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In The Fellowship of the Ring, the character Bilbo Baggins recites a poem beginning with these lines:

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.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 1. London: Allen & Unwin.

What is the poem about? Where does the unusual scheme of rhymes and assonance come from? What role does the poem play in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings? It is full of obscure names and references that can’t be elucidated even with the help of the appendices (Arvernien, Nimbrethil, etc.) and some not even with the help of The Silmarillon (Evernight, Shadowmere, etc.). What is the effect of putting obscure references into the novel? Can any of them be elucidated?

  • Did I miss a trick there or did you Ask a - wholly legitimate - Question as a platform for your own Answer? – Robbie Goodwin Jul 16 at 22:06
  • That's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, @RobbieGoodwin. The danger in doing that is the tendency to skimp on question quality, but I think that Gareth Rees asked an excellent question here, avoiding that pitfall. – TRiG Jul 17 at 9:17
  • 1
    Oh, hey! No criticism… It just happens to be the first time I've seen that on SE, in some years of looking. It's true, my first response to "What is the poem about" would have been a (hopefully more polite) version of "Why not first read the poem?" and luckily, I read on. Let no-one be any doubt, Gareth's exposition was masterful. – Robbie Goodwin Jul 17 at 20:11
  • I'm sorry I don't remember which, and one Tolkien's biographers suggests The Lay of Eärendil might be the best and most important example of traditionally structured poetry in the entire English lexicon. – Robbie Goodwin Jul 29 at 21:09
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This answer grew too long for a single post, so I’ve split it in two, with history and analysis in this part, and detailed line notes in the other part.

Summary

Bilbo’s poem retells the myth of the half-elven hero Eärendil, who lived long ago, in the First Age of Middle-earth. He was a sailor who voyaged into the western seas, seeking the land of the gods (Valinor) to ask their help in the war against the dark lord Morgoth. His wife Elwing gave him a Silmaril, a magical jewel, and with the help of its light he found the way to Valinor and delivered his plea. The gods lifted Eärendil and his ship into the sky, and the light from the Silmaril became the planet Venus (the evening and morning star).

Role within The Lord of the Rings

This poem has puzzled many readers! Even if the outlines of the story are clear, it is full of names and references and details that are mysterious. Readers who have been paying careful attention will recall the name “Elbereth” from Gildor’s song in book I, chapter 3, and the names “Eärendil”, “Elwing”, and “Silmaril” from Aragorn’s telling of the tale of Tinúviel:

‘For of Beren and Lúthien was born Dior Thingol’s heir; and of him Elwing the White whom Eärendil wedded, he that sailed his ship out of the mists of the world into the seas of heaven with the Silmaril upon his brow. And of Eärendil came the Kings of Númenor, that is Westernesse.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring, book I, chapter 11. London: Allen & Unwin.

But these are the barest of references, and the other names in the poem are obscure. Where are “Arvernien” and “Tarmenel” and “Tirion”? Why is Elwing “flying” when she comes to him? Who is the “Elder King”? Who are “they” who teach him melodies and build him a new ship? There is no way within the novel to figure these things out, not even with the help of the appendices.

However, that is just what you would expect if you went to a far-off country: the people there would have a history full of people and places and events that you had never heard of. So the effect of these unexplained references is to give a sense of depth and richness to the setting, to suggest that the world extends beyond the pages of the novel.

The poems and stories in The Lord of the Rings also reveal something of the character of the people who tell them. The reason why the tale of Tinúviel is so important to Aragorn is that he sees a reflection of his own situation in that of Beren. Similarly, we might ask why the character of Eärendil appeals to Bilbo. Perhaps it is because Bilbo has always been attracted to adventure and exploration, even if such an inclination is not quite respectable for hobbits:

As [the dwarves] sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1937). The Hobbit, chapter 1. London: Allen & Unwin.

As The Lord of the Rings progresses, we encounter more references to the characters and events of these stories, cementing the impression of a cohesive world, in which figures out of legend can emerge into the present of the story, giving them a mythic grandeur. For example, soon after Bilbo recites his poem, Elrond reveals his connection to that story:

‘Eärendil was my sire, who was born in Gondolin before its fall; and my mother was Elwing, daughter of Dior, son of Lúthien of Doriath.’

The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 2.

(This explains why Aragorn had to said to Bilbo that it was “cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond”.)

And much later, at a moment of great peril, Sam will link his own story to the stories of Beren and Lúthien and Eärendil, and be heartened:

‘Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’

J. R. R. Tolkien (1955). The Return of the King, book V, chapter 8. London: Allen & Unwin.

Eärendil

The name ‘Eärendil’ has a special significance in Tolkien’s mythology, because it inspired him to embark on the whole project. In 1913, Tolkien was an undergraduate at Oxford, studying Old English language and literature, and he was struck by these lines of alliterative verse:

Eala earendel,     engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard     monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta     sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas,     þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe     symle inlihtes!

Hail shining light, brightest of angels,†
Over middle-earth sent to men,
And true light of the sun,
Brighter than stars, you ever enlighten
All seasons from yourself.

