The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.231,32
As Frodo and Bilbo depart the Hall of Fire in order to enjoy some quiet talk together they hear “a single clear voice” rise in song. It is a hymn to Elbereth, the Lady Varda of the Valar, Queen of the Blessed Realm of Valinor, Elentári, Queen of Stars, and it is a song of praise and an expression of longing.
O Elbereth Starkindler White glittering, slanting down sparkling like a jewel, The glory of the starry host! Having gazed far away From the tree-woven lands of Middle-earth, To thee, everwhite, I will sing, On this side of the Sea, Here on this side of the Ocean. O Elbereth Starkindler, From heaven gazing afar, To thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite!
And so the mood in the hall moves from merriment to longing. And if merriment is an expression of contentment, of being happy just where we are then this hymn tells us that those who sing it long to be somewhere else entirely. The gaze of the elven singer looks out from this place of peace to the stars above, the same stars to which the Elves first looked as they awoke in Middle-earth. The name that the Valar gave them was, Eldar, the people of the stars, for at their beginning, Elbereth/Varda “began a great labour, greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda. She took the silver dews from the vats of Telperion, and therewith she made new stars and brighter against the coming of the Firstborn; wherefore she whose name out of the deeps was time and the labours of Eà was Tintalle, the Kindler… Queen of the Stars”.
It was for fear of Melkor/Morgoth, dweller in the dark of Middle-earth, that Elbereth kindled the stars in the sky, fear that awakening in darkness the Elves would meet first its lord and worship him, bowing down before his great might, part in fear and part in admiration. And her labour was not in vain for as they awoke from sleep they gazed first upon those stars “and have revered Varda Elentári above all the Valar”.
Throughout their long history the Elves have looked upwards towards the starlight and westward to the Queen of Heaven. As in all the stories of the children of Ilúvatar, of both Elves and Humankind, immortal and mortal, the simplicity of this gaze is soon lost. The Valar, led by Oromë, the hunter, set out to find the firstborn and to lead them to safety in the Blessed Realm, but some never complete the journey, lingering among the beauty of what they know while others, the Noldor, followers of Fëanor, tire of a life of absolute safety and obedience in the realm their angelic lords and return to Middle-earth to freedom, glory and ultimately, for most of them, destruction. But the feeling expressed in this hymn to Elbereth is of a longing, a cry “beneath the shadow of death” that has been woven in the very fabric of their being from the moment of that first gaze upwards, a gaze both from eye and heart.
The language of this hymn is Sindarin, the language of the Grey-elves, the Elves who never came to Valinor and yet the longing is as deep as it is among those of the Noldor who survive the terrible wars in Beleriand in the First Age, the exiles from the Blessed Realm like Galadriel and at the very end of The Lord of the Rings all these stories will be brought together when Frodo sings the old walking song, the song of the road one last time, and almost in response the hymn to Elbereth will be taken up once more by Gildor Inglorien, by Elrond and by Galadriel as they make their last journey into the West across the Sea.
This is my last of a series of meditations meditation upon Frodo’s words, “It seemed to me to fit somehow”. On the next day, which we will take up from next week, Elrond will gather together a great council whose task it will be to decide what to do with the Ring of Power that Bilbo found beneath the Misty Mountains and which Frodo has brought into Rivendell. As we have seen in these last weeks none of the events that have led to this moment are in any way random and disconnected but all are a part of the great story that flows onward to the “one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar” at the end of all things. This is how everything fits somehow. Frodo has caught a glimpse of this story to which he belongs but which he can never explain.
And a final note upon my title. Some of you will have recognised the words there as from the great hymn, “Ave Maris Stella”, Hail Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star, a hymn that Tolkien knew very well indeed. In the echo of this hymn in the song of the Elves we pray for Frodo the wanderer and ourselves also.