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,
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.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.
- 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.