Being places to traverse rather than to inhabit, seas separate continents and nations. They serve as a natural border and by dividing lands they also do so with cultures: traditions and customs may vary significantly on different coasts of one and the same sea. In the past travelling overseas was a thing necessary for the exchange of cultures and traditions, enriching a people’s background and, eventually, contributing to their evolution.
However, crossing the sea has never been an easy feat to perform. Moody waters, whose temper may change swiftly from fine to foul, present a natural danger of falling under their rage. Being blown off-course or getting caught in a violent storm, losing one’s way or spending days without a glimpse of land make the sea a path not always willingly chosen. Even though this threat was more acute in the past than it is now, it is still nature we are talking about and its ways can be very unpredictable.
In Arda the Great Sea was originally the border between the continents of Aman and Middle-earth. At the beginning the world was flat, and for a certain period of time travelling from one continent to another was possible. But even being within the Circles of the World, from the very beginning Aman resembled Otherworld in everything: it was the realm of the deathless Valar – the Undying Lands of bliss and repose, beauty and enlightenment, as well the source of unearthly wisdom and knowledge the likes of which could hardly be found in Middle-earth.
The first messenger from the Blessed Realm was Oromë, who became a guide for the recently awoken Elves. Being new to the world and still having a lot of knowledge to gain about it, the Elves learnt a lot from Oromë and later undertook their first journey across the Sea with him. The Elvish pioneers to travel beyond Belegaer to Valinor were Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë. They became the emissaries of the fair folk after the Valar’s summons so that they could see the Blessed Realm with their own eyes:
And coming they were filled with awe by the glory and majesty of the Valar, and desired greatly the light and splendour of the Trees.
Having perceived the splendour of Valinor, the three lords came back to Middle-earth with a new perspective: they desired the bliss and enlightenment of Aman and counselled their people in favour of coming to the Undying Lands. Thus the Elves started their first big westward march towards a new realm and new wisdom. But in order to get to the source of knowledge and enlightenment, the first Elves had to overcome their fears, doubts and dare a journey first on land across Middle-earth and then – across the Sea which filled them with dread when they first encountered it.
A lot of the travellers got sundered along the way before even reaching the Great Sea, but those who eventually made it to the shores either dared to challenge the crossing (first the Vanyar and the Noldor, and many years later – the Teleri) on the island pulled by Ulmo across the Sea, or felt a great dread and hid to stay in Middle-earth: the path to otherworldly knowledge and wisdom was not easily trodden.
Beyond the Sea in Valinor the Elves acquired great skill and wisdom from the Valar to turn into a mighty, wise and skilful people. Apart from having better insight than the Elves of Middle-earth, the Eldar from Aman also had the strength «of the ancient world, such as those possessed who were nurtured in Valinor» (Silmarillion, p. 125).
When many years later they – led by Fëanor – left Valinor and undertook another march across the Sea back to Middle-earth, they brought their wisdom to the Great Lands which could not be surpassed by other Elves dwelling there and thus brought the enlightenment and strength of the Blessed Realm (and thus the Otherworld) to Middle-earth. It played a significant part in education of the Great Lands dwellers, especially certain groups of Men, who had no Oromë to guide them.
It was exactly after that rebellion that the Valar chose to shield their realm from any unauthorised intrusions from the Sea. They set the Enchanted Isles and the Shadowy Seas around Aman and Tol Eressëa that made the waters there impassable: the Seas were confusing, wrapped in shadows, mists and caused sea-loathing, while those who landed on the Isles fell into a deep sleep. It was the first step in moving Aman and its otherworldly wisdom from the reach of most travellers: the Great Sea became an almost impenetrable frontier between the two continents where there used to be possible free travel.
During the First Age Turgon sent many messengers to Valinor to seek aid in their wars agains Morgoth, but all of them got lost and never returned, except Voronwë who was saved by Ulmo for the higher purpose. It was only Eärendil at the end of the First Age who sailed to Aman in his ship Vingilot and succeeded in persuading the Valar to wield war on Morgoth. Eärendil managed this crossing largely due to having a Silmaril:
…And the wise have said that it was by reason of the power of that holy jewel that they came in time to waters that no vessels save those of the Teleri had known; and they came to the Enchanted Isles and escaped their enchantment; and they came into the Shadowy Seas and passed their shadows, and they looked upon Tol Eressëa the Lonely Isle, but tarried not; and at the last they cast anchor in the Bay of Eldamar… Then Eärendil, first of living Men, landed on the immortal shores…
(Silmarillion, p. 297)
It was not Eärendil’s first attempt to reach the shores of Aman: before he had traversed the Sea in his mighty ship for a long time all in vain and at great peril to himself. He had been either confused by the mists, or blown back home by winds. However, there was still hope in his heart and he persisted in his aim to finally cross the Sea. That he achieved, and was instrumental in bringing a mighty host of the Valar and the Elves from beyond the Sea to overthrow Morgoth in the War of Wrath – something, that could not be achieved by the peoples of Middle-earth alone.
The case of bringing novel knowledge, skills and strength from over the Sea was also true about the Númenóreans. Great mariners living in the proximity of the Blessed Realm, they were a mighty people with far more insight and skills than other mortals:
And the Dúnedain came at times to the shores of the Great Lands, and they took pity on the forsaken world of Middle-earth; and the Lords of Númenor set foot again upon the western shores in the Dark Years of Men, and none yet dared to withstand them. For most of the Men of that age that sat under the Shadow were now grown weak and fearful. And coming among them the Númenóreans taught them many things. Corn and wine they brought, and they instructed Men in the sowing of seed and the grinding of grain, in the hewing of wood and the shaping of stone, and in the ordering of their life, such as it might be in the lands of swift death and little bliss.
(Silmarillion, p. 314)
The Númenóreans came from over the Sea to share their knowledge and wisdom with those in Middle-earth. In a way they helped the Men of Middle-earth evolve as a people and learn to live differently, taught wisdom and skills, which otherwise were unavailable to them.
However, it was the Númenóreans who brought about the withdrawal of Aman from the Circles of the World, thus turning the Sea into a border between two separate worlds. When egged on by Suron Ar-Pharazôn positioned his fleet in the waters around the Blessed Realm in his vain hope to become immortal, the Sea on the command of Ilúvatar swallowed his ships together with the island, and Númenor was no more. Only a group of Faithful escaped the destruction and went to Middle-earth, where surpassing other people in might and knowledge, they did a lot of valiant deeds that shaped the history of Middle-earth.
The true West beyond the Sea has been the source of ultimate wisdom and knowledge from the very beginning, but reaching it has never been easy. After Ar-Pharazôn’s attempt to assault Valinor the world bent and the Valar removed Aman from the Circles of the World thus turning it wholly into proper Otherworld open to Elves only and impossible to be reached by mortals, except very few.
J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
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