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.