In this Prancing Pony Pondering, I want to take a look at just one example of how deep and rich Tolkien’s backstories often were. As he pointed out in On Fairy-Stories, when an author can do this well,

[T]he story maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.

In Chapter 8 of Book Two of The Lord of the Rings, “Farewell to Lórien,” the Fellowship are finally (and reluctantly) getting ready to depart Lothlórien after their time of renewal and mourning — and they have just drunk the cup of parting with Galadriel and Celeborn. Galadriel then commences her generous gift-giving, beginning with a beautiful sheath that she gives to Aragorn for Andúril. After this, she asks if there is anything else he would desire from her.

And Aragorn answered: ‘Lady, you know all my desire, and long held in keeping the only treasure that I seek. Yet it is not yours to give me, even if you would; and only through darkness shall I come to it.’

‘Yet maybe this will lighten your heart,’ said Galadriel; ‘for it was left in my care to be given to you, should you pass through this land.’ Then she lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring. ‘This stone I gave to Celebrían my daughter, and she to hers; and now it comes to you as a token of hope. In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the House of Elendil!’

Then Aragorn took the stone and pinned the brooch upon his breast, and those who saw him wondered; for they had not marked before how tall and kingly he stood, and it seemed to them that many years of toil had fallen from his shoulders. ‘For the gifts that you have given me I thank you,’ he said, ‘O Lady of Lórien of whom were sprung Celebrían and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?

This is a richly beautiful passage and stands on its own as a reminder of who Aragorn is, and who he shall become. We learn of the name prophesied for Aragorn — Elessar or Elf-Stone — and we are reminded again of his royal heritage and kingly bearing. The text is also a helpful reminder that Galadriel is the mother of Celebrían (Elrond’s late wife) and, thus, the grandmother of Arwen Undómiel. But this passage truly comes to life when we consider two other passages from other works…

First, in Unfinished Tales, we are given a backstory of the Elessar:

A jewel-smith in Gondolin, named Enerdhil, who was the greatest jewel-smith of the Noldor after Fëanor’s death, crafted the Elessar: “it came into his heart to make a jewel within which the clear light of the sun should be imprisoned, but the jewel should be green as leaves.” This gem gave power to heal: “the hands of one who held it brought to all that they touched healing from hurt.” Enerdhil gave it to Idril who, in turn, gave it to Eärendil who healed many at Sirion’s Haven and then took it with him when he left Middle-earth.

It is a powerful symbol and artifact —
and, just as crucially, a wonderful example
of the richly-detailed backstories
that Professor Tolkien often created,
even without intending for us to read.

Then, “in ages after there was again an Elessar,” and we are told that there are two possible origins of this second stone, “though which is true only those Wise could say who now are gone.”

In another of Tolkien’s “some say that” moments, we learn that it could be that the second Elessar was actually the first — returned, “by the grace of the Valar” and carried back to Middle-earth by Olórin (whom you all know better as Gandalf). In their “long speech together”, we see this:

And when Olórin had told her many tidings she sighed, and said: ‘I grieve in Middle-earth, for leaves fall and flowers fade; and my heart yearns, remembering trees and grass that do not die. I would have these in my home.’ Then Olórin said: ‘Would you then have the Elessar?’

And Galadriel said: ‘Where now is the Stone of Eärendil? And Enerdhil is gone who made it.’ ‘Who knows?’ said Olórin. ‘Surely,’ said Galadriel, ‘they have passed over Sea, as almost all fair things beside. And must Middle-earth then fade and perish for ever?’ ‘That is its fate,’ said Olórin. ‘Yet for a little while that might be amended, if the Elessar should return. For a little, until the Days of Men are come.’ ‘If – and yet how could that be,’ said Galadriel. ‘For surely the Valar are now removed and Middle-earth is far from their thought, and all who cling to it are under a shadow.”

‘It is not so,’ said Olórin. ‘Their eyes are not dimmed nor their hearts hardened. In token of which look upon this!’ And he held before her the Elessar, and she looked on it and wondered. And Olórin said: ‘This I bring to you from Yavanna. Use it as you may, and for a while you shall make the land of your dwelling the fairest place in Middle-earth. But it is not for you to possess. You shall hand it on when the time comes. For before you grow weary, and at last forsake Middle-earth one shall come who is to receive it, and his name shall be that of the stone: Elessar he shall be called.’

The other origin is that Celebrimbor (who, in this version of the story, was from Gondolin and not a grandson of Fëanor) made it for Galadriel in Eregion and that it was almost as good as the original: “more subtle and clear was the green gem that he made than that of Enerdhil, but yet its light had less power…. Radiant nonetheless was the Elessar of Celebrimbor; and he set it within a great brooch of silver in the likeness of an eagle rising upon outspread wings.” When she wore it, all things grew fair — but after she received Nenya, she gave it to her daughter Celebrían (who married Elrond). From her it went to Arwen and then to Aragorn.

