Saturday, March 8, 2008

Day is Ended

Having plunged back into Tolkien, I've been remembering how the late J.R.R. (1892-1973) was first spurred on to constructing his marvellous sub-creation by the arresting phrase in the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist:

éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended

("Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, sent over Middle-earth to men.")

As early as 1914, he was writing inspired by this name, originally referring to Venus, the Morning Star. In his mythology, this name, become Eärendil, was that of a mariner, eventually sent aloft bearing the light of one of the silmarils, as a sign of hope for the oppressed peoples of Middle-earth (Tolkien also having adopted this name from the couplet). In The Lord of the Rings (Book II, Chapter I), appears the poem 'Eärendil was a mariner", retelling some of the tale - much expanded upon in the posthumous Silmarillion - as sung by Bilbo, hero of The Hobbit; at its end is said:

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...

and burning as an island star
on high above the mists he came,
a distant flame before the Sun...

And over middle-earth he passed...
for ever still a herald on
an errand that should never rest
to bear his shining lamp afar,
the Flammifer of Westernesse.


Later still, after the great success of The Lord of the Rings, the now-aged retired Professor penned an elegaic piece in his seventies, "Bilbo's Last Song at the Grey Havens", set to music, after Tolkien's death in 1973, by Donald Swann (I have the haunting music of the singing of this song in my head, although the CD is back in Tasmania now), and also published in a handsome illustrated edition, which likewise resides in my library (as pictured):

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I'll find the havens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above my mast!


To me, this brings the mythic cycle full circle: the Star, in the Old English symbolizing John Baptist as harbinger of Christ, at once stands: in context as referring to Eärendil, as a star, lighting the way to the Undying Lands for aged Bilbo, still pained by his contact with the Ring, on his voyage to attain healing, which entailed leaving behind Middle-earth for ever; and also to John Ronald Reuel himself, as he prepared for and eventually did pass from this mortal world, hoping as a faithful Catholic to be brought unto his Saviour, firstly being healed of whatever still afflicted his soul.

The underlying philosophy of the legendarium that Tolkien made has long fascinated me, especially his central positing of the Elves as beings immortal in this world, having a purely natural final end (how pleased would Garrigou-Lagrange have been, how annoyed de Lubac!), fated to see all that they love fade, corrupt and decay, and alone able to appreciate the Gift of the One to Men - death, which alone permits Men to pass out of this physical universe which in the end will pass away, but which also requires of Men to hope against hope that beyond the circles of the world lies more than memory, in technical terms hoping for a supernatural final end, unrevealed in Tolkien's cosmos, before the Revelation of God and His Christ that occurs in the "far future", so far as the fictitous history of Middle-earth is concerned.

In one of his unrelated, minor works, Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien wrote of the procrastinating artist Niggle, surely an ironic self-portrait, who aspires to paint a great tree in a huge landscape, but in the event completes only a leaf, displayed in afteryears as a half-forgotten and very minor curio (perhaps his own too-modest view of how the little of his unfinished œuvre he had published would fare after his demise); Niggle himself is taken off to The Workhouse - Purgatory - after peremptory summons to the long-feared train journey (symbol of our transitus), but after a long internment is sent on to a new paradise, where all he only half-imagined and never achieved in painting is found to be real and far fuller of beauty and detail than in his mortal life he could have dreamt. This, for the Professor, was his charming depiction of one aspect of heaven.

1 comment:

Mark said...

"éala éarendel engla beorhtast..."

And a resounding "HEY! I know that poem!" is heard from your anitpodes (i.e. good old Blighty). I love Tolkien's Ëarendil-style poetry. Not so keen on stuff like Leaf by Niggly, but really like the olde worlde stuff.