Eärendil Was a Mariner. The Story That Seems to Fit Somehow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 227-30

Frodo gradually emerges from “a dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice”. And the voice is that of Bilbo chanting verses.

Eärendil was a mariner 
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan, 
and light upon her banners laid. 



Eärendil The Mariner by Ted Nasmith

And so begins the longest poem in The Lord of the Rings. A poem that links the story both to The Silmarillion and to the moment in 1914 when first Tolkien began to conceive his legendarium, the moment in which his heart was captured by the beauty of some lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem.

” Eala earendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middangeard monnum sended…”

“O, Earendel, brightest of angels, sent to men above Middle-earth…”

Eala Earendel

The poem was entitled, Christ ,or The Advent Lyrics and as soon as we read the word, Advent, we know that these words are an expression of profound longing, a cry from the darkness of our prison, a longing for freedom and for peace.

The poem continues, “You come yourself to illuminate those who for the longest time, shrouded in shadow and in darkness here, reside in the everlasting night- enfolded in our sins, they have had to endure the dark shadows of death.”

It all fits because the tale that Bilbo tells in his poem is one of deliverance from darkness. Eärendil journeys from Middle-earth to Valinor to plead for aid against Morgoth who has conquered all. Gondolin has fallen. Nargothrond has fallen. Doriath has fallen. All that was most beautiful has been lost for ever.

But that is not all. The darkness does not belong to Morgoth alone. The sons of Fëanor, bound by the oath that they swore to their father in their grief and fury, attack Arvernien seeking for the Silmaril, seized from the very crown of Morgoth by Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Even the reverence in which the memory of Beren and Lúthien is held is not enough to restrain the revenge required by this oath. But Eärendil still goes to Valinor seeking mercy for all and Manwë, Chief of the Valar, of the Ainur, the makers of the Music, allows this one emissary to enter the Undying Lands. Eärendil, the great intercessor, brings aid to Middle-earth in its darkest hour. “The looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope.”

And Eärendil will come once more in The Lord of the Rings in Shelob’s Lair, when in his darkest moment, in darkness visible as death bears down upon him, Frodo holds high the star-glass of Galadriel in which the light of the Silmaril is held and cries out, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Hail Eärendil, Brightest of Stars! The very same Advent cry that Tolkien read in 1914 and which captured his heart.

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima

“It all seemed to me to fit somehow.”

The sense in which the story fits, both in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell and in Shelob’s Lair in Mordor is that Frodo has been drawn into the age-old longing of the Children of Ilúvatar for a light that will never go out, that darkness can never overcome.

“O Morning Star! Come and Enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”.

“O Oriens…Veni et inlumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis”.

Those who sit at ease are not in need of deliverance. The story that seems to fit somehow is the age long story of the prisoner in darkness. Bilbo and then Frodo are drawn into this story. Bilbo becomes a member of Thorin Oakenshield’s party. Frodo sets off into the wild with his three companions. Both are linked together by the finding of the Ring of Power. Both are linked together too by a desire for adventure. Soon all who have been drawn into this story, all who have been brought to Rivendell at this moment, at the coming of the Ring and the Ringbearer, will gather together to take counsel for the deliverance of Middle-earth. And once again the prayer of Eärendil will be made by those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

“Don’t Adventures Ever Have an End?” Frodo, Bilbo and the Ring in the Hall of Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 223-26

After the feast concludes Frodo and the whole company make their way, following Elrond and Arwen, to the Hall of Fire, a place which, except on high days “usually stands empty and quiet” and where people come “who wish for peace, and thought”; and it is there that Elrond brings Frodo and Bilbo together, much to their mutual delight.

The Hall of Fire

Frodo discovers that Bilbo had sat with Sam at his bedside through much of the days in which he had lain, close to death, as the sliver of the Morgul blade, wielded by the Witch-king of Angmar, worked its way slowly towards his heart. And Frodo also learns that Bilbo has not been at the feast. Indeed that Bilbo is now old and is content to be alone with his own thoughts in this quiet place, composing a poem that he will perform before the assembled company before all retire to their rooms and dwelling places.

Bilbo and Frodo in the Hall of Fire

Little has the capacity to stir Bilbo now; except for one thing.

“Have you got it here?” he asked in a whisper. “I can’t help feeling curious, you know, after all I’ve heard. I should very much like just to peep at it again.”

Bilbo, of course, is speaking of the Ring, and there follows a brief period which, for Frodo, and then for Bilbo as well, is one of the most distressing that he has known. Frodo finds himself looking at “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”. The parallel with Gollum is all too clear for those who know the story. This is what the Ring does to those who have possessed it. This is what they are reduced to. Hungry and groping. They become spiritually ravenous and never satisfied. And except in degrees of power there is no distinction between Sauron, Gollum and, for a moment at least, Bilbo too. Each is reduced to the desire to consume all and everyone, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

In Bilbo’s case the triumph of his desire for the Ring is but momentary. Perhaps his distance from the Ring over many years and perhaps even the fact that he gave it up freely, albeit with a little help from Gandalf, enables Bilbo to master his craving; but for that moment the absolutely evil potential of the Ring mars the great love that Bilbo and Frodo have for one another and it even reduces the serene gathering of the company in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, a place where at one moment Frodo wondered if people were ever ill, to an unhappy silence.

That moment passes as Frodo puts the Ring away but the distress that Bilbo feels as he realises, maybe for the very first time, the power that the Ring has over him and the burden that his beloved Frodo has to bear is heartbreaking.

“Don’t adventures ever come to an end?”

How does one portray Bilbo as hungry and groping?

And with this thought the whole entirety of Tolkien’s legendarium is brought together. And so too is the entirety of human history of the mythical world of which each one of us is a part. By myth we speak here of the age long need to find meaning in the age long sequence of events that have constituted the history of the cosmos ever since the Big Bang (as far as we know) and, in particular, the need to find meaning in the story of ourselves ever since we first emerged into consciousness in Africa long ago. Or not so long in comparison with the whole. This is the story told in the Music of the Ainur, and we will return to this next week. The story told in Tolkien’s creation myth, a story that the wise know is not about the manufacture of a clock that is then more or less left to its own devices, but one to which the divine is intimately connected at all times and in all places. Bilbo and Frodo are both a part of the one great adventure as are we. Does this adventure ever end? The Music of the Ainur reaches a sublime conclusion, but there is a beyond. There is always a beyond. But what that is is known only to the One.

Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

fotr_eebilbo

Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.