Eala Earendel engla beorhtast

Ofer middangeard monnum sended

How very often we can be inspired by a small thing only — small, yet significant in a way that we could never have fathomed. Small things have a way of hiding a vast background behind them which comes alive only under certain circumstances. Looking now at the great world sub-created by J. R. R. Tolkien it can be hard to believe that it was only one world that ignited his imagination and set him on the path of forming it. It was earendel.It was the year 1913, and Tolkien had recently transferred from the Classical to the English School at Oxford. By that time his mind had already filled with languages and legends, so the change was very much to his liking. At that time Tolkien was already familiar with some texts on the syllabus, but there were new discoveries ahead of him.

Thus Tolkien encountered Crist — a collection of Anglo-Saxon religious poems attributed to Cynewulf. The following lines from Crist I especially captured his imagination: Eala Earendel engla beorhtast / Ofer middangeard monnum sended — Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / Sent onto people over Middle-earth. That was all it took to enchant Tolkien. Earendel. Only one word put the pieces of a huge jigsaw into their proper places, something clicked in young Tolkien’s mind and the pathway to the world of Arda opened.

In the drafts of a letter to Mr Rang Tolkien himself described his experience of encountering the word earendel as follows: “I was struck by the great beauty of this word (or name), entirely coherent with the normal style of A-S, but euphonic to a peculiar degree in that pleasing but not ‘delectable’ language.” (Letters, № 297)

Later the Professor gave the thrill of this discovery to Lowdham from The Notion Club Papers:

I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.

(Sauron Defeated, p. 236)

Even though we do not know if Tolkien’s feelings were exactly the same as Lowdham’s, these Old English lines did stir something from sleep in him and set a complex mechanism in motion — the one that later brought to life the world of Arda.

The word Earendel is not indeed common for Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien noticed its unusually beautiful sound, nor was it an ordinary word either. Earendel makes its most notable appearance in Crist and The Blickling Homilies. In Christian contexts it was interpreted to refer either to John the Baptist, or to a divine messenger. The two lines that captured Tolkien’s attention begin the appeal of prophets and patriarchs from Hell for the Ambassador to deliver them from the shadow of death. However, as Tolkien concluded on the basis of some Old English and Germanic sources, where the words related to Earendel appeared (for example, Aurvandill in Old Norse and Auriwandalo in Lombardic), the name was also used to refer to a star or a group of stars.

Tolkien thought that Earendel belonged to an astronomical myth and, in Anglo-Saxon sources in particular, referred to the star presaging the dawn, that is Venus. It is a very bright star coming out just before the sun rises. Unsurprisingly, the Bosworth-Toller Old English dictionary defines earendel as “a shining light, ray”. Its glosses include the Old English leóma — “radiance, splendour”, the Latin jubar — “radiance of the heavenly bodies, brightness, first light of day, light source” and aurora with “dawn, daybreak” amongst its meanings.

Following the discovery of the vital lines, Tolkien wrote a poem on Earendel — the mariner who launches his ship into the sky from the sun haven. Entitled The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star, it is dated to the year 1914. The new character also appeared in several other early poems Tolkien wrote. While not yet fully wrought and only in the initial stages of development, a lot of concepts of the future world were already emerging at that time. Those were all initial experimental efforts on exploring the character until he appeared in the first ever Middle-earth story — The Fall of Gondolin, and Eärendil of The Silmarillion emerged to become a vital part of the mythology. However, the Christian symbolism of Earendel is, as Tolkien himself wrote in the letter to Mr Rang, totally alien to his mythology. His Eärendil becomes the shining light and the symbol of hope for the peoples of Middle-earth at the time of Morgoth’s tyranny.

The son of the mortal Man Tuor, Huor’s son, and the Elvish maiden Idril, daughter of Turgon, Eärendil is Half-elven and has the qualities of both races in him. His name can be translated from Quenya as “sea-lover” and it reminds of the Anglo-Saxon word in the sound form only. Eärendil is able to achieve the impossible and what many before him failed to do at the cost of their own lives. In his ship Vingilot and with the help of a Silmaril, carried to him by his wife Elwing in the guise of a bird, he reaches Aman at a great risk for his life, but out of love for the kindreds of Elves and Men, and persuades the Valar to aid the inhabitants of Middle-earth in their fight against Morgoth. The feat is indeed great: long ago the Undying Lands became unreachable from Middle-earth because of the Shadowy Seas and the Enchanted Isles around them and not in the least because of the Noldor’s exile from the Blessed Realm. The Valar hearken to Eärendil’s prayer and send the army to Middle-earth to defeat Morgoth in the War of Wrath.

