Mar 28 2010, 5:48pm
Thanks for your comments, especially about the historically more complex relationship between Britons and the Sea, when considered over a thousand years rather than just the last 500.
Thus far shall ye sail, and no farther
I understand that Earendil is meant to be one of the great Seafarers in Tolkien’s extended Middle-earth mythology. I too would have liked to have read a full Lay of his voyages, as Tolkien did at one point consider writing.
We do have a miniature version in the song or verse that Bilbo composes in the Hall of Fire at Elrond’s house. Here is an excerpt:
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. (The Lord of the Rings, II.2)
As far as details of this voyage go, he sails first North (“Narrow Ice” and “frozen hills”) and then South (“nether heats and burning waste”) and finally heads West. But to no avail; he is driven back (“from west to east”) and returns to his starting point.
Since the poem is amazingly abbreviated and fast-paced, largely due to the metrical device Tolkien was experimenting with, there is no time for maritime adventures or extended descriptions of the voyagers’ experiences. Still, at least we see Earendil spending some time at Sea, and in circumstances of hardship and duress.
Now, re-reading this poem reminded me of the following passages from “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife” in Unfinished Tales:
But after four years more Aldarion at last returned, and his ships were battered and broken by the seas. He had sailed first to the haven of Vinyalondë, and thence he had made a great coastwise journey southwards, far beyond any place yet reached by the ships of the Númenóreans; but returning northwards he had met contrary winds and great storms, and scarce escaping shipwreck in the Harad found Vinyalondë overthrown by great seas and plundered by hostile men. Three times he was driven back from the crossing of the Great Sea by high winds out of the West, and his own ship was struck by lightning and dismasted; and only with labour and hardship in the deep waters did he come at last to haven in Númenor. (Unfinished Tales, p. 181)
But indeed he was longer gone than he had purposed; for he had found the haven of Vinyalondë now wholly ruined, and great seas had brought to nothing all his labours to restore it. Men near the coasts were growing afraid of the Númenóreans, or were become openly hostile; and Aldarion heard rumours of some lord in Middle-earth who hated the men of the ships. Then when he would turn for home a great wind came out of the south, and he was borne far to the northward. He tarried a while at Mithlond, but when his ships stood out to sea once more they were again swept away north, and driven into wastes perilous with ice, and they suffered cold. At last the sea and wind relented, but even as Aldarion looked out in longing from the prow of the Palarran and saw far off the Meneltarma, his glance fell upon the green bough, and he saw that it was withered. Then Aldarion was dismayed, for such a thing had never befallen the bough of oiolairë, so long as it was washed with the spray. "It is frosted, Captain," said a mariner who stood beside him. "It has been too cold. Glad am I to see the Pillar." (Unfinished Tales, p. 188)
As with the Earendil poem, I think this kind of writing is about as close as Tolkien ever comes to describing the details of sea-voyages. Yet the episodes are very sketchy and annalistic. They don’t satisfy as tales. They seem to serve two story-purposes, both outside the bounds of the sea-adventure genre: one, why was Aldarion away from Erendis for so long; and two, what were the limitations on the range of Numenor’s mariners. The former point seems to be entirely plot-driven: the sea competes with her for his affections. As for the latter, what came to me most strongly is how these two passages between them echo the voyage of Earendil in Bilbo’s poem: Aldarion sails as far South as one can go, but he must eventually return with no profit. Then he sails as far North as he can go, but is stopped by the Ice and a sign that he went too far (the frost-death of the sacred bough). In both his voyages, the attempt to sail West – homeward to Numenor – is fraught with difficulty and opposed by contrary winds and waves.
This is formulaic writing, to match the formulaic geography of Middle-earth. The mortal Land is in the East, the Sea is in the West, the holy Land is in the far West, across the Sea. If you go sailing on the sea, you can only sail North, South, or West. But North and South are profitless and meaningless as destinations. West is the only direction worth sailing, but it is hard to do.
Although the tales of Numenor and Earendil are pretty much disconnected, they both contain the message that in Middle-earth there is only one reason for sea-faring, and that is to get as far West as the gods deem possible!
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