Leaving behind heavy metal bombast for high fantasy, on "The Battle of Evermore" Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant duets with folk singer Sandy Denny for a thrilling mandolin-driven epic inspired by Celtic myth and some books about hobbits.
Before you inevitably ask, let’s set the record straight: yes, this song is totally referencing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings book series.
Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy had unexpectedly found an enthusiastic readership among the hippie generation, who were awed by the writer’s dense epic about ancient realms, hobbit-folk, and wise bearded mystics. And in spite of his strutting, sex-charged stage persona, Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant was nothing if not a total Black Country hippie. Not only did Plant devour Tolkien’s tomes enthusiastically (a huge fan, he even named his dog Strider, after the alias the hero Aragorn assumes in the first Lord of the Rings book, The Fellowship of the Ring), but was also a history buff, delving into books about Celtic mythology and Middle Ages military history.
Plant’s favorite sections in the library make themselves apparent on the charging Celtic folk of “The Battle of Evermore”, one of the purest examples of the singer’s flowering as a lyricist on Led Zeppelin IV. The musical side of the song originated during a late night at Headley Grange, the old manor where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded, when guitarist Jimmy Page picked up one of bassist John Paul Jones’ stray mandolins to fiddle around with, leading to him and Plant writing the tune on the spot. Plant’s conception for the lyrics however originated back during songwriting sessions for Led Zeppelin III (1970), when he and Page where holed up in a cottage in the serene Welsh countryside to craft that largely-acoustic record.
Having been encouraged by Page to handle more of the lyric-writing himself, on “The Battle of Evermore” Plant eschews verses about loose women and his raging libido in favor of straight-up high fantasy, a topic that would soon become an overabundant heavy metal trope due in no small part to Led Zeppelin’s popularization of the subject matter. In the song, Plant is essentially describing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King, name-checking Tolkien characters Aragorn (“The prince of peace”), Eowyn (“The queen of light”), and the villainous Sauron (“The dark lord”) and his fearsome Ringwraiths (who “ride in black”). This isn’t exactly Middle-Earth, though, as Plant also mentions the “angels of Avalon”, a distinct reference to Arthurian lore. Plant’s not really trying to painstakingly relate one particular event from lore; instead, Plant is smooshing his inspirations together to craft a mythic battle of his own that despite its late 20th century origins reads as if it was born eons earlier.
Plant and his group succeed admirably. Coupled with the lyrics, the naked acoustics of the mandolins and Celtic-tinged melodies of “The Battle of Evermore” result in a track that sounds positively legendary compared to the more modern, post-industrial society likes of “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll”. The song’s slow fade-in at the start enhances the mood, as if the listener was learning of an ancient tale as it gradually became unobscured by the mists of time. There’s no percussion of any kind on the track, but Page maintains an urgent, rhythmic thrust in the way he plays the chiming chords of the mandolin--punctuated by sharp chord stabs at pivotal moments—that pushes the song continually forward, making the song as exciting and blood-pumping as any of Zeppelin’s heavy rockers.
“The Battle of Evermore” didn’t just spring from the ether with no direct precedent, though. Though the band’s debt to (or outright pilfering of, depending on who you talk to and which song is being discussed) the blues is common knowledge, what’s often overlooked in comparison is how much of an impact the vibrant British folk scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s had on the group, particularly Zeppelin favorites Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, and Fairport Convention. The folk influence was there from the start, functioning as the “light” that balanced out the heavy metal “shade” to create the nuanced stylistic constrains Page strove to maintain, but it was the unjustly underrated Led Zeppelin III that underlined its presence in Zeppelin’s sonic stew. Unfortunately, the negative fan reaction to that LP’s acoustic character meant that the band felt it had something to prove with its subsequent full-length, meaning in the greater context of Led Zeppelin IV tracklist “The Battle of Evermore” comes off as a strange yet thrilling non-rock detour after the full-on metal bombast of the first two cuts, instead of a logical full extension of a previously-established furrow that it actually was.
Zep’s affection for contemporary British folk is made even more tangible on record by the guest appearance of former Fairport Convention vocalist Sandy Denny on “The Battle of Evermore”, who acts a mournful counterpoint to Plant’s narration, functioning in Plant’s words as “the town crier urging people to throw down their weapons”. Denny more than ably complements Plant, matching him every step of the way as his delivery builds in intensity on the journey to the song's climax (Denny mentioned in a 1973 interview that the session had left her “hoarse”, and added, “Having someone out-sing you is a horrible feeling . . .”). Denny’s voice is airy and angelic, almost otherworldly in its timeless timbre; it’s no wonder Led Zeppelin afforded Denny the honor of her very own rune, just like the ones each member of the group received on the album’s artwork.