Anon (c. 800). Crist.

† “engla” also means “English”.

Tolkien’s biographer described the effect of these lines on the young man:

Earendel is glossed by the Anglo-Saxon dictionary as ‘a shining light, ray’, but here it clearly has some special meaning. Tolkien himself interpreted it as referring to John the Baptist, but he believed that ‘Earendel’ has originally been the name for the star presaging the dawn, that is, Venus. He was strangely moved by its appearance in the Cynewulf† lines. ‘I felt a curious thrill,’ he wrote long afterwards, ‘as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.’

Humphrey Carpenter (1977). Tolkien: A Biography, p. 72. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Crist was formerly attributed to Cynewulf due to the surviving manuscript being bound together with Cynewulf’s poems, but these are no longer thought to be by the same writer.

[In September 1914] he wrote a poem. It was headed with the line from Cynewulf’s Crist that had so fascinated him: Eala Earendel engla beorhtast! Its title was ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’, and it began as follows:

Earendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup
    In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim;
From the door of Night as a ray of light
    Leapt over the twilight brim,
And launching his bark like a silver spark
    From the golden-fading sand
Down the sunlit breath of Day’s fiery Death
    He sped from Westerland.

The succeeding verses describe the star-ship’s voyage across the firmament, a progress that continues until the morning light blots out all sight of it.

This notion of the star-mariner whose ship leaps into the sky had grown from the reference to ‘Earendel’ in the Cynewulf lines. But the poem that it produced was entirely original.‡ It was in fact the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology.

Carpenter, p. 79.

‡ Carpenter is mistaken when he writes “entirely original”: the poem is a pastiche of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Arethusa’ (1820) which begins, “Arethusa arose / From her couch of snows”.

Starting in the winter of 1914 Tolkien wrote three more poems about Earendel, adding place-names and other mythological details:

West of the Sun, east of the Moon†
Lies the haven of the star,
The white town of the Wanderer
And the rocks of Eglamar.
There Wingelot is harboured,
While Earendel looks afar
O’er the darkness of the waters
Between here and Eglamar—
Out, out, beyond Taniquetil
In Valinor afar.

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1915–1920). Extract from ‘The Shores of Faery’. In Christopher Tolkien (1984), The Book of Lost Tales 2, p. 272.

† An allusion to the Norwegian fairy story, ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’.

Tolkien took the name ‘Wingelot’ for Earendel’s ship from ‘Guingelot’, the name of the boat belonging to the mythological figure Wade. Evidently the story of Wade’s boat was once a familiar piece of English folklore, for Chaucer mentions a ‘Tale of Wade’ in Troilus and Criseyde and alludes to “Wade’s boat” in The Canterbury Tales, but the story has been lost. The other names are original to Tolkien, and it seems that he was already working on a project to create a mythological canvas to explain the background for his Earendel poems.

The idea had its origins in his taste for inventing languages. He had discovered that to carry out such inventions to any degree of complexity he must create for the languages a ‘history’ in which they could develop. Already in the early Earendel poems he had begun to sketch something of that history; now he wanted to record it in full. […] And there was a third element playing a part: his desire to create a mythology for England. He had hinted at this during his undergraduate days when he wrote of the Finnish Kalevala: ‘I would that we had more of it left—something of the same sort that belonged to the English.’ This idea grew until it reached grand proportions.

Carpenter, p. 97.

Tolkien began at least eleven versions of the story of Eärendil.

  1. ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’ (poem, 1914–1915), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
  2. ‘The Lay of Earendel’ (three linked poems, 1914–1915), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
  3. ‘The Tale of Eärendel’ (outline, c. 1917), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
  4. ‘Lay of Eärendel’ (unfinished poem, c. 1920), in The Lays of Beleriand (1985).
  5. ‘Sketch of the mythology’ (prose summary, c. 1926), in The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986).
  6. The Quenta Noldorinwa (prose summary, c. 1930), in The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986).
  7. ‘The Lost Road’ (brief story-within-a-story, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
  8. ‘The Conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion’ (story fragment, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
  9. ‘Annals of Beleriand’ (annalistic outline, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
  10. ‘Bilbo’s song of Eärendil’ (poem, c. 1940), in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).
  11. ‘The Tale of Years’ (annalistic outline, c. 1951), in The War of the Jewels (1994).

Since the story of Eärendil was the earliest of Tolkien’s writings about Middle-earth, and he returned to it so many times, it is something of a puzzle that he never completed a version in prose. When, after the success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien revised the Silmarillion for publication, he got as far as ‘The Wanderings of Húrin’ (which became the first part of the chapter ‘The Ruin of Doriath’ in the completed Silmarillion) and then broke off. His son Christopher wrote:

We come here to the furthest point in the narrative of the Elder Days that he reached in his work on The Silmarillion (in the widest sense) after the Second War and the completion of The Lord of the Rings. There are bits of information about the succeeding parts—not much—but no further new or revised narrative; and the promise held out in his words “Link to the Necklace of the Dwarves, Sigil Elu-naeth, Necklace of the Woe of Thingol” was never fulfilled. It is as if we come to the brink of a great cliff, and look down from highlands raised in some later age onto an ancient plain far below. For the story of the Nauglamir and the destruction of Doriath, the fall of Gondolin, the attack on the Havens,† we must return through more than a quarter of a century to the Quenta Noldorinwa, or beyond.

