Let me take this opportunity to disabuse you of a few notions. If you were to try stealing my harp, it would not cry out, “Stop thief!” It would, however, require two people to get it down my front steps. If you were to take a harp (any harp) on a journey, say, by horseback, you would not unwrap your instrument come evening to find every string perfectly in tune. Most people wouldn’t find themselves even capable of tuning it properly. Nor will your harp (I’m fairly sure) be able to stave off evil sorcerers, invading conquerors, or heartache. Though I suppose one never knows.
Let’s play ‘compare and contrast’ and examine harps in fantasy fiction versus harps in the real world.
Harps in fantasy novels tend to be small. The Journey is a major theme that dominates the plot line of many fantastic novels. Forcibly these tales feature smaller, portable instruments. For example, in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Thorin owns a “beautiful golden harp” wrapped in a green cloth. (For a discussion on that harp’s fate, see “Of Harps And Hobbits“.) My pedal harp, or even my folk harp for that matter, could not be “wrapped” in a green cloth. Draped yes, wrapped no: so Tolkien must have envisioned something quite a bit smaller, especially when contrasted with a dwarf. Edith Pattou includes a country harper in her young adult novel Hero’s Song whose harp is, again, wrapped in a leather covering. Other books describe the harpers as ‘cradling’ the harp in their arms, or even holding it in one hand while playing with the other.
Harps in the real world are not standardized in the same way as violins or saxophones. Companies like Lyon and Healy Harp Makers or Salvi make the more commonly accepted forms, but many a woodworker has made a harp in his garage. Due to the fact that harps are often treated as solo instruments now days, as opposed to accompaniment for singing, a larger range is more popular; I prefer something with at least 32 strings so that I can get some bass. The unfortunate side effect is that a harp of 32 strings or more cannot be easily slung over the shoulder, or stored on the back of a saddle. It will, however, fit into most car trunks.
In fantasy, the very sound of the harp seems to be the magical component (as opposed to the harpist’s ability to play being the magical component). For instance in The Grey King, the strumming of the strings, even lacking a melody, has enormous power. Cooper writes,
“’The music of the golden harp,” said the blue-robed lord, ‘…has the High Magic in it, and while the harp is being played, those under its protection are safe from any kind of harm or spell. Play the harp of gold, Old One. Its music will wrap you in safety.'”
Does a real world harp possess the same ability? I have noticed that people tend to cry when I play harp, though whether that’s a commentary on ability, God working through me (as with David and Saul) or the sound of the harp specifically, I don’t know. People compliment my playing with terrifying regularity, regardless of whether I feel that that particular performance went well or not. Something was evidently pleasing to the audience, even if this musician found it lacking. Even textbook authors find the sound charming: Joseph Machlis describes the sound of the harp in his book The Enjoyment of Music, with the words, “Its plucked strings produce an ethereal tone…” I think I am immune, since I’ve been hearing and playing harp since I was seven. (After all, what else would a harp sound like?) But to get back to the question, I haven’t actually tried staving off evil invaders with my harp. Next time I get the chance, I’ll let you know.
In a novel called Bard, Amergin is informed that becoming a bard is a fearsome task. He struggles to perfectly memorize the poems and epic tales of his Welsh heritage. And when he begins to play the harp he struggles, and earns blisters. Yet eventually, in the course of an evening, he and his harp (who is named “Clarsa” and has a character of her own) reach a consensus and suddenly he can play with both power and grace. He believes that the magic of his playing comes not from his own talent, but from the harp. In my experience the harpist makes the music, not the harp. Even a very fine harp will not ring under the fingers of a unskilled harpist. It is the character of the musician that animates the music, not the character of the instrument. Amergin too begins to realize this over the course of his life.
Being that novels are supposed to be enjoyable on some level, fantasy fiction tends to skimp when it comes to describing all the blisters, tears and drudgery that go into learning the harp; the weeks where the only improvement made is in the realm of sight reading, and the hours of looking at the clock in dismay and realizing you still have fifteen more long minutes of practice. I read a book the other day that made me squirm with envy. The Lion’s Mouth, by Michael Flynn, is the story of an assassin, Ravn, who breaks into a castle to recount to Bridget ban and her harpist daughter the tale of her father’s fate. As Ravn tells this story, the daughter Méarana accompanies her tale (actually improvising a musical commentary on the story). Flynn writes sentences such as,
“Méarana plays a melody tangled and unresolved. It is neither geantraí nor goltraí but, like the meeting in the pit of Apothete, it searches for its boundaries, for its resolutions. It hungers for the progressions that will grace it with either triumph or tragedy…”
“Méarana plays an intricate and unresolved chord progression on her harp. One hand picks out a lively geantaí fit to sketch a joust of Shadows while the other hand plays in counterpoint a goltraí to suggest the lurking Name and, overall, the tragic nature of the whole affair.”
After reading this I set down the book and walked over to my harp. “You might be a classically trained musician Stephanie, but you are capable of improvising music. Just let your hands do the work.” I tried. I did. And then I might have cried a little bit. Twenty years of harp playing must not be enough to improvise a lively jig in one hand that fits perfectly with a sorrowful counterpoint. Maybe I just don’t have the right skill set.
I appreciated more how author Anne McCaffrey describes her harpist’ experience of learning to play in her Masterharper of Pern book. She writes about students studying the fundamentals of music theory, learning their scales, improving their breathing. The hard work that is so much a part of a real musician’s life is very present in her books and I so much appreciate that.
I also like the impression Kathy Tyers gives in her novel Firebird with the line:
“After four attempts to rhyme a second stanza, Firebird gave up in disgust…”
Frustration is definitely part of a harpist’s life.
Can you imagine a bard on a journey with his horse and his cloak and his harp…and his music stand and his water-proof music books and his clips to keep the pages from flapping in the wind? Or a king calling for music and the harpist calling out, “Let me just find the right page…” The elusive music stand exists not in fantasy. Almost alone amongst fantasy authors does Anne McCaffrey mention the use of written music! And even she attributes an amazing memory to each of her harpers. Much of her written music shows up at the Hall, the equivalent to a music conservatory. I wish I could sit down and regale my traveling companions with music for hours in the evening, but in reality, my memorized repertoire is limited. And the hour that I do have stored in my head exists thanks to a dozen years of performing at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Some people (particularly fantasy heroes) can hear a piece once and then repeat it. For me, it is a long process of internalizing the chord progression, the melody, the fingerings, the repeats and the order of the verses, and then solidifying it all together in a confident whole that will not fly out the window when distraction strikes.
I realize this segment of the discussion might perhaps come across a bit pessimistic. Just remember, the middle part of the trilogy always has to be the dark one. (Think of the last sentence in The Two Towers, or the last half hour of The Empire Strikes Back.)
“Harp in the Fantasy Novel, Part 3” will restore all your hopes in the fantasy genre. Or at least some of them. And only if you’re not a harpist.
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Consider signing up for her e-mail newsletter to be notified directly of upcoming performances and important announcements.