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.

Watch “Become Ocean” on YouTube

Like Frodo in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell I usually fall into sleep while listening to this mesmerising music. While writing “It Seemed to Fit Somehow” I listened to the whole thing, maybe for the very first time. And it does seem to fit. John Luther Adams captures the way in which water flows in a way that is wonderfully musical.

The Music of the Ainur

Apparently those two fine composers, John Luther Adams and John Adams, who like each other very much, have a lovely time redirecting mail to one another. This must be fun for the postal service because Luther Adams lives in Alaska while his namesake lives in California.

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=dGva1NVWRXk&feature=share

“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.

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.

Stories and Music for a Christ-haunted People

Last year I heard an interview with the fine British actor, Micheal Sheen, about the Passion Play, “The Gospel of Us” in which he played the Christ figure, “The Teacher” in venues around Port Talbot, a steel town in south Wales and Sheen’s hometown, at Easter 2012. “We are a Christ-haunted people,” he said before explaining that he did not regard himself as a practicing Christian. The play was filmed by Dave McKean and is available on all the usual media if you wish to watch it. I intend to do so myself this year.

It was that phrase “A Christ-haunted people” that came to mind as I began to think about this week’s posting about The Music of the Ainur that I promised last week. I first began to think about this on Christmas Night. The days up to and including Christmas Day are a particularly intense time of the year for me as a Christian minister. Unlike Sheen I am a “practicing” Christian and I am especially visible as such as I attend school nativity plays, carol services of many kinds and with many communities and then the great services of Holy Communion at midnight on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. In one school carol service I joined the queue trying to get into the church declaring to those around me that I wanted the novel experience of having to queue to get into church. I promise you that I said it with a happy smile on my face and folk smiled back at me too.

In recent years I have become increasingly drawn to the Christ-haunted who are not regular worshippers. I feel greatly privileged to be with people who choose to get married in church, or to baptise their child, or to seek a Christian funeral for the person they have lost. In Britain the month of November has become a new holy month as the remembering of our war dead has grown in significance in recent years. The poppy installation in which a ceramic poppy was placed in the moat to represent each of those who died in the First World War at The Tower of London was visited by over a million people, a similar number to those from Britain who perished in that war. Two of my great uncles were among that number and I intend to visit their graves in military cemeteries on The Western Front. This need to remember affects me too.

And then there is Christmas…

When Charles Dickens wrote a life of Christ he produced one of the dullest things he ever wrote and I have no doubt it pleased church leaders and pious parents who surely dutifully read it to their children and so infected them with the safe and unthreatening belief that piety and dullness belong together!  “A Christmas Carol”, on the other hand, is a thrilling tale and has entered the mythology of the English speaking world. That is why I have re-blogged Sarah Waters’ excellent piece that I hope you will read alongside this.

Increasingly I am sure that the Music of the Ainur can be heard anywhere if we have but ears to hear it. When I first tried to write this I thought I would be talking about the music of great composers but realise now that I cannot do this. I cannot reduce music to a narrative, even the narrative of the great Christ-story. I must trust music to lead me on although I could produce a playlist of music that has pointed me towards the great music recently. Perhaps you would like to do the same. Victoria Barlow writes movingly about this in a comment on last week’s blog if you would like to read more on this. I do encourage you to do so.

I offer Charles Dickens to you as an example of a great story-teller whose work points us towards the great story at many points and most surely in his tale of the redemption of the miser, Scrooge. I would love to hear about your examples. And I would like to add at the end of this that I would include Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of the great examples of the modern age.

On Hearing The Music of the Ainur

Those who have been reading my Blog that seeks to distil wisdom from The Lord of the Rings will know that I have been reading the text carefully and then reflecting upon what I find there. I happen to think that Tolkien was a man of profound insight. I also think that he was an explorer and that what he discovered in his creation often surprised him. So it is that what we find when we read his work is not a carefully worked out philosophy imposed upon a narrative structure although Tolkien’s Christian faith is a springboard that is absolutely necessary for his explorations. Tolkien genuinely did not know in advance what his characters would do as the story developed. I think that is the reason why it took him so long to write his work. And perhaps one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings speaks so powerfully to the modern mind is that none of its characters is capable of, or presumes to speak, authoritatively of God or the ultimate mystery of being and of life. You get the impression that Gandalf may know more than most but he does not tell. All that we learn from him is that there is a mystery that gives meaning to all that each character in the story chooses to do.

It was back in January 2013 that I wrote about Frodo in the halls of Elrond of Rivendell. At that time I wrote the Blog on my website http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#131194 and in that posting wrote about Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice”. Music is Tolkien’s metaphor for the unfolding of history, one that he unfolds most fully in the first chapter of The Silmarillion, The Music of the Ainur. The Ainur are the angelic beings whose task it is to work with God (Ilúvatar) in the governing of his creation. I do not think therefore that Frodo’s “dream of music” is an accidental detail in the story. He connects for a moment with the Great Music and also with the Great Story for the voice that he hears as he emerges from the dream is Bilbo’s as he chants his own telling of the tale of The Voyage of Eärendil that is chapter 24 of The Silmarillion. Later when he takes the Ring at The Council of Elrond Frodo declares his own Yes to the Music and the Story. He cannot himself control the story to which he says Yes although because he bears the Ring of Power he is tempted to believe that he has the capacity to do this but he is carried by the story and by the music from the moment of choosing until the fulfilment of the choice at the Cracks of Mt Doom.

At the ending of one year and the opening of another I wanted to return to this story in Rivendell from my reflections at the ruined gates of Isengard. For we cannot drift aimlessly through life as if there were nothing to be discovered, no commitments to be made. When I started writing this Blog I intended to reflect on composers and writers who I believe to have made a connection to the Great Music and the Great Story and if my readers are interested then I will try to do so next week before returning to Isengard and to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Here I will just say that if 2015 is to be fruitful then it will be because of the commitments we make to the Music and the Story. If we are true to the wisdom of The Lord of the Rings then we will not seek to make authoritative statements about the Mystery but in our own commitments we will seek it out. It is because of his search that Frodo hears the music and the story in the halls of Elrond, that Merry and Pippin meet the Ents in the forest of Fangorn, that Gimli finds understanding in the words of Galadriel and heart breaking beauty in the caves of Aglarond. If we remain true to our own search then we too will find such wonders. You may remind me that I should not forget Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s lair or Merry and Pippin as prisoners of the orcs for if we are true to our Yes then our journey will take us to such places as well but what it will not be is some aimless and meaningless drifting. It will be a true adventure of Joy and Sorrow. We will be men and women who are fully alive.