(Poem #93) Eärendil was a mariner
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. In panoply of ancient kings, in chained rings he armoured him; his shining shield was scored with runes to ward all wounds and harm from him; his bow was made of dragon-horn, his arrows shorn of ebony; of silver was his habergeon, his scabbard of chalcedony; his sword of steel was valiant, of adamant his helmet tall, an eagle-plume upon his crest, upon his breast an emerald. Beneath the Moon and under star he wandered far from northern strands, bewildered on enchanted ways beyond the days of mortal lands. From gnashing of the Narrow Ice where shadow lies on frozen hills, from nether heats and burning waste he turned in haste, and roving still on starless waters far astray at last he came to Night of Naught, and passed, and never sight he saw of shining shore nor light he sought. The winds of wrath came driving him, and blindly in the foam he fled from west to east and errandless, unheralded he homeward sped. There flying Elwing came to him, and flame was in the darkness lit; more bright than light of diamond the fire upon her carcanet. The Silmaril she bound on him and crowned him with the living light, and dauntless then with burning brow he turned his prow; and in the night from otherworld beyond the Sea there strong and free a storm arose, a wind of power in Tarmenel; by paths that seldom mortal goes his boat it bore with biting breath as might of death across the grey and long-forsaken seas distressed: from east to west he passed away. Through Evernight he back was borne on black and roaring waves that ran o'er leagues unlit and foundered shores that drowned before the Days began, until he hears on strands of pearl where ends the world the music long, where ever-foaming billows roll the yellow gold and jewels wan. He saw the Mountain silent rise where twilight lies upon the knees of Valinor, and Eldamar beheld afar beyond the seas. A wanderer escaped from night to haven white he came at last, to Elvenhome the green and fair where keen the air, where pale as glass beneath the Hill of Ilmarin a-glimmer in a valley sheer the lamplit towers of Tirion are mirrored on the Shadowmere. He tarried there from errantry, and melodies they taught to him, and sages old him marvels told, and harps of gold they brought to him. They clothed him then in elven-white, and seven lights before him sent, as through the Calacirian to hidden land forlorn he went. He came unto the timeless halls where shining fall the countless years, and endless reigns the Elder King in Ilmarin on Mountain sheer; and words unheard were spoken then of folk of Men and Elven-kin, beyond the world were visions showed forbid to those that dwell therein. A ship then new they built for him of mithril and of elven-glass with shining prow; no shaven oar nor sail she bore on silver mast: the Silmaril as lantern light and banner bright with living flame to gleam thereon by Elbereth herself was set, who thither came and wings immortal made for him, and laid on him undying doom, to sail the shoreless skies and come behind the Sun and light of Moon. From Evereven's lofty hills where softly silver fountains fall his wings him bore, a wandering light, beyond the might Mountain Wall. From World's End then he turned away, and yearned again to find afar his home through shadows journeying, and burning as an island star on high above the mists he came, a distant flame before the Sun, a wonder ere the waking dawn where grey the Norland waters run. And over Middle-earth he passed and heard at last the weeping sore of women and of elven-maids In Elder Days, in years of yore. But on him mighty doom was laid, till Moon should fade, an orbéd star to pass, and tarry never more on Hither Shores where mortals are; or ever still a herald on an errand that should never rest to bear his shining lamp afar, the Flammifer of Westernesse.
A Word to the Wise: it isn't necessary to know the details of Tolkien's mythology in order to appreciate his poetry. The tale of Earendil is a striking illustration of this fact; indeed, even within the context of 'The Lord of the Rings' it remains more or less unexplained, referring as it does to events which take place long before those described in that (truly magnificent) book. Unlike many narrative poems in which the 'story' gets swamped in a mess of factual detail, 'Earendil' relies more on a wealth of evocative imagery and sound to create its effect. The use of proper nouns ('Arvernien', 'Nimbrethil' and so on) does not distract us from the thrust of the poem; rather, it adds an air of realism (and mysterious beauty) to the whole. Tolkien himself was well aware of this last fact; he says somewhere that 'much of the magic of fantasy is created by a sense of what lies hidden beneath the surface; once the exotic is made familiar, it loses its charm' . And of course, being the consummate craftsman that he was, Tolkien made sure that his characters walked across the backdrop of an incredibly detailed and rich world, one which offers innumerable glimpses of distant, unrevealed vistas stretching as far as the mind can see...  as liberally paraphrased by me, thomas The poem itself is written with extraordinary skill. Note especially the use of internal rhymes and alliteration: intricate, yet never strained, and so natural as to be almost unnoticeable. Exotic and archiac words ('habergeon', 'chalcedony', 'carcanet'...) imbue the tale with a sense of remoteness and majesty, as does the liberal use of inversion ('her sails he wove', as opposed to 'he wove her sails', in line 5). A one word summary? Magical. thomas.