When mighty Beowulf took hold of Grendel with his bare hands, the demon proclaimed, “Nowhere on middle-earth, I realize, have I encountered a grip like his.” This passing reference being to the imagination of the middle ages as our world being in a middle-state between hell and heaven; between the time its savior was born, and the date He was to Come. An interesting allusion, no doubt, to the world that Tolkien would later create.
Traces of Middle-Earth and the mythology of The Lord of the Rings are scattered throughout Tolkien’s life. Like a forensic investigation, bits and pieces that evidence his genius have been found in obscure works from his earlier years. Such as when he wrote on the back of a paper the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (This of course, was how The Hobbit started). Or his creation of the children’s character Tom Bombadil in 1934, who would later play a minor role in The Fellowship of the Ring twenty years later.
In 1914, when storms of war ravaged Europe, a 22-year-old Tolkien wrote the following lines of a poem which seemingly come out of the blue, “The Last Voyage of Eärendel.” There’s no character except Eärendel, and we get no sense of who he is or where he came from (in the Silmarillion, he will become the father of kings). The image above is a scene from the Silmarillion, where Eärendel (or Eärendil) is flying in his ship to battle against Ancalagon the Black, the greatest dragon who ever lived, armed with the brilliant light of a Silmaril stone.
From this curiously isolated poem in the early years of Tokien’s life, there appear immensely important themes that The Silmarillion and The Lord of The Rings would later evoke: light vs darkness, fantastical landscapes, attention to aesthetic, references to ancient peoples, crafts and legends. At face value, it’s a beautiful poem that is open to interpretation. On a deeper level, it is a mirror from whence we see our soul, and puts the question of whether we will ever have the courage, like Eärendel, to fly against the darkness within, emerge victorious, and become eternally renowned for it.
Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.
He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.
Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.
The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.
Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.
Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.
— The Book of Lost Tales, Part II.
Poem is copied from The Warden’s Walk. Art courtesy of Manuel Castañon.