Christopher Tolkien (1994). The War of the Jewels, pp. 297–298. London: HarperCollins.

† Part of the story of Eärendil.

I’ve speculated elsewhere that this may have been a psychological difficulty—the story of the fall of Gondolin was written in 1916–1917 while Tolkien was on sick leave from the Western Front, and perhaps the memories of that time were too difficult to revisit. But another possible source of difficulty is Tolkien’s changing conception of the nature of the mythology. The idea that the planet Venus is the apotheosis of the mariner Eärendil belongs to a pre-scientific kind of mythology, and this was fundamentally incompatible with the kind of rational and detailed ‘subcreation’ represented by The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s subsequent developments of the mythology:

[My father] had come to believe that […] that the cosmos of the old myth was no longer valid; and at the same time he was impelled to try to construct a more secure ‘theoretical’ or ‘systematic’ basis for elements in the legendarium that were not to be dislodged.

Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring. London: HarperCollins

Errantry

Bilbo’s song of Eärendil has another source, Tolkien’s poem ‘Errantry’. It went through many versions, but the earliest manuscript begins like this:

There was a merry passenger,
a messenger, an errander;
he took a tiny porringer
and oranges for provender;

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1930). ‘Errantry’, lines 1-4. In Christopher Tolkien (1989). The Treason of Isengard. London: HarperCollins.

The poetic form was original to Tolkien:

It is for one thing in a metre I invented (depending on trisyllabic assonances or near-assonances, which is so difficult that except in this one example I have never been able to use it again—it just blew out in a single impulse).

J. R. R. Tolkien (22 June 1952). Letter to Rayner Unwin. Number 133 in Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Tolkien’s claim, “I have never been able to use [the metre] again” might seem rather surprising in the light of the fact that ‘Erranty’ has the same rhythm (iambic tetrameter) and rhyme scheme as Bilbo’s song. But we’ll see later that ‘Errantry’ and Bilbo’s song are really two versions of a single work.

It is of course a piece of verbal acrobatics and metrical high-jinks; and was intended for recitation with great variations of speed. It needs a reciter or chanter capable of producing the words with great clarity, but in places with great rapidity. […]

The piece has had a curious history. It was begun very many years ago, in an attempt to go on with the model that came unbidden into my mind: the first six lines, in which, I guess, ‘D’ye ken the rhyme to porringer’ had a part.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1967). Letter to Donald Swann. In Christopher Tolkien (1989). The Treason of Isengard. London: HarperCollins.

The verse that Tolkien refers to here is a piece of Jacobite doggerel:

    O what’s the rhyme to porringer?
    Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
King James the Seventh* had ae dochter,†
    And he ga’e her to an Oranger.‡
    Ken ye how he requited him?
    Ken ye how he requited him?
The lad has into England come,
    And ta’en the crown in spite o’ him.

Anon (1828). Jacobite Minstrelsy, p. 28. Glasgow: R. Griffin.

* James VII and IIMary IIWilliam of Orange.

‘Errantry’ was published in The Oxford Magazine in 1933. In this version the opening lines were:

There was a merry passenger
a messenger, a mariner:
he built a gilded gondola
to wander in, and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender;
he perfumed her with marjoram
and cardamom and lavender.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1933). ‘Errantry’, lines 1-8. In The Oxford Magazine, 52:5, 9 November 1933.

At this stage the poem had no connection to the mythology: it was a whimsical piece of metrical invention whose “knights of Faerie” have little or no resemblance to the elves of Middle-earth. But he continued to revise the poem (“there are no less than fifteen manuscript and typescript texts”), and the “merry passenger” became the mariner Eärendil. Tolkien later ingeniously fictionalized his own revisions of the poem into revisions supposedly made by Bilbo:

No. 3 [Errantry] is an example of another kind which seems to have amused Hobbits: A rhyme or story which returns to its beginning, and so may be recited until the hearers revolt. Several specimens are found in the Red Book, but the others are simple and crude. No. 3 is much the longest and most elaborate. It was evidently made by Bilbo. This is indicated by its obvious relationship to the long poem recited by Bilbo, as his own composition, in the house of Elrond. In origin a ‘nonsense rhyme’, it is in the Rivendell version found transformed and applied, somewhat incongruously, to the High-elvish and Númenorean legends of Eärendil. Probably because Bilbo invented its metrical devices and was proud of them. They do not appear in other pieces in the Red Book. The older form, here given, must belong to the early days after Bilbo’s return from his journey. Though the influence of Elvish traditions is seen, they are not seriously treated, and the names used (Derrilyn, Thellamie, Belmarie, Aerie) are mere inventions in the Elvish style, and are not in fact Elvish at all.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1962). The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. London: Allen & Unwin.