Thus Eärendil becomes the very hope often alluded to throughout The Silmarillion: he was destined to deliver the inhabitants of Middle-earth from Morgoth’s yoke. Eärendil’s arrival, though unnamed of course, is hinted at by Ulmo in his words to Turgon on the latter’s leaving Nevrast for Gondolin. But Ulmo speaks of the hope vaguely, while later Huor is more precise: talking to Turgon at the battlefield of Nírnaeth Arnoediad he declares that “out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men” and “from you and from me a new star shall arise” (Silmarillion, p. 230) With the eyes of death Huor foresees very clearly not only the coming of hope but also the rise of a new star.

As the narration is progressing, the form of this anticipated hope is taking shape. The greetings of Ëonwë, Manwë’s herald, give us the full picture:

Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendour of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!’

(The Silmarillion, p. 298)

At that point we do not know what will happen to Eärendil later, but some glimpses of his fate are given to us in this welcoming speech. He and Elwing (both Half-elven) are given a choice of joining either the kindred of Elves, or the kindred of Men, and are both forbidden to appear among the living beings again. Eärendil’s ship is transformed, hallowed and goes up in the sky to traverse it with the mariner himself wearing a Silmaril on his brow. It is radiant and is most often seen in the morning or in the evening shining brightly in the sky. On seeing that star arise Elves despair no longer, for they take the rise of the star as a sign and know that their deliverance is close.

Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth beheld it from afar and wondered, and they took it for a sign, and called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.

(Silmarillion, p. 300-301)

Eärendil’s sacrifice for the love of both race brings hope for the ages to come, too. He remains the symbol that lives through the times and connects them with great significance. The light of Eärendil fills the Phial of Galadriel, which gives light in the darkest places and when other lights fail. The very light of the Phial, whose appearance is compared with a rising star, is so powerful that gives hope and strength to Frodo, and in his newly kindled strength upon looking at the light he exclaims in Quenya: Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! — Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars! (Two Towers, p. 410). The words, which echo the pattern of the Old English Eala Earendel engla beorhtast, come as if out of nowhere as the Hobbit himself is not fully aware of what he has just said.

However, having the Phial is not the only encounter with Eärendil the Hobbits haveWhen later, creeping slowly and wearily into Sauron’s land, they lay down to sleep Sam looks up in the sky:

Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud – wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

(Return of the King, p. 234)

The hope that arises in Sam, the overcoming feeling of beauty, the time of the star’s appearance suggest that it is the Star of Eärendil shining from the sky. The Star of High Hope has been there since the end of the First Age and has never failed to give hope to those needing it and reminding of the true beauty beyond the reach of the evil.

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 – The Book of Lost Tales. Part II; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Sauron Defeated; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  6. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  7. T. A. Shippey – The Road to Middle-earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology; HarperCollinsPublishers; HarperCollins E-BooksLondon; 2012.
  8. T. A. Shippey – J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; Houghton Mifflin Company;  New York; 2000.

Featured image – Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Eala Ēarendel!

  1. A very lovely reflection, Olga! I find it poignant that Eärendil is the star that gives hope both to Men and Elves under Morgoth’s tyranny, and to Samwise in the darkest part of his journey. It is my favorite of Tolkien’s stories, and for more reasons than I can count. Right now your essay has me focusing on the High Hope — Estel — itself. The evening star reminds us that even though the sun has set, it shall rise again… and even in the dark there is still some light. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I settled down over my breakfast coffee to read your essay this morning and found my soul was being nourished. I think that Tolkien would have been pleased. I was particularly moved by the sense of remoteness captured in the name of Earendel. It is as if Cynewulf and the Anglo-Saxon poets had glimpsed something from long, long ago. Tolkien glimpses it too and feels the thrill of the discovery.
    There is something strong in that Old English poetry that rejoices in its sheer bodiliness. I think of Beowulf and of The Dream of the Rood. It contrasts so strongly with a feeling of disembodiment that seems to haunt modern speech like a homeless ghost. It is like the contrast between the ghosts of Christmas Present and of Christmas Future in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (one of my favourite stories). It also feels like the character of Wither in C.S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
    I noted that Shawn referred to Estel in his comment. I was particularly moved by your quotation of Eonwe when he greets Earendil, “the longed for that cometh beyond hope”. Wonderful! And timely too. Always timely.
    As you can see, Olga, I will be pondering this for some time to come. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Stephen!
      Tolkien was so perceptive to everything concerning languages that he managed to see so much beyond this word. It is indeed a gift to be able to feel languages like he did. Everything Old English has a strange appeal.
      I’ve been pondering the topic of estel for quite a while now. The concept is so deep, so rooted in faith. Incredible.

      Like

  3. Thanks so much for this reflection on Earendil and the sources of inspiration for Tolkien that led to the creation of this character and the creation of this sacred star. I enjoyed reading your essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always feel like I am entering a liminal realm at sunset when Venus (the star of earendil) hangs like a diamond in the sky. It fills me with a poignant longing for the home that calls me beyond the realm of modernity, a green, green land beyond the sundering seas. Robin

    Liked by 1 person

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