I vastly prefer the first version, but whether the Elessar that Aragorn received here was the original one made in Gondolin, worn by Eärendil and returned from Valinor by Mithrandir, or whether it’s a copy made by the same smith who crafted the Three Rings, it is a powerful symbol and artifact — and, just as crucially, a wonderful example of the richly-detailed backstories that Professor Tolkien often created, even without intending for us to read.

Ah, but can I find something in another obscure source to make it even better? Yes?? Great!

In Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth, Volume X), there is an essay called “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” that makes for some truly fascinating reading. In fact, Shawn and I have had to review this essay a number of times for podcast episodes in recent months. During this research, I came across this bit about Elven traditions when it comes to wedding gifts:

Among the Noldor also it was a custom that the bride’s mother should give to the bridegroom a jewel upon a chain or collar… these gifts were sometimes given before the feast. (Thus the gift of Galadriel to Aragorn, since she was in place of Arwen’s mother, was in part a bridal gift and earnest of the wedding that was later accomplished.)

Can we all just have a collective “woah” moment?  This is the sort of richness of detail, the interweaving of customs and traditions, histories and legends, that make Tolkien’s world come alive. Yes, it’s a beautiful gift when it’s given in the text of Book 2 — and it’s very satisfying to see, later on in The Houses of Healing, the fulfillment of prophecy: “they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.” But it’s when we read the other works and learn the backstory that Tolkien created, that we continue to be amazed at Tolkien’s ability to create a world with “the inner consistency of reality”.

023 – Distant Early Warning

A great feast is held in the conclusion of Chapter 13 of The Silmarillion, but not all is well in Beleriand, and two Elf-princes receive important messages about taking action before it’s too late. The Noldor successfully place Angband under a siege that will last for centuries, but Morgoth has a new secret weapon in development. A question from Barliman’s Bag gives us a chance to revisit Fëanor – and Tolkien’s own thoughts about the character – one last time, and we stretch the limits of pop culture reference.

Listen to the episode here or on YouTube

Subscribe to the podcast via:

Comments or questions for Barliman’s Bag:

  • Visit us at Facebook or Twitter
  • Comment on this blog post
  • Email theprancingponypodcast (at) gmail (dot) com.

Recommended Reading:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Mariner Books, paperback) pp. 113-117, “Of the Return of the Noldor”

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (Mariner Books, paperback)

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 10)(HarperCollins, paperback)

People of the Stars

When considering the place of the stars in the Middle-earth legendarium, two things likely come to mind: the figure of Varda/Elbereth, the Queen of the Stars who looms large in the pantheon of the Valar; and the name by which the Elves refer to themselves: Eldar, literally the “People of the Stars,” a name related to the Quenya word for star (elen) and whose roots lie in the exclamation ele, the first word spoken by the Elves when they awoke at Cuiviénen (The Silmarillion, p. 358).

But the Elves are not the only people associated with the stars; in fact, the legendarium began with a completely different “person of the stars.” Tolkien’s first mythic sub-creation that would become part of the later legendarium was the poem “The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star” in 1914. Though it later served to connect the myths of the Elder Days with those of the Second and Third Ages through the character of Eärendil the Mariner, the concept of the traveler to Faërie with a star on his brow would bookend Tolkien’s literary career, repeated in the last work Tolkien would see published in his lifetime, Smith of Wootton Major, in 1967.

Beginning with one word,
Frodo is on his way to becoming
a “person of the stars” himself.

A clue to the significance of this can be found in “Mythopoeia,” where the stars are a central image, from the first stanza’s response to the notion that stars are simply “some matter in a ball / compelled to courses mathematical” to these later lines:

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned…
     (“Mythopoeia” in Tree and Leaf, p. 87)

Again there is a connection to Elves with the starry firmament described as “elf-patterned.” But here the stars also stand as a visible and living reminder of our mythic past. So it seems that to Tolkien, stars can be a key to the mythic realm of Faërie (like Smith’s star, and Eärendil’s Silmaril), but can also be a reminder of that mythic realm’s existence to those of us left behind on mortal shores.

Not coincidentally, then, the first appearance of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings takes place concurrently with the first description of the stars, in the chapter “Three is Company.” Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are just taking their first steps into the mythic history of Middle-earth when they meet the Elves of the company of Gildor Inglorion:

‘Elves!’ exclaimed Sam in a hoarse whisper. ‘Elves, sir!’ He would have burst out of the trees and dashed off towards the voices, if they had not pulled him back.