Textual history

One of the puzzles I noted at the start of this answer is why Elwing is “flying” when she meets Eärendil? This is rather more puzzling than Tolkien intended it to be: he had revised this part of the poem to include more context and detail, but the revised manuscript was mislaid and an earlier version went to the publishers instead.

But the history of this, perhaps the most protean, in its scale, of all my father’s works, does not end here. It ends, in fact, in the most extraordinary way.

This text C was not the last, although the published form of the poem was achieved in it. Another typescript (D) was made, doubtless at the same time as C, and given the title ‘The Short Lay of Eärendel’;† In this, a new element entered at the beginning of the fourth stanza (There flying Elwing came to him): the attack of the four surviving sons of Fëanor on the Havens of Sirion, Elwing’s casting herself into the sea, bearing the Silmaril, and her transformation into a seabird, in which guise she flew to meet Eärendel returning. […]

What actually happened one can only surmise. I believe the most likely explanation to be that the texts D, E, F were mislaid, and that at the crucial time the version represented by C went to the publishers, as it should not have done. It looks also as if these lost texts did not turn up again until many years had passed, by which time my father no longer remembered the history.

Christopher Tolkien (1989). The Treason of Isengard. London: HarperCollins.

† The long Lay being the poem in alliterative verse begun in 1920 and never completed.

In version F the fourth stanza begins:

In might the Fëanorians
that swore the unforgotten oath
brought war into Arvernien
with burning and with broken troth;
and Elwing from her fastness dim
then cast her in the waters wide,
but like a mew† was swiftly borne,
uplifted o’er the roaring tide.
Through hopeless night she came to him,
and flame was in the darkness lit,
more bright than light of diamond
the fire upon her carcanet.

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1940). In Christopher Tolkien (1989). The Treason of Isengard. London: HarperCollins.

† A seagull

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This is the second part of my answer, containing detailed line notes for the poem. If I’ve omitted any difficulties, let me know in the comments.

I have preferred to use illustrative quotations from the Quenta Silmarillion (c. 1937), and not from the later revisions that led to the text of The Silmarillion (1977), because when Tolkien was composing Bilbo’s song (c. 1940), the Quenta Silmarillion was at that time the latest development of the mythology. In a few cases I have used later revisions when they had the clearest text, and in other cases I have had to go back to the Quenta Noldorinwa (c. 1930), due to the Quenta Silmarillion lacking a complete account of the story of Eärendil. (This is the “great cliff” which I discussed in the other answer.)

Line notes

  1. tarry. Used here in the archaic sense “remain, stay, abide”, not the more common sense “delay, linger” which appears in line 73 (“He tarried there from errantry”).
  1. Arvernien. A region of Beleriand, near the mouths of the river Sirion, where refugees settled after the sack of the city of Gondolin.
  1. he built a boat. Compare:

    ‘Wingelot’ he built, fairest of the ships of song, the Foam-flower; white were its timbers as the argent moon, golden were its oars, silver were its shrouds, its masts were crowned with jewels like stars.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1930). Quenta Noldorinwa, chapter 17. In Christopher Tolkien (1986). The Shaping of Middle-earth, p. 152. London: HarperCollins.

  1. Nimbrethil. A wood in Arvernien. The name is elvish (Sindarin) for ‘silver birch’, but birch is a poor source of timber for boat-building, so it seems likely that there were other kinds of tree.
  1. silver. Eärendil is associated with silver from the earliest accounts:

    He launched his bark like a silver spark […]
    And his face in silver flame. […]
    Of the mighty silver one. […]
    In his argent-timbered bark.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (1914). ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’. In Christopher Tolkien (1984). The Book of Lost Tales 2, p. 268. London: HarperCollins.

    How her sails were all silvern and taper her mast,
    And silver her throat with foam

    J. R. R. Tolkien (1914). ‘The Bidding of the Minstrel’, lines 30–31. In Christopher Tolkien (1984). The Book of Lost Tales 2, p. 270. London: HarperCollins.

  1. like a swan. Compare:

    And silver her throat with foam and her limber
    Flanks as she swanlike floated past!

    ‘The Bidding of the Minstrel’, lines 31–32.

    Tolkien often likens boats to swans, for example:

    The Teleri came in their ships to Valinor, and dwelt upon its eastern strands; and there they made the town and haven of Alqualondë, that is Swanhaven, thus named because they moored there their swans, and their swan-shaped boats.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1937). ‘Annals of Valinor’ V.Y.2111. In Christopher Tolkien (1987). The Lost Road, p. 125. London: HarperCollins.

  1. chainèd rings = (chain) mail.
  1. habergeon. A tunic of mail.
  1. chalcedony. A precious or semi-precious mineral, now usually a kind of quartz. This line is quite fanciful, as whatever kind of mineral the word represents, it would hardly be a suitable material for making scabbards. The line survives from ‘Errantry’, where the fancy is more appropriate:

    Of crystal was his habergeon,
    his scabbard of chalcedony

    The word “chalcedony” is of Latin origin (calcedonius, from Greek χαλκηδών), which makes it unusual in Tolkien’s mythological writings, where he preferred to use words of Germanic origin. As noted above, in this case the word is a survival from ‘Errantry’, which did not originally belong to the mythology, so that he was free to use a wider vocabulary. Other Latinisms in the poem include “mariner” (line 1) and “flammifer” (line 124).

