Languages hide a vast amount of information about a certain people, their history, traditions and culture. Words, phrases, names can be a huge treasury of lore and beliefs, values and viewpoints. When we speak of the Elves, it is also true. They were the Firstborn Children of Eru Ilúvatar — fair and gifted individuals who placed a great importance on the stars in their culture. I have already discussed in this essay how the role of the stars in Elvish tradition is emphasised in different tales of Middle-earth. In the present essay I am going to consider the usage of the word elen — “star” — in the Quenya language.
When, according to Eru’s designs, the Elves awoke in Middle-earth, the first thing they saw were the stars. They were so enamoured of the beauty of those luminous bodies that the first exclamation they uttered was Ele!— “Behold!”. From this exclamation there came the word elen — “star” and the word Elda — “Elf”, later used only about those Elves who followed Oromë to Valinor and sojourned there.
The stars that the first Elves were so enamoured of were created by the Valië Varda, Manwë’s spouse:
Then Varda went forth from the council, and she looked out from the height of Taniquetil, and beheld the darkness of Middle-earth beneath the innumerable stars, faint and far. Then she began a great labour, greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda. She took the silver dews from the vats of Telperion, and therewith she made new stars and brighter against the coming of the Firstborn; wherefore she whose name out of the deeps of time and the labours of Eä was Tintallë, the Kindler, was called after by the Elves Elentári, Queen of the Stars.
(Silmarillion, p. 44)
Varda’s Quenya title Elentári consists of two elements: elen + tári (“she that is high, her highness”). It was the Elves’ doom to awaken under the new stars created by the Valië and it was to Varda that they called at need — something we see in many Elvish songs, laments, hymns and addresses which comprise a vast layer of their culture.
Another name that is connected with the Valar is the one the Elves had for the holy mountain Taniquetil, and that is Elerrína. The word consists of two parts elen + rína (“garlanded, crowned”) and is translated as “crowned with stars”. The tile comes from the immense height of Taniquetil: Elerrína, the abode of Manwë and Varda, was the highest mountain of Pelóri and in the entire Arda, so we can say that it reached to the stars — literally or metaphorically: “From their halls upon Taniquetil Manwë and Varda could look out across the Earth even into the furthest East.” (Silmarillion, p. 30). For the regions in Valinor where they themselves lived the Eldar referred to as Elendë — “Elvenhome”, also known as Eldamar. The main feature of those regions was that the stars could be seen from them. Those lands lay east of the Pelóri mountains and its chief cities were Tirion and Alqualondë.
More stars feature in Elvish names. Turgon’s wife who perished during the crossing of Helcaraxë was named Elenwë (“star person”), king Elu Thingol’s Quenya name was Elwë (“starman”) and Elemmírë (“star–jewel”) was the Elf who created the lament for the Darkening of Valinor. Presumably, the latter got their name from the name of a bright star which, in fact, can be identified with the planet Mercury. The first day of the Eldarin six-day week also celebrates the stars and is called Elenya. This word can also be used as an adjective with the meaning “stellar”.
The stars feature greatly not only in the Elvish names of toponyms, but also in standard phrases that the Elves used. The most famous example of such a phrase would probably be the greeting Elen síla lúmenna omentielvo! — “A star shines on the hour of the meeting of our ways”. Interestingly enough, we hear this phrase from Frodo Baggins who, albeit not being an Elf, was well taught by Bilbo and knew a lot about the Elvish culture and of the Quenya tongue. In the narrative of The Lord of the Rings Frodo is undoubtedly one of those passing his knowledge of the Elvish lore to the reader.
The greeting Elen síla lúmenna omentielvo! (or Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo) emphasises the importance of the stars in the Elvish tradition. With the help of the prefix o– the word omentielvo points to the meeting between two people or two companies going on a path that crosses that of the other. Uttering such a greeting can be seen as a blessing or a reference to lucky chance that such a crossing of paths was possible. In case of the meeting between the Hobbits and Gildor’s company it looks like providence, as in the Third Age the paths of Elves and mortals seldom crossed: by that time the Elves had either left for Aman, or distanced themselves from mortals and minded their own Elvish business. Frodo’s company met Gildor’s at a dangerous moment in the Hobbits’ journey when they needed assistance and advice, so that was definitely not a chance meeting.
A very similar phenomenon is seen in the phrase Nai elen siluva lyenna — “May a star shine upon you”. It is used as a well-wish or a blessing on someone. When the Fellowship were setting out on their dangerous quest, Elrond said very similar words. Although they were not said in Quenya, the Elvish tradition to call on the stars, in this case in a difficult situation, is still present in Elrond’s blessing. As the stars have a very strong connection with the Valar, and namely with Varda, calling on them equals asking for help and protection.
Another Quenya phrase that Frodo brings to us is the cry he utters in Shelob’s lair without fully realising what he was saying: Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima! — “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!”. This cry seems an old one as Shelob knew it from the past:
And She that walked in the darkness had heard the Elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now.
(Two Towers, p. 410)
Shelob was a very old creature, so she could easily have heard the Elves cry those words in the past. It is a welcome and a greeting to Eärendil who did the impossible: he travelled to the Blessed Realm with the Silmaril and there spoke before the Vaalr on behalf of the Elves and Men of Middle-earth thus causing the Powers to wage war on Morgoth. That deed won great renown and freed Middle-earth from Morgoth’s yoke. For that Eärendil paid a price: he could no longer walk among either Men or Elves and traversed the sky in his ship with the Silmaril upon his brow as a star. Even hundreds of years after his great feat Eärendil was the example of courage and the guiding star for the free people of Middle-earth, and it is, of course, no coincidence that his vessel with the Silmaril became a star in the sky, not anything else.
Cultural phenomena and traditions always find their reflection in language. Any language reflects what people who speak it believe in and value, what they hold true and dear. When we study a language, we also learn about its speakers and how they live. And Quenya is, of course, no exception.
This essay celebrates the sixth birthday of Middle-earth Reflections. On July 7, 2016, the first essay was published on this blog and the journey is still on. Thank you, my readers, for being with me!
Other birthday essays:
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 Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001
3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
4. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The War of the Jewels; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2002.