‘Yes, it is Elves,’ said Frodo. ‘One can meet them sometimes in the Woody End. They don’t live in the Shire, but they wander into it in spring and autumn, out of their own lands away beyond the Tower Hills.
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 77)

Here we also see for the first time the poem “A Elbereth Gilthoniel,” a song of remembrance for Valinor in the West and of reverence for Varda at the rising of the stars. The song is given here in translation as it “shape[d] itself in their thought into words” (and since we’re dropping Douglas Adams references around here lately, who needs a Babel fish when you have Elvish singing?)

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 78)

The song marks the singers as High Elves, different from the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood with whom we spent so much time in The Hobbit.

The song ended. ‘These are High Elves! They spoke the name of Elbereth!’ said Frodo in amazement. ‘Few of that fairest folk are ever seen in the Shire. Not many now remain in Middle-earth, east of the Great Sea. This is indeed a strange chance!’
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 78)

But if we have read The Hobbit, we have seen High Elves before. They previously appeared (including many of these same Elves, most likely) when Bilbo and company sojourned in Rivendell. And it’s worth noting that while riding into the valley, Bilbo suddenly became aware of the presence of both the Elves and the stars:

‘Hmmm! it smells like elves!’ thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue.
     (The Hobbit, p. 45)

Let’s skip past the questionable implications of “elf-smell” and acknowledge that with the later hindsight of reading The Silmarillion, the difference between the Noldorin Elves of Rivendell and the Nandorin Elves of Mirkwood is well understood. But to first-time readers of The Lord of the Rings, all that is known is that these Elves are fairer than any we’ve yet seen, and luminous as if with their own light.

They passed slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 78)

Frodo quickly earns Gildor’s respect and the title “Elf-friend” with a courteous Quenya greeting, “Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo” (“A star shines on the hour of our meeting”). This exchange can be seen as Frodo’s initiation into the circle of Elf-friends on his own merits (i.e., not simply as a relative of Bilbo), and it begins with his speaking the word elen. Beginning with this one word, Frodo is on his way to becoming a “person of the stars” himself.

And Tolkien does his best to make this connection clear. Prior to the first appearance of Gildor’s company in The Lord of the Rings – some seventy pages of narrative – the words “star” or “starlight” appear only eight times. But from the first appearance of the Elves to the end of the chapter – about seven pages – those same words appear again eight times. In case you’re mathematically challenged as I am, that means that mentions of stars and starlight appear ten times more frequently during the episode with Gildor than in the book up to that point. Throughout the episode, Tolkien is continually reminding us of the presence of the stars while we are in the presence of Elves.

This culminates in the scene where Frodo, his friends, and the Elves are resting for the evening. Here Tolkien offers the most precise and vivid description of actual stars to be found in his work:

Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt. The Elves all burst into song.
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 80)

Some of the stars described here are recognizable. Clearly Menelvagor “with his shining belt” is the constellation Orion, and a careful look at a modern star chart may shed some light on the identities of the other stars named. Remmirath is most likely the star cluster Pleiades, while Borgil may be Betelgeuse in Orion, or Aldebaran in nearby Taurus. Though exact identification cannot be made (and perhaps should not, given Tolkien’s desire for readers to bring their own interpretations to his work), Tolkien seems to want his reader to understand that these stars are real stars that still exist, and that if we look at the sky at night – depending on the time of year, of course – we can still see the same stars Frodo and friends saw on that night in Woody End. The stars, then, are not only the token of Frodo’s initiation as Elf-friend, but also a reminder to us of his story.

We know how that story will end. After passing through darkness, Frodo will find his way to the light in the West, to follow in the path of Eärendil and be granted entry into the mythic world of Faërie. And the Elves themselves will return to the West as well, where they will remain even unto our own age:

… for though the beauty of the Quendi in the days of their youth was beyond all other beauty that Ilúvatar has caused to be, it has not perished, but lives in the West, and sorrow and wisdom have enriched it.
     (The Silmarillion, p. 49)

So they are there still, and Faërie still makes fresh imprints on a part of the world, if only we could find a way there.

Until we do find a way, we are left with these: a mythic story, an ancient song, a few words of an ancient tongue, and the stars themselves. These echoes of the world that was once Middle-earth remind us that once, long ago, the People of the Stars walked the woody paths we now walk, their voices on the air and their eyes cast skyward.

022 – Subdivisions

In Chapter 13 of The Silmarillion, Fëanor’s host arrives in Middle-earth shortly before Fingolfin’s, leading to an awkward family reunion that just gets more awkward when somebody calls Uncle Thingol. Fëanor’s dream of revenge goes up in flames, and we tally up his good-or-evil score including Tolkien’s own thoughts from his letters. We also read the inspiring story of Fingon and Maedhros, and have way too much fun with the new toy in Alan’s studio.