  1. adamant. A mythical metal that’s harder than steel.
  1. emerald. Bilbo says that he added this detail at Aragorn’s urging:

    ‘As a matter of fact it was all mine. Except that Aragorn insisted on my putting in a green stone. He seemed to think it important. I don’t know why.’

    J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 1. London: Allen & Unwin.

    The green stone worn by Eärendil was the Elessar, the elf-stone:

    There was in Gondolin a jewel-smith named Enerdhil, the greatest of that craft among the Noldor after the death of Fëanor. Enerdhil loved all green things that grew, and his greatest joy was to see the sunlight through the leaves of trees. And it came into his heart to make a jewel within which the clear light of the sun should be imprisoned, but the jewel should be green as leaves. And he made this thing, and even the Noldor marvelled at it. For it is said that those who looked through this stone saw things that were withered or burned healed again or as they were in the grace of their youth, and that the hands of one who held it brought to all that they touched healing from hurt. This gem Enerdhil gave to Idril the King’s daughter, and she wore it upon her breast; and so it was saved from the burning of Gondolin. And before Idril set sail she said to Eärendil her son: “The Elessar I leave with thee, for there are grievous hurts to Middle-earth which thou maybe shalt heal. But to none other shalt thou deliver it.” And indeed at Sirion’s Haven there were many hurts to heal both of Men and Elves, and of beasts that fled thither from the horror of the North; and while Eärendil dwelt there they were healed and prospered, and all things were for a while green and fair. But when Eärendil began his great voyages upon the Sea he wore the Elessar upon his breast, for amongst all his searchings the thought was always before him: that he might perhaps find Idril again; and his first memory of Middle-earth was the green stone above her breast, as she sang above his cradle while Gondolin was still in flower. So it was that the Elessar passed away, when Eärendil returned no more to Middle-earth.

    J. R. R. Tolkien. ‘The Elessar’. In Christopher Tolkien (1982). Unfinished Tales, p. 249. London: Allen & Unwin.

    Either two elf-stones were made, or the first stone was returned somehow to Middle-earth, for later Galadriel gives one to Aragorn:

    ‘Yet maybe this will lighten your heart,’ said Galadriel; ‘for it was left in my care to be given to you, should you pass through this land.’ Then she lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring. ‘This stone I gave to Celebrían my daughter, and she to hers; and now it comes to you as a token of hope. In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the house of Elendil!’

    The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 8.

    By “token of hope” she means the hope that Aragorn shall be able to marry Celebrían’s daughter Arwen, which is why mentioning the stone in the poem is so significant to him.

  1. bewildered on enchanted ways. After the destruction of the Two Trees, the gods defended Valinor with enchantments:

    In that time, which songs call the Hiding of Valinor, the Enchanted Isles were set, and filled with shadows and bewilderment, and all the seas about were filled with shadows; and these isles were strung across the Shadowy Seas from north to south before Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, is reached, sailing west; and hardly might any vessel come between them in the gloom or win through to the Bay of Elvenhome.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1937). Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 6. In Christopher Tolkien (1987). The Lost Road, p. 266. London: HarperCollins.

  1. mortal lands. The lands of Middle-earth, where mortals live, in contrast to Valinor, the land of the gods, where the inhabitants are immortal.

    Now measured time came into the world, and the growth, changing, and ageing of all things was hereafter more swift, even in Valinor, but most swift in the Hither Lands upon Middle-earth, the mortal regions between the seas of East and West.

    ‘Annals of Valinor’, p. 135.

  1. Narrow Ice. A frozen strait:

    In the North these shores, in the ancient days after the Battle of the Gods, sloped ever westward, until in the northernmost parts of the earth only a narrow sea divided the Outer Land, upon which Valinor was built, from the Hither Lands; but this narrow sea was filled with grinding ice.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 3, p. 242.

  1. nether = southern.
  1. waste = desert.
  1. Night of Naught. Perhaps the same place as “Evernight” on line 53.
  1. shining shore. Eärendil is seeking the shore of Valinor, which shines with gems:

    Many jewels the Noldor gave them [the Teleri], opals and diamonds and pale crystals, which they strewed upon the shores and scattered in the pools. Marvellous were the beaches of Elende in those days. And many pearls they won for themselves from the sea, and their halls were of pearl, and of pearl were the mansions of Elwë at the Haven of the Swans, lit with many lamps.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 3, p. 250.

  1. light he sought. Perhaps this is the “light of Valinor”:

    Still therefore the light of Valinor is greater and fairer than upon Middle-earth, because the Sun resteth there, and the lights of heaven draw nearer to the land in that region; moreover the Valar store the radiance of the Sun in many vessels, and in vats and pools for their comfort in times of dark.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 6, p. 266.

