrel made, and he made no other song after. The slow voices of the Riders stirred the hearts even of those who did not know the speech of that people; but the words of the song brought a light to the eyes of the folk of the Mark as they heard again afar the thunder of the hooves of the North and the voice of Eorl crying above the battle upon the Field of Celebrant . . . , etc., etc.

I tried to imagine a tribute to Théoden also at the Field of Cormallen involving a battle harp in my WIP The Princess and the Horse Lord.

Finally, a war-hardened, grey-bearded bard of Rohan took up his battle harp and began a Rohirric lament, nobly pathetic and heroic, in honor of all the fallen and their own Théoden King. The bard did not accompany his deep sonorous chanting with any melody, but with a profoundly moving growling bass harmony laden with all the sadness of mortal men.

OMG! Please forgive me. Overstaying my welcome here. Battle harps and Rohan are two of my weaknesses!
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much, Oshun!
I'm so glad you're happy what I did with this!
And that this glimpse of young Gleowine was able to move you!

I love that passage about Theoden's funeral as much as you do.

And thank you for your quotation from your WIP. By the description, it sounds to me as if you'd done some background research and come across Benjamin Bagby and the Sutton Hoo harp?

I'm afraid I didn't do any specific research on attested harps for this ficlet. My suggestions about battle harps here are based on analogy with lore that I picked up here and there--for example, some observations I made about bagpipes, not that I'm an expert on those, either, by any means. The large ones, the Scottish type sometimes used in battle, can be really loud, and pipers sometimes play on chanters (like the pipe without the bag, as it were) at musical gatherings inside when they don't want to drown everybody else out.
curiouswombat
Feb. 21st, 2017 06:56 pm (UTC)
That is lovely - I like the idea of this early encounter, and the image of him hurling his harp ahead of himself into the fray.
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much--glad you like the early encounter!
I wondered whether hurling the harp was too melodramatic--but then I thought, no, it's the Battle of Pelennor and Theoden's great charge, I'll just go for it!
engarian
Feb. 21st, 2017 09:37 pm (UTC)
Oh this is a lovely look at Rohirrin culture and Theoden's days as a youth. Battle harps - I could absolutely imagine such a thing among the riders of Rohan.

- Erulisse (one L)
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much, Erulisse! Glad you like this look at a young Theoden, just arrived in Rohan!
The battle harp is Oshun's idea, but it really appealed to me.
elenbarathi
Feb. 22nd, 2017 01:59 am (UTC)
Woohoo, yay Gleowine!!! LOL, "Playing it inside was discouraged" - I bet it was!

The Irish built giant wind-harps to scare the enemy. We used to have one near here - alas, it's been gone these 20 years, but you can still hear it.
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you for cheering Gleowine on!
I imagine if it was audible above the noise of battle, it wasn't exactly soft and gentle!
That wind harp is splendid--thank you for sharing it! If you didn't know what it was, it would indeed be scary, though. Why was yours taken down?
elenbarathi
Feb. 23rd, 2017 07:35 pm (UTC)
I don't actually know for sure that it was taken down, because the land it's on is private and not very accessible, but it was already pretty rickety when I was there 25 years ago. It wasn't of very durable construction to begin with, and without maintenance it would have just decayed and become unsafe. Too bad! Someone ought to build another, sturdier one, because the sound is ever so eldritch, drifting up through the trees on the wind.
lindahoyland
Feb. 22nd, 2017 05:04 am (UTC)
This was great. You capture the Rohirrim brilliantly.
hhimring
Feb. 22nd, 2017 11:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much, Linda! Good to hear you think I caught the Rohirrim well!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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