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Eärendil was a mariner -- J R R Tolkien

(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.
-- J R R Tolkien
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' [1]. 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

[1] 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.


53 comments: ( or Leave a comment )


not very accessible to Tolkien neophytes. the tale of the ring has to be
read and learned before much of this makes sense. you might enjoy the
rhythms of the sound. to fully appreciate this, mumble it to yourself as you
read, think of the cold waters of the North Sea and the lonely cries of the
birds that live there

P. Srikant said...

It is apposite to remark here that Earendil was the
evening star in Norse myth - I think this obvious
(from the last verse) technicality greatly enhances
the beauty of the poem. Tolkien was obsessed with
creating myths of creation - witness the music of
Illuvatar in the Silmarillion - and he has surpassed
himself with this account of the creation of the
'Flammifer of Westernesse'.

~ P. Srikant

Ri said...

One of the Histories of Middle-Earth, a volume entitled The Treason of
Isengard deals with the creation of this poem, and its sibling,
Errantry, which appears in Tolkiens slim bound collection of poetry The
A note that probably only Tolkien worshipers will appreciate...

Adventures of Tom Bombadil. I found it interesting to discover that this
version is actually not the one intended for publication, but was
mistakenly submitted when the proper version was lost. The intended poem
is printed in Treason.

I was also fascinated with the relationship between this and Errantry.
They started out as the same poem, and grew into two very different
works. This has the epic, historical/legendary tone, while Errantry
became mostly a nonsense poem about a fanciful voyage to parts unknown.
It is full of whimsy and pretty imagery and is one of my favorite poems
to date. The only thing the two poems now share is the difficult but
beautiful scheme of half rhymes that makes it seem so organic.

Gavin Esmond Hodgkinson said...


Supriya Nair said...

Eärendil's star was explicitly meant by Tolkien to denote what we now know as 'Venus'. The Blessed Star fulfilled the prophecy of Valinor (I don't remember which of the Valar claim it, but I don't think it's Mandos..) that the Silmarilli of Feanor would rest one each in the heavens, the sea and the center of the earth (Feanor's two eldest sons accomplished the last two).

Simply beautiful. My favourite of all the pieces from LotR, even excepting the 'Lament for Boromir'. : )

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot.

Dave Rainbow said...

Tolkien identified the mention of Earendil in the Saxon (by Cynewulf) as
being a figure of John the Baptist - as Venus rises before the sun, so the
Baptist comes before Christ. The idea of Earendil is the earliest concept in
his mythology, which dates back to 1915 - over thirty years before it found
expression in published form as a poem in 'The Fellowship of the Ring', and
sixty years before its context emerged in the posthumous publication of 'The
Silmarillion'. But that has little to do with what makes this a great poem;
the key is not the occasional alliteration, but the persistent use of
assonant triplets. Alliteration is seen and liked; assonance is commonly not
seen by the uninitiated, but loved, which is why it gets used in advertising
so much.

Anonymous said...

And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.

Of the Silmarils, The Silmarillion

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I just discovered this blog! Love this poem. The imagery and lingual compactness are impressive, but most impressive is Tolkien's musicality that comes from superb technical skill. My favorite lines: "And sages old him marvels told/and harps of gold they brought to him." Among modern poets, perhaps only Dorothy Parker had such skill.

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