Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Aurvandil/Eärendil

Eärendil's ship, Vingilot, by John Howe

One of my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings happens when the hobbits have arrived at Rivendel, and everyone's in the hall listening to music and telling stories. Bilbo takes the floor and recites his poem about Eärendel the mariner, who lived when Middle-earth was plagued by the forces of Morgoth, who's sort of the equivalent of the devil in Tolkien's mythography (Sauron was Morgoth's goon). The elves and men of Middle-earth were losing badly, so Eärendel, with one of the three precious jewels called the Silmarils on the his brow and his wife Elwing by his side, sets sail in his ship Vingilot for the home of the Valar--who are essentially gods on the earth.

There flying Elwing came to him,
and flame was in the darkness lit;
more bright than light of diamond
the fire upon her carcanet
The Silmaril she bound on him
and crowned him with the living light
and dauntless then with burning brow
he turned his prow; and in the night
from Otherworld behond the Sea
there strong and free a storm arose,
 a wind of power in Tarmenel;
by paths that seldom mortal goes
his boat it bore with biting breath
as might of death across the grey
and long-forsaken seas distressed:
from east to west he passed away.

You can read the whole poem  online here. Christopher Tolkien gives us everything we could want to know about how his father's developed this story in part 2 of The Book of Lost Tales, which also includes some of the earlier poems about these characters. This story is one of Tolkien's earliest, dating back at least to 1914.

The voyage of Eärendil is told at greater length in The Silmarillion, which is the story of the Silmarils (precious because they contain the light from two trees that precede the sun and moon and thus are sacred; those trees were killed by Morgoth--it's a long story). The jewels made their way to Middle-earth and were eventually lost: one cast into the sea, one fell with its bearer into a gaping chasm filled with fire (so John D. Rateliff, in part 2 of his two-volume History of the Hobbit, puts forth the idea that this Silmaril turns up again in The Hobbit as the Arkenstone coveted by Thorin and found by Bilbo; Rateliff's equivocal about whether or not he thinks the Arkenstone is really a Silmaril, but I'm going to go ahead and think it is).

This third Silmaril, torn from the crown of Morgoth, is what allows Earendil to make it all the way to Valinor and confront the Valar, to ask them to intervene against Morgoth. They did so, tearing a hole in the veil of night and sealing Morgoth beyond it forever. Eärendil, being only a Man, was not allowed to return to Middle-earth, but was sent into the heavens, where his ship, lit by the Silmaril, would sail for eternity. Elwing chose to stay on the earth, but can change into a bird to visit her husband when he flies near.

So Eärendil becomes a star (the morning and evening star--Venus, to be exact). This, you might have noticed, was the very star whose light Galadriel encased in a phial as a gift to Frodo, which he uses to keep Shelob away from him and Sam for a while in The Two Towers. Verlyn Fleiger has a nice discussion of Frodo's fate as related to Galadriel's gift in her book Splintered Light

But Eärendil wasn't quite done with Middle-earth, though he never set foot upon it again. His petition to the Valar had been successful--they would wage war against Morgoth to rid his evil from the land. But when they marched upon his kindgom, they were met in battle by the dragons... Here's how Tolkien describes it in The Silmarillion:

 Then, seeing that his hosts were overthrown and his power dispersed, Morgoth quailed, and he dared not to come forth himself. But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen, and so sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that the host of the Valar was driven back, for the coming of the dragons was with great thunder, and lightning, and a tempest of fire.
  But Eärendil came, shining with white flame, and about Vingilot were gathered all the great birds of heaven and Thorondor was their captain, and there was battle in the air all the day and through a dark night of doubt. Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin. Then the sun rose, and the host of the Valar prevailed..." 

by Simone G. Des Roches

The studies of Tolkien's sources are many, and always interesting. In the case of Eärendil, he seems to have been chiefly inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist, in which it's either a reference to Jesus or John the Baptist (scholars disagree--Tolkien thought it was John the Baptist) in the line "Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast" (Hail Earendel, brightest of angels). But that's not very interesting, and the reference is certainly not a great story in and of itself. (I'd also like to note that Kristine Larsen, in a chapter from the book Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, finds compelling parallels with the Roman version of Ceyx and Alcyone from Ovid's Metamorphoses.) Then, through a variety of sources (in this case, Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology), we find a reference to Aurvandil in Snorri Sturlison's Prose Edda, which is in part a series of tales from Norse mythology. Aurvandil and Eärendil are, etymologically speaking, the same name. We know very little about Aurvandil. After defeating the jotun Hrungnir in battle, Thor had a piece of stone stuck in his head. Let's let Snorri take it from here:

Thor returned home to Thrudvangar and the whetstone remained in his head. Then there arrived a sorceress called Groa, wife of Aurvandil the Bold. She chanted her spells over Thor until the whetstone began to come loose. When Thor felt this and it seemed likely that the whetstone was going to be got out, he wanted to repay Groa for her treatment and give her pleasure. He told her these tidings that he had waded south across Elivagar carrying Aurvandil in a basket on his back south from Giantland, and there was his proof, that one of his toes had been sticking out of the basket and had got frozen, so Thor broke it off and threw it up in the sky and made out of it the star called Aurvandil's toe.

This story leaves a lot to the imagination: Why was a sorceress in Asgard? Why did Thor carry Aurvandil across Elivagar (elivagar are icy rivers that have existed since the beginning of time--glaciers maybe)? Why was Aurvandil called "The Bold"? Snorri wasn't trying to tell all the stories from Norse myth; he was just making sure any aspiring poets would have a general knowledge of the references made to the old stories in literature.

The beauty here isn't just in one story or the other, but in the transition between them. One thing that makes a story great, in my eyes, is its versatility. At the core of the Aurvandil/Earendil story is a journey that results in something terrestrial becomeing celestial. For Snorri--and the old vikings from whom he got the story, it's just a bit of fun, an etiological joke. For Tolkien, it's the climax of a long and complex tragedy, the story of Men and Elves in Middle-earth. There are certainly problems with both stories as we have them (there's always the issue of women in Tolkien's work, and the incomplete nature of Snorri's rendition can be frustrating), but they're still some of the best.

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