All roads are now bent

Over the course of Ages, the Sea in Arda was becoming an increasingly impenetrable obstacle on the way to the Blessed Realm. Having gone the whole way from being a passable border between two continents to the realm of confusing waters and magical islands, the Sea turned into the border between two worlds within different planes of the universe.

After Ar-Pharazôn’s attempt of invasion into the Blessed Realm, the world became round and Aman was removed from the Circles of the World. The way to it remained available only to the Elves still lingering in Middle-earth. In fact, they were encouraged and strongly advised to go to the Blessed Realm after the Valar re-opened the way to the West for the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar at the end of the First Age. By boarding special ships Elves could reach Tol Eressëa when the weight of living in Middle-earth became too much to bear. The path to the Blessed Realm was called the Straight Road:

…while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent), and traversed Ilmen which flesh unaided cannot endure, until it came to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, and maybe even beyond, to Valinor, where the Valar still dwell and watch the unfolding of the story of the world.

(Silmarillion, p. 338)

Plunging into the region of airs, Elvish ships took the road inaccessible to mortals’ vessels. By their nature Elves belong to the Undying Lands. Thus sailing West for them is more like homecoming, though originally they were not native to Aman, but woke up in Middle-earth. But Elves are immortal, and thus they can live without fading only in the Undying Lands. In this respect Elvish longing for the Sea is very clear: Belegaer reminds them of their true home lying beyond the mighty waves, of the Music of Creation and, possibly, of their awakening, as when Elves awoke by Cuiviénen the first sound they heard was that of water. 

Elvish longing for the Sea can become very strong. There are some very ominous notes in Galadriel’s warning to Legolas: Beware of the Sea! / If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, / Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more (Two Towers, p. 124). What the Lady’s words emphasise here is that this longing, which is very dangerous to stir, can deprive Elves of the joy of living in Middle-earth. As the sea-longing is properly awoken, they will find no peace in the things they used to love about Middle-earth, and their hearts will always be bound westwards, to the Sea.

For mortals going to the True West is not so simple. The Undying Lands are not for them as the Blessed Realm does not turn a mortal being into an immortal one – the idea that Ar-Pharazôn failed to grasp. Aman for mortals is the Otherworld – the realm of eternity where they do not belong. Still, it does not prevent Men from craving to reach it. Often perceived as a kind of paradise – the land of youth, bliss and plenty, the Otherworld or Faërie attracts many of those destined to die. For them that world seems an escape from mundane and familiar reality of the mortal world and, mistaken though the belief is, an escape from death.

Some mortals can afford only a glimpse of the Undying Lands, at best. Having a flat surface, being constantly in the move with ebbing and flowing, seas command a broad view of the horizon without many obstacles to one’s sight. Thus, seas might allow a view of Otherworlds. After the Faithful Númenóreans fled to Middle-earth from the destruction of Númenor, their hearts were still turned westwards:

The only Stone left in the North was the one in the Tower on Emyn Beraid that looks towards the Gulf of Lune. That was guarded by the Elves, and though we never knew it, it remained there, until Círdan put it aboard Elrond’s ship when he left. But we are told that it was unlike the others and not in accord with them; it looked only to the Sea. Elendil set it there so that he could look back with ‘straight sight’ and see Eressëa in the vanished West; but the bent seas below covered Númenor for ever.

(Return of the King, p. 392-393)

Using a palantír to catch just a glimpse of Tol Eressëa seems a solace for Elendil in his life in Middle-earth. With the seas giving a good view of the horizon, placing the stone at the top of the tower looks intentional so as to have an even better scope of vision of what lies beyond the Sea to increase the chances of seeing the desired lands.

Some mortals were granted a special honour of dwelling in the Blessed Realm for a while. This grace, among a few others, was given to Frodo and Bilbo, who lived till the end of their days on Tol Eressëa. The Hobbits were thus rewarded for their huge contribution in the war against Sauron. This abode did not make them immortal, though. It was only a temporary sojourn to help the Hobbits purge, gain peace of mind and particularly help Frodo heal of his wounds, both – physical and spiritual. Thus in this purged state they could die of free will in estel.

For some mortals it was a grace of a different kind: they were able to reach Aman in their own ships:

And tales and rumours arose along the shores of the sea concerning mariners and men forlorn upon the water who, by some fate or grace or favour of the Valar, had entered in upon the Straight Way and seen the face of the world sink below them, and so had come to the lamplit quays of Avallónë, or verily to the last beaches on the margin of Aman, and there had looked upon the White Mountain, dreadful and beautiful, before they died.

(Silmarillion p. 338)

There were Elf-friends over the course of Arda’s history who could sail to Tol Eressëa in their ships, but I will not discuss them yet. There were those who refused the chance, too. This grace – to join an Elvish ship en route to Aman – was offered to Fíriel in the poem The Last Ship. The Elves were sailing in their vessel, saw the fair maiden from the board and invited her to join them on the way to the beautiful Undying Lands:

‘Nay!’ they answered. ‘Far away
on the last road faring,
leaving western havens grey,
the seas of shadow daring,
we go back to Elvenhome,
where the White Tree is growing,
and the Star shines upon the foam
on the last shore flowing.

‘To mortal fields say farewell,
Middle-earth forsaking!
In Elvenhome a clear bell
in the high tower is shaking.
Here grass fades and leaves fall,
and sun and moon wither,
and we have heard the far call
that bids us journey thither’.