  1. from west to east. Middle-earth lies to the east of Valinor:

    Eärendel found not Tuor nor Idril, nor came he ever on that journey to the shores of Valinor, defeated by shadows and enchantment, driven by repelling winds, until in longing for Elwing he turned him homeward toward the East. And his heart bade him haste, for a sudden fear was fallen on him out of dreams, and the winds that before he had striven with might not now bear him back as swift as his desire.

    Quenta Noldorinwa, chapter 17, p. 152.

  1. unheralded = unannounced.
  1. flying Elwing came to him. This line is rather more mysterious than it needed to be due to eight missing lines here (see the discussion in my other answer). Elwing escaped from the sack of the havens of Sirion by throwing herself into the sea, and the sea-god Ulmo turned her into a bird:

    And so came in the end to pass the last and cruellest of the slayings of Elf by Elf; and that was the third of the great wrongs achieved by the accursed oath. For the sons of Fëanor came down upon the exiles of Gondolin and the remnant of Doriath and destroyed them. […] And yet Maidros gained not the Silmaril, for Elwing seeing that all was lost and her child Elrond taken captive, eluded the host of Maidros, and with the Nauglafring upon her breast she cast herself into the sea, and perished as folk thought. But Ulmo bore her up and he gave unto her the likeness of a great white bird, and upon her breast there shone as a star the shining Silmaril, as she flew over the water to seek Eärendel her beloved. And on a time of night Eärendel at the helm saw her come towards him, as a white cloud under moon exceeding swift, as a star over the sea moving in strange course, a pale flame on wings of storm. And it is sung that she fell from the air upon the timbers of Wingelot, in a swoon, nigh unto death for the urgency of her speed, and Eärendel took her unto his bosom. And in the morn with marvelling eyes he beheld his wife in her own form beside him with her hair upon his face; and she slept.

    Quenta Noldorinwa, chapter 17, p. 153.

  1. carcanet. A jewelled necklace. The Nauglafring (or “Nauglamír” in The Silmarillion) was a necklace made by Dwarves for Thingol, king of Doriath, in which the Silmaril was set. It was an unlucky piece of jewellery, the cause of many deaths.
  1. Silmaril. The Silmarils were three jewels made by the elvish craftsman Fëanor, and stolen by the dark lord Morgoth. They were the cause of much strife:

    Then he [Fëanor] swore a terrible oath. His seven sons leaped straight-way to his side and took the selfsame vow together, each with drawn sword. They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name of the Allfather, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them, if they kept it not; and Manwë they named in witness, and Varda, and the Holy Mount, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the world Vala, Demon, Elf, or Man as yet unbom, or any creature great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 5, p. 257.

  1. living light. The Silmarils contained the light of the Two Trees of Valinor:

    Fëanor, son of Finwë, began a long and marvellous labour; and he summoned all his lore, and power, and subtle skill; for he purposed to make things more fair than any of the Eldar had yet made, that should last beyond the end of all. Three jewels he made, and named them Silmarils. A living fire burned within them that was blended of the light of the Two Trees.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 4, p. 249.

  1. Otherworld. Perhaps another name for Valinor.
  1. Tarmenel. An elvish (Quenya) word meaning “high heaven”, apparently a region of the atmosphere; perhaps this is another name for Ilmen:

    Ilmen is that air that is clear and pure being pervaded by light though it gives no light. Ilmen lies above Vista, and is not great in depth, but is deepest in the West and East, and least in the North and South. In Valinor the air is Ilmen, but Vista flows in at times especially in Elvenhome, part of which is at the eastern feet of the Mountains; and if Valinor is darkened and this air is not cleansed by the light of the Blessed Realm, it takes the form of shadows and grey mists. But Ilmen and Vista will mingle being of like nature, but Ilmen is breathed by the Gods, and purified by the passage of the luminaries; for in Ilmen Varda ordained the courses of the stars, and later of the Moon and Sun.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1930). ‘Of the Fashion of the World’. In Christopher Tolkien (1986). The Shaping of Middle-earth, p. 236. London: HarperCollins.

  1. from east to west. Eärendil sails away from Middle-earth towards Valinor again.
  1. Evernight. Perhaps a region where it is always night. Compare “Evereven” on line 101. An early draft of the poem also had “Evermorn” and “Evernoon” to complete the cycle. This doesn’t seem to correspond to any place in Tolkien’s cosmology, so it may be a fanciful idea that survived into the published version, like “chalcedony” on line 16.
  1. leagues unlit. This is consistent with the interpretation that ‘Evernight’ on line 53 is a region where it is always night.
  1. that drowned before the Days began. When the gods first came to Middle-earth they built two great lamps to light the world, and there was no cycle of day and night. When these were destroyed many lands were drowned:

    And the light of the lamps of the Valar went out over the Earth so that all was lit as it were in a changeless day. […] But at length Melkor returned in secret […] and when he saw his time he revealed himself and made war again on the Valar, his brethren; and he threw down the lamps, and a new darkness fell on the Earth, arid all growth ceased; and in the fall of the lamps (which were very great) the seas were lifted up in fury, and many lands were drowned.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘Ainulindalë’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring, pp. 32–33. London: HarperCollins.

