The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate

A Elbereth Gilthoniel. Pray for the Wanderer. Pray for Me. The Hymn to Elbereth in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell.

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”.

An Imagining of The Evening Star

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 Awakening of the Elves by Ted Nasmith

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.

Gildor Inglorien and the High Elves at the beginning of the story and its end

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.

You Shall Have Neither the Ring Nor Me! With the Aid of Glorfindel Frodo Escapes the Nazgûl.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 203-09

The long miles of Eriador that seem for so long to have stretched out into an endless distance come to an end in a few moments of fear, anger, hatred and swift flight. Frodo clings to the mane of the horse of a great elven lord who is able to pass before the very faces of the Ringwraiths of Mordor and over the Fords of the Bruinen into the land of Rivendell.

Frodo flies to the fords of Bruinen upon Asfaloth by Donato Giancola

The elven lord is Glorfindel and it is through his aid that Frodo is able to make his escape and, even then, only just. Glorfindel makes only the briefest of appearances in The Lord of the Rings. He appears at this crucial moment; he plays his part in the Council of Elrond; and he attends the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen in Minas Tirith. In fact, so brief is his appearance that Peter Jackson feels able to leave him out of his films altogether, while even Tolkien decides not to make him a part of the Fellowship of the Ring but to take Merry and Pippin instead. But more on the latter choice later when we will give ample space to the Council of Elrond and its deliberations. On the former Jackson wanted to make Arwen a character who would appear less passive than she appears in the book. I have written about this elsewhere (click on the tag regarding Arwen’s banner below) so here it is an opportunity to think about Glorfindel.

As the hobbits journey from the Shire to Rivendell word reaches Elrond from Gildor Inglorien of their plight, of the pursuit of the Nine, and of Gandalf’s mysterious absence. Elrond decides to send out his greatest lords to aid them in their peril, those that could “ride openly against the Nine”, and one of these is Glorfindel.

Glorfindel

Indeed we might say that Glorfindel is Elrond’s greatest lord. He is one who has dwelt in Valinor itself, one of the Noldor who in great sadness but out of deep friendship accompanied Turgon, the Lord of Gondolin in the exile from the Undying Lands to Middle-earth, to Beleriand. Not all the elves who made the journey with Fëanor in pursuit of the Silmarils stolen by Morgoth took part in the kinslaying of Alqualondë but all were banned from ever returning to the Undying Lands.

Although the city of Gondolin was the one of the greatest works of the elves in Middle-earth eventually it fell to Morgoth’s armies and Glorfindel fell in battle against a Balrog, falling together with it into a deep abyss and so he died. And if this reminds you of the battle that Gandalf fought with a Balrog in Moria then so too does the rest of Glorfindel’s story. Thorondor, the greatest of the Eagles of Manwë rescued Glorfindel’s body while his spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, of Waiting. In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elves were reincarnated after a time of waiting but Glorfindel was rewarded for his bravery and goodness by being allowed to return swiftly to Valinor where he befriended Olórin, who in Middle-earth became known as Mithrandir or Gandalf. At different times both Gandalf and Glorfindel were sent by the Valar to give aid to the peoples of Middle-earth and at the Battle of Fornost in the year 1975 of the Third Age Glorfindel gave aid to Eärnur of Gondor in a battle against the armies of Angmar in a victory so complete “that not a man nor an orc of that realm remained west of the Mountains”. In that battle Glorfindel saved Eärnur from the Witch-king and had driven him from Eriador from that day onwards.

From that day until the time when the Witch-king led the Nine in their desperate search for the Ring Glorfindel dwelt in Rivendell playing his part in keeping Eriador as a place of comparative peace. And just as he had driven the Witch-king from Eriador at the Battle of Fornost so too does he enable Frodo to make his escape and in so doing he drives his ancient foe from the North once more. The Ring is kept from the grasp of Sauron, and Glorfindel drives the Nazgûl into the waters of the Bruinen that have risen in full flood to deny all foes entrance into the land of Rivendell.

Glorfindel Upon Asfaloth by Elena Kukanova

The wonderful story of Glorfindel is in keeping with that of Gandalf and of Aragorn. A willingness to serve patiently in obscurity and a preparedness to lay down everything at a moments notice for the common good. The way of the true servants of the light.

Sam Gamgee has Something to Do Before the End. Frodo and Sam decide to leave the Shire as soon as possible.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 84-86

Frodo awakens in a strangely scented bed of fern and grass in a bower created within a living tree. The Elves have gone and so Frodo emerges from a night spent in the Elder Days to hear Pippin’s usual chatter. It is a beautiful morning in the Shire but Gildor Inglorien’s words have gone home to his heart.

“I think that you should now go at once, without delay; and if Gandalf does not come before you set out, then I also advise this: do not go alone.”

Frodo and the High Elves in Woodhall by Alan Lee

Frodo now understands that the Shire is no longer safe and that he must leave it. He had perhaps hoped that he might rest in Crickhollow in Buckland for a while but he knows now that this is not possible. But what of Gildor’s second piece of advice? Who, if anyone, should he take him with him?

“You still mean to come with me?” he asks Sam. And Sam’s reply is sure and firm.

“Don’t you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with.”

So far, so much the kind of bluster that a young man might summon up to make himself a little braver and Frodo is inclined merely to acknowledge it. But then Sam says something that makes Frodo really take notice.

Frodo has asked Sam whether he still likes Elves now that he has had a closer view of them. It is the kind of question that a teacher might ask of a a pupil of which they are fond but it is not asked with much expectation of great wisdom. Then Sam replies:

“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak…It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I had expected- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

We never learn what Sam had expected to see when he first met Elves and so we need to use our imaginations. Perhaps the picture that Sam had carried in his heart was one formed by his childhood experience of listening to Bilbo’s stories. He felt special in that he had been chosen to hear them and not any other young hobbit. He had been able to walk into a home in which there dwelt a figure of legend, a hobbit, fabulously wealthy, or so it was believed, who had journeyed to the Land of Fairie away from the cabbages and potatoes that seemed to form the limits of his father’s experience and imagination. And as he began to enter his adulthood he still carried this child’s experience within his heart, perhaps holding it even more dearly because he had had to defend it against the likes of Ted Sandyman.

But now he has seen Elves and even more, he has seen the Eldar, High Elves who have dwelt in Valinor, the Undying Lands, and who have communed with the Valar, the angelic beings who govern the earth for Ilúvatar, the One. Sam now knows that the Elves do not need to be defended by him. He realises that his opinion and the opinion of people like Ted Sandyman is of utter irrelevance to the beings that he has just met.

But this does not diminish him in any way. Indeed, if anything, it makes his soul grow larger. A large soul has not been merely inflated. A large soul is not focused upon itself but upon something greater than itself and so Sam replies to Frodo’s question as to whether he still needs to leave the Shire now that he has seen Elves.

“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

Sam has made great steps towards a greatness that few ever begin to attain to.