Seas have always instilled fascination and deep respect in those encountering them. Immense and ever dynamic, the sea is both – dangerous and comforting, magnetic and frightening. The role of the sea in different cultures is hard to overestimate. Seas are held in awe by many: they are ever present in myths, legends and traditions of different nations; they have been essential for trade and cultural exchange; mariners are admired and revered while maritime nations are among the best-off.
Throughout the centuries seas have been believed to be populated by fantastic creatures and monsters; sea Gods are among the most revered and feared in many pantheons and the importance of the sea in the evolution of nations is hard to overestimate. Something that cannot be cognised and fully understood, it is unsurprising that the Sea instills unfathomable awe.
The sea has great significance throughout Tolkien’s Legendarium. Referred to as the Great Sea, it is a mighty force to be reckoned with. Within the context of The Silmarillion, the Sea is a character of its own playing a major part in the events of the First Age.
Given the Elvish perspective of The Silmarillion, it is notable how Elves express their attitude to the Sea in the names for it. In Quenya – High-elven speech – it bears the name of Alatairë – meaning simply «the Great Sea». But in Sindarin – the language of those Elves who never crossed the Sea and dwelt in Middle-earth – it is Belegaer. The word consists of two elements – beleg in the meaning of «mighty» and gaer – «sea». The latter is said to derive from the stem gaya, which means «awe, dread», and that is exactly what some Elves experienced on their march from Middle-earth:
…and the foremost companies passed over the Vale of Sirion and came down to the shores of the Great Sea between Drengist and the Bay of Balar. But when they beheld it great fear came upon them, and many withdrew into the woods and highlands of Beleriand.
(Silmarillion, p. 52)
So seemingly for the Elves who remained in Middle-earth – with their great fear of the Sea being one of the main reasons for staying – it has always been associated with dread in the first place, while those Elves who dared to cross the great waters, mostly consider the majesty and might of the Sea.
The intensity of emotions the Great Sea causes is not ungrounded. In Tolkien’s mythology the Sea is linked with the music of creation – the Music of the Ainur:
And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
(Silmarillion, p. 8)
Majesty and divinity are inherent to the Sea in Tolkien. As the great unknown, not only does it remind of the music of creation, but it is also mysterious and alluring. Elvish longing for the Sea is a well-known fact. They have it deep in their hearts and once stirred, it will always be there with a nagging sensation of something missing: the Sea will always be calling them. Legolas explains:
Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelargir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.
(Return of the King, p. 171)
As the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar Elves feel closer connection with Eru and the Ainur who sang the world into shape. They are drawn to the waters which still hold the echo of Ainur’s music and gravitate towards the deathless lands, which lie beyond the Sea, where Elves will know no waning and no weariness.
Mortals, though, are different. Very few mortal beings feel this longing, but those who do seem to be the chosen ones. Tuor is a good example:
And Tuor came into Nevrast, and looking upon Belegaer the Great Sea he was enamoured of it, and the sound of it and the longing for it were ever in his heart and ear, and an unquiet was on him that took him at last into the depths of the realms of Ulmo.
(Silmarillion, p. 285-286)
Tuor is chosen by Ulmo himself for a special errand in Gondolin. Though his arrival does not save the city from its fall, the Man does play a role in saving Middle-earth: Tuor marries Turgon’s daughter Idril, and their son Eärendil sails to Aman and persuades the Valar to wield a war on Morgoth which brings the Dark Lord’s dominion in Middle-earth to an end.
Another example is Frodo, who is haunted by the Sea in his dreams. Just like Tuor, Frodo is a chosen one: he becomes the Ringbearer and delivers Sauron’s One Ring to Mount Doom where it is destroyed in the Cracks of Doom. This brings about the end of Sauron in Middle-earth and delivers the world from another great evil.
It seems no coincidence that Tuor and Frodo are so stirred by the Sea. Given the divine nature of Belegaer, its connection with the Valar and the Music of the Ainur, Tuor’s and Frodo’s connection with the Sea seems to be a sign from the Valar or even Eru himself – their way of communication with the chosen mortals. Tuor’s sea-longing and Frodo’s dreams hint throughout the stories that these two characters have a special mission attributed to them by the Valar and Eru.
All these increase the divine element of the Sea manifold. However, the Sea is a mystery in its own right. It is a very unpredictable entity and bows to no one. Unsurprisingly, Morgoth hated the Sea and never wielded war from the water as he could not subdue it. Besides, several times throughout The Silmarillion we see how the Sea refashions the shape of the world. It rises in sorrow to drown the Noldor who stole ships from the Teleri and slew their kin, covers most of Beleriand following the War of Wrath and swallows Númenor after Ar-Pharazôn’s rebellion. Its might is too great for others to master. Once the Sea is risen, nothing can stop it.
Majestic and mighty, the Great Sea inspires awe and dread, fascination and respect. Being a symbol of universal life, it is also a border, a great challenge and an echo of the Creation music. With its divine element in mind, the Sea is unsurprisingly revered and feared in Middle-earth.
This is Part I of the bigger essay I am writing about the Sea. Part II will be taking a closer look at the function of the Sea as the border between lands and worlds, and the significance of this kind of border.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.