    The first Days were those creating by the waxing and waning of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor.

  1. strands of pearl. See note to line 32.
  1. the music long. Perhaps the music of the sea-elves, who lived in the part of Valinor where Eärendil came ashore:

    The Teleri dwelt long by the shores of the western sea […] and they grew to love the sound of the waves, and they made songs filled with the music of water.

    Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 3, p. 243.

  1. yellow gold and jewels wan See note to line 32.
  1. the Mountain. Taniquetil, the highest mountain of Valinor, on which stands Ilmarin, the hall of the god Manwë.
  1. knees. The foot-hills of Taniquetil.
  1. Valinor. The land of the gods.
  1. Eldamar. The homeland of the Elves in Valinor.
  1. escaped from night. That is, from ‘Evernight’ (line 53).
  1. haven = harbour, port.
  1. white. The harbour of Alqualondë in Valinor is the “white haven” because the sea-elves (Teleri) have white ships resembling swans (see note to line 7). Compare with the “Grey Havens” of the Third Age:

    For the Elves of the High Kindred had not yet forsaken Middle-earth, and they dwelt still at that time at the Grey Havens away to the west, and in other places within reach of the Shire.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). ‘Concerning Hobbits’. In The Fellowship of the Ring. London: Allen & Unwin.

  1. Elvenhome. Eldamar; see note to line 63.
  1. Hill of Ilmarin. Ilmarin is the home of the god Manwë upon the summit of Taniquetil.
  1. lamplit towers of Tirion. Tirion was a city of the Elves in Eldamar (see note to line 63):

    the Elves took possession of Eldamar, and began the building of the green hill of Túna in sight of the Sea. And upon Túna they raised the white walls of the Watchful City, Tirion the Hallowed.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘The Annals of Aman’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring, p. 84. London: HarperCollins.

  1. Shadowmere. In a very early description of the building of Tirion (which at that point was called “Kor”) an inlet of the Shadowy Seas approached the city, and perhaps that is meant here.

    Behold there is a low place in that ring of mountains that guards Valinor, and there the shining of the Trees steals through from the plain beyond and gilds the dark waters of the bay of Arvalin, but a great beach of finest sand, golden in the blaze of Laurelin, white in the light of Silpion, runs inland there, where in the trouble of the ancient seas a shadowy arm of water had groped in toward Valinor, but now there is only a slender water fringed with white. At the head of this long creek there stands a lonely hill which gazes at the loftier mountains.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1918). ‘The Coming of the Elves and the Making of Kor’. In Christopher Tolkien (1983). The Book of Lost Tales 1, p. 125. London: Allen & Unwin.

  1. errantry = wandering in search of adventure. The word survives from the earliest version of the story:

    And beyond the ken of mortal men
    Set his lonely errantry,

    ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’, lines 43–44.

  1. melodies they taught to him. “They” are the elves of Tirion.
  1. Calacirian. The only pass through the Mountains of Valinor. See note to line 104.

    At first, though they saw and marvelled at the light and bliss of Valinor, the Elves forgot not Middle-earth and the starlight whence they came, and they longed at times to look upon the stars and walk a while in shadow. Wherefore the Gods made that cleft in the mountain-wall which is called the Kalakilya the Pass of Light.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1937). ‘Lhammas’. In Christopher Tolkien (1987). The Lost Road, p. 189. London: HarperCollins.

  1. hidden land. Valinor is the “hidden land” because it is guarded by a wall of mountains (see note to line 104), and by the enchantments of the Shadowy Seas (see note to line 23).
  1. forlorn = lost, doomed. Eärendil believed that he would die after delivering his message to the gods:

    But Eärendel, alone of living Men, landed on the immortal shores; and he said to Elwing and to those that were with him […]: ‘Here shall none but myself set foot, lest you fall under the wrath of the Gods and the doom of death; for it is forbidden. But that peril I will take on myself for the sake of the Two Kindreds.’ And Elwing answered: ‘Then shall our paths be sundered for ever. Nay, all thy perils I will take on myself also!’ And she leaped into the white foam and ran towards him; but Eärendel was sorrowful, for he deemed that they would now both die ere many days were past. And there they bade farewell to their companions and were taken from them for ever.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1937). ‘The Conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion’. In Christopher Tolkien (1987). The Lost Road, p. 358. London: HarperCollins.

  1. timeless halls. Elsewhere in the mythology the Timeless Halls are the dwellings of the gods outside the world:

    When the Valar entered into the World they were at first astounded and at a loss, for it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in vision, and all was but on point to begin, and yet unshapen; and it was dark. For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered in at the beginning of Time, and the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘Ainulindalë’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring, p. 14. London: HarperCollins.

    But that can’t be the meaning here: the halls in this line must refer to Ilmarin, the dwelling of the god Manwë on Taniquetil (see note to line 61), and “timeless” must be used in the sense “unaffected by the passing of time” and not “where time does not pass”.