Listen to the episode here or on YouTube

Subscribe to the podcast via:

Comments or questions for Barliman’s Bag:

  • Visit us at Facebook or Twitter
  • Comment on this blog post
  • Email theprancingponypodcast (at) gmail (dot) com.

Recommended Reading:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Mariner Books, paperback) pp. 106-113, “Of the Return of the Noldor”

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) The Lost Road and Other Writings (The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 5) (HarperCollins, paperback)


The Courage of an Ordinary Hobbit

As you may know, I rather enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films despite my occasional (albeit entirely reasonable) criticism of certain aspects. However, one of the things I especially didn’t enjoy was the way the they effectively made Frodo appear… well, weak might be one way to put it. From the removal of his heroically-defiant moment at The Flight to the Ford to the time he was duped by Gollum into sending Sam home on The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the film version of Frodo is often soft and victim-like.

    Though the words are not used,
I can’t help but see one of my favorite recurring themes in this passage —
the difference between
hope and despair.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that Jackson and crew chose not to include the Barrows in their adaptation. One of my favorite moments in Book One of the Lord of the Rings is an example of Frodo’s tremendous courage and strength. He has been captured by a Barrow-wight, and he now lay underground, on a cold stone, unsure of where his friends are.

“But though his fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was round him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.”

Here, we are reminded of the “seed of courage” in hobbits that we are first told about in the Prologue:

“Nonetheless, ease and peace had left this people still curiously tough. They were, if it came to it, difficult to daunt or to kill….  they were doughty [brave, persistent] at bay.”

But here, Frodo isn’t a simple hobbit-farmer defending his animals from a wolf by throwing a stone — he is faced with a terror far beyond anything he might previously had imagined (even if it pales in comparison to some of the things he would later face). Though the words are not used, I can’t help but see one of my favorite recurring themes in this passage — the difference between hope and despair. Despair would be the result of the final words of the paragraph — feeling “limp like a helpless prey”. But, though he is certain in his own mind that he has “come to the end of his adventure”, his thoughts — of Bilbo and the Shire — nevertheless give him hope. He was hardened, stiffening, as if for a final spring. This is courage even beyond the scope of the hobbity courage described in the Prologue — I mean, who could imagine Fatty Bolger or Lotho Sackville-Baggins “stiffening, as if for a final spring”? Still, it’s not a surprise to everyone — even Gandalf thought that Frodo was “the best hobbit in the Shire”, a hobbit of outstanding character.

He then sees his friends, sleeping or dead, in white garments, wearing gold, with a sword across their necks. So what happens next? Well… poetry happens next, of course.

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow. After a while the song became clearer, and with dread in his heart he perceived that it had changed into an incantation:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

Now, if you want to make me feel “chilled to the marrow”, bury me underground, then read poetry to me. (“Oh freddled gruntbuggly / Thy micturations are to me / As plurdled gabbleblotchits / On a lurgid bee.”) Forgive my sidetrack, but yes… I still struggle with verse. And Tolkien is far, far better than Vogon poetry, I know. Anyway, back to my point.

At first Frodo felt as if he had indeed been turned into stone by the incantation. Then a wild thought of escape came to him. He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do.

The instinct for self-preservation is indeed a strong one. Abandoning one’s friends to save oneself does not seem so unreasonable when faced with such a dire set of circumstances, after all — and justifying it to oneself is easy enough (“Gandalf would admit…”).

Another brief aside: when I did my solo episode on the influence of WWI on Tolkien, I discussed shell-shock and how it was similar to what we saw in those soldiers accompanying Aragorn in the chapter, The Black Gate Opens:  “…so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.” They simply were unable to continue — frozen, ‘unmanned’. Similarly, the effect on the citizens of Gondor from the screams of the Nazgûl reminds one of this influence. Now, as then, I am not suggesting these are allegorical — or even a very close analogy — but Frodo’s thought process here seems similar. Frozen in place, experiencing complete terror, the drive for self-preservation kicks in.

But, no — he doesn’t abandon his mates. He does his duty.

But the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed at the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise.

Even now, he has to fight temptation — the Ring seems to be calling to him (‘wavered, groping in his pocket’). But then we see another hardening — resolve. Instead of fleeing to run “free over the grass”, he uses all his strength to hack at the disembodied arm.

After this, admittedly, he still had to call for Tom Bombadil to save the day (with more poetry, of course!) — his courage and strength spent, and certainly unable to escape the barrow from the inside. But, as Tom doesn’t seem to come unless called, Frodo’s actions bought him the time he needed to remember Tom and his call.

Courage. Resolve. Strength in the face of death. No despair. No hopelessness. No circumstance is yet dire enough to cause such thoughts in our brave hobbit.