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.
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.
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.
- ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’ (poem, 1914–1915), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
- ‘The Lay of Earendel’ (three linked poems, 1914–1915), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
- ‘The Tale of Eärendel’ (outline, c. 1917), in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).
- ‘Lay of Eärendel’ (unfinished poem, c. 1920), in The Lays of Beleriand (1985).
- ‘Sketch of the mythology’ (prose summary, c. 1926), in The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986).
- The Quenta Noldorinwa (prose summary, c. 1930), in The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986).
- ‘The Lost Road’ (brief story-within-a-story, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
- ‘The Conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion’ (story fragment, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
- ‘Annals of Beleriand’ (annalistic outline, c. 1937), in The Lost Road (1987).
- ‘Bilbo’s song of Eärendil’ (poem, c. 1940), in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).
- ‘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
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 II † Mary II ‡ William 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.
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