(Adventures of Tom Bombadil, p. 240-241)

First, Fíriel made a move to go, but her foot sank in clay. Taking it as a sign, she decided to stay in Middle-earth as she «was born Earth’s daughter». In retrospect it might seem that Fíriel’s choice was not a wrong one. The poem shows an extreme contrast between the lands of Elves and Middle-earth: while the latter appears bleak and dull in comparison to the Elvenhome, it does not mean it is better for Men. The Otherworld can be very perilous for mortals, and the consequences of venturing there are unpredictable. This is the issue I am going to address in the next installment of the Sea-essays.

I express my deepest gratitude to Old Badger-brock and Ross Nunamaker, whose valuable comments helped me add several important points to this essay.

Further reading:

Sea the majestic – Part I

Sea the majestic – Part II 

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.
  6. Топоров В. Н. – Миф. Ритуал. Символ. Образ. Исследования в области мифопоэтического: Избранное; – М. Издательская группа «Прогресс» – «Культура», 1995.

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

20 thoughts on “Sea the majestic (Part III).

  1. To clarify for other readers, the passage noted as come from ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ is from a poem called “The Last Ship”, the sixteenth in a collection called ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, named for the first poem in the set. That poem begins in familiar fashion: “Old Tom Bombadil was a merry fellow; bright blue his jacket was, and his boots are yellow…”

  2. So which one is the Sea? The body of water that defines the globe, or the Straight Road? In some sense, those two must be the same, or Galadriel wouldn’t have warned Legolas about seagulls (surely the least fay of beings).

    1. I think they are, in many ways, very closely connected, indeed. Not in a physical sense by being in the same plane of the world, but as a means of getting to the Otherworld.

    2. I hit ‘send’ a bit earlier than I intended. Here’s a small addition. The Straight Road follows the same path where there used to be a water route across the Sea when the world used to be flat. So it’s also a memory of the flat world before it was bent.

  3. What a wonderful reflection both in subject matter and also in the quality of your writing. I found myself being caught up in something of the desire for the Undying Lands as I read this. I had forgotten about the Stone that was guarded at the Havens and of Elendil’s desire to gaze upon Tol Eressëa. This touched me deeply.
    I seems to me that there is a contemporary desire for immortality that is informed by the spirit of Ar Pharazon and not by Elendil. I watched a lecture on YouTube given by the head of engineering at Google that he gave in Moscow in which he speaks of his conviction that immortality will be achievable by the end of the 2030s. The philosopher, John Gray, has drawn upon the work of Lewis and Tolkien in his critique of this desire although he says that he does not share their Christian faith. What Gray argues is that an immortality shaped by our current obsessions and level of maturity would be a terrible imposition on future generations. I would argue that this form of life would become hellish. Man would be abolished as Lewis argued in an essay written some years ago.
    Will the Valar protect the way to the Undying Lands in our own time. I hope so. I believe that the only healthy way of life is to trust in our own mortality, sad though that so often is.

    1. Thank you so much, Stephen! The more I dig into the matter of the Sea, the more I understand about it. It is such a vast area of research – there are so many interesting things to discover.
      I must say I agree with both – Lewis and Gray. It seems to me that by showing the differences between Elves and Men in his works, Tolkien shows the kind of character people should have and what traits they should possess to be immortal without a great threat to themselves and the world around them. There are always exceptions, of course, who can cause mayhem, but it seems that they are fewer among Elves than among Men.

  4. I think that the Elves know about both the blessing and the burden of immortality in a way that Men cannot. Ar Pharazon wishes only for an endless continuation of his own power and privilege and an endless expansion of them as well. It seems to me that the contemporary seekers after immortality think in these terms as well. So of course Ar Pharazon listens to Sauron who persuades him that the ultimate reality is darkness and death.
    By contrast the great spiritual traditions do not seek endless existence but transformation. And for transformation we need limitation beyond which we cannot pass unaided. The sea in Tolkien is a wonderful image of such limitation.

    1. That’s a great point about transformation! Understanding the necessity and importance of transformation is the key to living happy and blissful lives, I think.

  5. A great essay, Olga. I love that you’ve brought in “The Last Ship,” a poem that beautifully illustrates the longing — and the futility of the longing — that mortals have to take that voyage west. The story of Elendil’s stone at Emyn Beraid hints at a kind of futile sadness, but Fíriel’s tale really underscores it … and I’m reminded that her name means both “she that died” and “she that sighed.” Fascinating that it’s her foot sinking in clay that stops her; it seems as though the earth itself is grasping at her to keep her where she belongs. I notice that it is also the earth that imprisoned Ar-Pharazôn, who couldn’t take the hint quite as easily as Fíriel.

    1. Thank you very much, Shawn!
      Oh, this poem makes me sad, I must admit. It’s beautifully sad, though. The poem is like a reminder to cherish the place where we belong, be willing and content to stay there rather than seek for some fancy lands elsewhere.

      1. Just discovered this Blog. You are an amazing writer, a real treasure. Hope to enjoy your further work for many long years! May good health and fortune be you constant companions on this journey we share.

  6. Loved both the article and hte comments.
    The sea is indeed a symbol of immortality, and not only in Tolkien, I’d say.
    But as Stephen suggests, I also believe that it is also a symbol of transformation, because it is never the same.
    Given Tolkien’s discourse on mortality/immortality I’m not surprised he was so fascinated with the sea.

    1. Unsurprisingly, seas have been fascinating writers for centuries. It’s very mysterious in many ways, so its appeal is natural. Seas make great symbols in literature.

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