Feb 22 2013, 3:36pm
1. Several new Elvish or geography terms are introduced here – any of them stand out to you for any reason? I rather like the "Battle of the Powers' and the sound of Brithombar, myself!
Passage and memory, hope and regret, duty and love.
‘The Battle of the Powers’ is not new here - it was introduced in the previous chapter 4 (p. 51). I’m not crazy about – it sounds like a bald translation for which Tolkien unaccountably forgot to give us the Elvish. Dagor Valarion?
I do like Brithombar, not for any aesthetic reason but rather the opposite. It is simply a fair-to-middling ugly word that no fantasy author would dare make up from scratch. But Tolkien – with Tolkien you know that word means something. The ugliness, or ungainliness if you will, is necessary because of a pre-existing language that dictates placenames whether Tolkien likes them or not. In this case, according to the Silmarillion’s invaluable Index of Names, we have the river Brithon, taken from the root ‘brith’ which means ‘gravel’; it flows into the sea, of course, where presumably there is a predominance of gravel in its banks and beaches. At its mouth is the Falathrim Elves’ settlement, or homeland. The word for home is ‘-bar’ (Sindarin) or ‘-mar’ (Quenya). [A clever connection is that ‘um-‘ means ‘bad’ so that Umbar in The Lord of the Rings means ‘Evil homeland’.] Thus Brithombar: Homeland by the Gravel-banked River. It’s ugly, but who can argue with linguistics?
2. Do you like the imagery of an island being used as a ship? Anyone know if this is original to Tolkien, or if this idea can be found in other mythologies?
As so often with Tolkien, I feel like I’ve come across this elsewhere but I can’t for the life of me remember where. According to superficial internet research, the Celtic isle of Faerie called Tir Na Nog may have been thought of as ‘floating’ by some sources, presumably to explain its inaccessibility and ever-changing legendary location. Tir Na Nog is an obvious model for Tol Eressea, which this island in this chapter becomes, but the connection is entirely from the fact that the two islands are enchanted, across a difficult ocean, and hard to find. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that Tir Na Nog was physically moved, inhabitants and all, from the European shores to the Western Seas.
On the other hand, the ‘movement’ of this island seems to me to relate to the origins of Tolkien’s mythology. If I remember (corrections welcomed!), his original structure was that England itself was an Elvish Isle in ancient times. When practicality (i.e., the need for the story to align with history) reared its ugly head, he changed the structure of his stories to place the Elves that once had been England’s earliest inhabitants, on a legendary and practically inaccessible island on the other side of the ocean. This tale we are reading here, wherein the Elves and their island too are dragged across the ocean, is a remarkably literal account of what Tolkien the author found himself doing around 1918.
3. If it wasn’t for the grinding ice, would everyone have just waded back and forth across the narrow sea from Aman to Middle Earth? What would it be like if you could regularly travel to and from Paradise?
Just as the Grey Elves represent a mix of Light and Dark, implying the need for conflict and drama in this story, so the Grinding Ice represents a mix of Barrier and Passageway. You can use this path to travel from Aman to Middle-earth, but it hurts.
You make a good point that no one in Middle-earth (Earendil? Amandil?) ever seems to try using the ice-pack as a way to get to the immortal lands going East to West.
4. Are you a water person? Can you relate to the Teleri and their relationship to the sea? Do you think Tolkien loved and longed for the sea himself?
I grew up by the sea and now that I live inland I still miss the cry of the seagulls and the crash of the surf in the distance at night. But that does not make me a "water person", as far as I can tell - I rarely seek to be on the water, I only wish I was next to it. I think Tolkien was somewhat similar. He liked the idea of the Sea – as seen from the Land. There’s precious little evidence that he liked the Sea as a medium in itself. He was no sailor and the Sea is always the Other for him. In this I think he had a lot in common with many Englishmen who know they live on an a island, and are happy to keep it that way. You can see the sea, but that’s all you want. They idea of sailing on the sea thrills you with horror.
5. Why are Tolkien’s Elves so filled with longing – for the sea, for the friends and relatives they are separated from, for the site of paradise? How do these kinds of longings affect the way the Elves see themselves and their relationship to where they live?
I like the previous comment that this is what gives some drama to the tale of an immortal race. But like much of this writing, it doesn’t bear close inspection.
Was the longing for the sea and the land over the sea “implanted” in them by Eru or the Valar, as some texts suggest? If so, then it is an artificial emotion imposed on characters for an authorial purpose, only engaging the reader insofar as it at least creates a conflict and a drama. Or else these longings have arisen naturally, as an expression of wanting something that is not present but is imagined as being more pleasurable than what is at hand.
Longing for lost friends and kin is, of course, quite understandable since one has had the pleasure of knowing them formerly; why wouldn’t one want that pleasure once again? But longing for something never seen, like the sea or the land beyond it that the sea represents, can only come from the imagination, and that imagination was apparently inspired by the tales brought to the Elves by their leaders or by the Valar. What is within Elvish hearts that responds to these imaginings that is different from mortal hearts? The thought of Valinor has a clear appeal, once the Elves mature enough to recognize that they are immortal and are outliving their mortal surroundings. In Valinor they will finally live in a place where all things are equally immortal, so they won’t have to continually mourn the passing of shorter-lived acquaintances. That seems to me to explain the longing for the land across the sea.
But the sea itself? Why long for the sound and sight of the great water, beyond the fact that the water must be passed over in order to reach the other side? This is the most mystic of the Elves’ inner drives, and I suggest that it is a bit of a blind. The first Elves, the ones who went west at the summons of the Valar, were truly seeking an immortal land as a place where they could live forever in peace, unsurrounded by death. But they did not long for the Sea itself, except as a symbol of the crossing. Later Elves, who had lived by the sea on the western edges of Middle-earth, grew to love it for its sensual and spiritual associations (something Tolkien would probably assert is the birthright of every Englishman, etc.). They, as we read, were reluctant to leave it and move inland once more, and so they settled on the edge of the great ocean, on either eastern shore or western isle, with the more or less reluctant assent of the Valar (who don't seem to like the sea at all and vice versa).
This explanation seems to work for the Silmarillion – it’s a little more tricky in The Lord of the Rings where Elves like Legolas, who have never seen the Sea, declare that they have always had a “deep-seated longing” for it in its own right, and not just because it represents the passage to Elvenhome. This gets us back to the “mystic implantation” theory, whether by Ulmo or others. It is romantic, but also unattractively artificial in the context of the internal realism by which this great story is being told.
6. The Noldor and Vanyar traveled by island – what trick did Ulmo use to get the Teleri to Aman? And what was it that Osse said that convinced some of them to stick around and become the Falathrim, even though they longed for Aman and their friends? Does love of kin overpower love of paradise for the Elves?
Good question, about how the Teleri crossed the sea at Ulmo’s request. At first I was going to suggest they sailed in ships of their own construction – after all, those they left behind were said to be “the first makers of ships”. But on closer reading (middle of p. 58) I see “…at last the main host of the Teleri embarked upon the isle, and Ulmo drew them far away.”
Oh – another floating island. Or… the same one, shuttled back and forth? (Ulmo: “Stand away from the closing doors! Make room for the new passengers, please. Plenty of room for everyone if you step away from the doors. Next stop is Valinor. Valinor next.”) Or... is this the exact same story retold for two different Elf-migrations, clumsily repeated due to an editing error over the long course of composition of these tales?
7. What does this opening section contribute to Tolkien’s legendarium?
It pretty richly lays out the themes of passage and memory, hope and regret, duty and love, that will continue to drive the various tribes of Elves into unending conflicts with each other and with their Lords of the Valar over the next few thousand years.
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