  1. Elder King. This is Manwë, king of the gods:

    But the highest and holiest of the Valar was Manwë Súlimo, and he dwelt in Valinor, sitting in majesty upon his throne; and his throne was upon the pinnacle of Taniquetil, which is the highest of the mountains of the world, and stands upon the borders of Valinor.

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1937). ‘The Music of the Ainur’. In Christopher Tolkien (1987). The Lost Road, pp. 177–178. London: HarperCollins.

  1. beyond the world were visions showed. The “visions” are the plans of the gods for the world and its peoples. See note to line 81.
  1. A ship then new they built for him. Compare:

    Now at the bidding of the Man of the Sea do those islanders with great speed fashion a new ship for Ælfwine and his fellows, since he would fare no further in Orm’s ship; and its timbers were cut, as the ancient sailor had asked, from a grove of magic oaks far inland that grew about a high place of the Gods, sacred to Ulmo Lord of the Sea, and seldom were any of them felled.

    ‘A ship that is wrought of this wood,’ said the Man of the Sea, ‘may be lost, but those that sail in it shall not in that voyage lose their lives; yet may they perhaps be cast where they little think to come.’

    J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1920). ‘Ælfwine of England’. In Christopher Tolkien (1984). The Book of Lost Tales 2, p. 319. London: HarperCollins.

  1. mithril. This is the first mention of the metal in The Lord of the Rings, but Gandalf explains it later:

    Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.’

    The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 4.

  1. silver mast. This passage corresponds in detail to the description of Eärendil’s ship in lines 5–8: the first ship had silver sails, the second a silver mast; the first had silver lanterns, the second the Silmaril as a lantern; the first had banners with light laid on it, the second a banner bright with the light of the Silmaril.
  1. living flame. See note to line 42.
  1. Elbereth. The elvish (Sindarin) name for the goddess Varda, meaning “star-queen”. Other names for her include “Gilthoniel” (star-kindler) and “Fanuilos” (snow-white), which have already appeared in Gildor’s song:

    Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
    Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
    Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
    In a far land beyond the Sea.

    The Fellowship of the Ring, book I, chapter 3.

  1. wings immortal. A poetic description of Eärendil’s apotheosis:

    But they took Vingelot, and they hallowed it, and they bore it away through Valinor to the uttermost rim of the world, and there it passed through the Door of Night and was lifted up even into the oceans of heaven. Now fair and marvellous was that vessel made, and it was filled with a wavering flame, pure and bright; and Eärendel the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems; and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow. Far he journeyed in that ship, even into the starless voids; but most often was he seen at morning or at eve, glimmering in sunrise or sunset, as he came back to Valinor from voyages beyond the confines of the world.

    ‘The Conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion’, p. 361.

  1. shoreless skies. Tolkien often metaphorically likens skies to seas; compare “oceans of heaven” in the note to line 97.
  1. behind the Sun. When Venus is the evening star it appears to follow the path of the Sun in the sky. Compare:

    He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
    Of the splendour of the Sun

    ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’, lines 9–10.

  1. Evereven. See note on “Evernight” (line 53). This may be the same place as “Ever-eve” in Galadriel’s song:

    Beneath the stars of Ever-eve in Eldamar it shone

    The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 8.

  1. Mountain Wall. A chain of mountains cutting off Valinor from the world, and breached by a single pass (see note to line 79).

    [The gods] built then in the uttermost West the land of Valinor. It was bordered by the Outer Sea, and the Wall of the World beyond that fences out the Void and the Eldest Dark; but eastward they built the Mountains of Valinor, that are highest upon earth.

    Quenta Noldorinwa, chapter 1, p. 80.

  1. World’s End. Perhaps this means the literal “Wall of the World” (see note to line 104), in which lies the “Door of Night” through which Eärendil passed (see note to line 97).
  1. island = separate, solitary. Compare:

    Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
    As an isled lamp at sea

    ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’, lines 41–42.

  1. before the Sun. When Venus is the morning star it appears to precede the path of the Sun in the sky. Compare with line 100.
  1. Norland. The northern lands of Middle-earth; Beleriand.
  1. sore = sorrowful.
  1. Elder Days. The First Age of Middle-earth.
  1. orbèd = spherical.
  1. Hither Shores. The shores on this side of the Great Sea, that is, the shores of Middle-earth. See notes to lines 24 and 25.
  1. where mortals are. See note to line 24.
  1. Flammifer = flame-bearer. A Latinism: see note to line 16.
  1. Westernesse. This is normally a name for Númenor:

    ‘And of Eärendil came the Kings of Númenor, that is Westernesse.’

    The Fellowship of the Ring, book I, chapter 11.

    but this does not seem to be the right meaning here, as Eärendil’s voyage happened prior to the founding of Númenor. When Venus is the evening star, it shines to the west, so perhaps “Westernesse” is used here meaning simply “the west”.

| improve this answer | |
  • "Evernight" may refer to a time, e.g. before the Lamps, the Trees, or the Sun. – OrangeDog Jul 15 at 11:37

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