Song of Eärendil

Eärendil was a mariner
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan,
and light upon her banners laid.

Thanks to Ian’s brilliant First Age expansion, I’ve gone back and read through The Silmarillion yet again and I have to say it gets better with each re-read. Reason being, I am more familiar (if not entirely with familiar) with all the “Fins“, and so I can focus more on the beautiful story unfurling with each page. In this day and age comparison is almost unavoidable, as are the thoughts of how amazing these stories could be as an HBO series if done correctly. And let’s be real for a moment: the Sons of Fëanor, pound for pound, have the Lannisters beaten hands-down for ruthlessness and treachery and good, old fashioned coolness. And for as many times as I read this thing I find that nothing can knock Eärendil out of place as my favorite Middle-earth character for all Ages. You’ll note I use his device as my avatar and hopefully this article will explain some of my fixation.

We first meet Eärendil the Mariner not in-person but as a subject of the beautiful song recited by Bilbo Baggins (unless you’re some kind of weirdo who read The Silmarillion first) in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell. Frodo has just awoken and taken his first supper in Imladris and nearly found himself talked to death by one Glóin and all retire to the Hall for song and stories. Bilbo thinks himself quite the writer and receives a fair amount of praise for his “Song of Eärendil”, even from the elves, though we soon learn he had a hand from someone a bit more learned than he, one Aragorn son of Arathorn. It is a long poem and it is oftentimes suggested that readers new to Tolkien skip the songs and poems on their first read-through of The Lord of the Rings. But if there is one poem to read in the book it’s… Sam’s Song in the Tower. But if there are two songs to read, the second would be this Song of Eärendil! In meter and in subject matter, even out of context, it is beautiful; in word choice and flow of language it is, I feel, Tolkien at his best.

Let us first get some background on this most famousest of Half-elves, though.

In my article on the Sons of Elrond I took a step into the deep pool that is genealogy in Middle-earth. I mean to sidestep that pool today, for the most part, because this is a Hasty Stroke, meant to be short, and because the upshot of the whole thing is this: Eärendil, his wife Elwing, and the rest of his line are the Half-elven. As such they will be given a choice of which kindred to be fully joined to, Elves or Men. This is not a racial thing but a question of destiny for Elves are bound wholly to Middle-earth and will never leave its lands and end with it, while Men have a secret fate known only to God. A person cannot have both of those and so he must choose.

A quick fun fact, though, on the genealogies: Elwing’s maternal grandfather is Galathil, whose brother is none other than Celeborn of Doriath, later Lord of Lorien! Small gene pool.

Ruins of Gonolin by Grrrod

Ruins of Gonolin by Grrrod

While the Song mostly speaks of his later deeds, Eärendil was born into times of trouble. He was royalty, the son of Idril Celebrindal daughter of Turgon, King of Gondolin. Tuor, cousin of Túrin Turambar, was a Man, one of the Edain, who was fated from birth to find the Hidden Kingdom as his father did. Once there, he rose quickly in the esteem of the King and fell in love with Idril. Happy days never last long in Middle-earth, though, and when Eärendil was only 7 years old the ways of Gondolin were betrayed and the enemy came in full force. Orcs, dragons, and Balrogs all flooded the city and its Fall is one of those epic tales of the First Age.

Along with a few other survivors, Eärendil escaped to Arvernien along the coast and as he came of age he became the leader of all those people.  Arvernien was near the haven of Sirion, where Círdan was lord, and there Eärendil met a very special woman named Elwing.

Elwing was the daughter of Dior, son of Beren and Lúthien. Yes, that Beren and Lúthien. What made her even more special, or cursed as we’ll see, was that she was the bearer of a Silmaril. Yes, that Silmaril; the one recovered from the Iron Crown of Morgoth by Beren and Lúthien. When the Sons of Fëanor killed her father for the jewel, she and a few others managed to escape.

These were dark times for the people of Beleriand, as the Enemy had essentially free reign over the western world. Eärendil became a great mariner and traveled far and wide, leaving his wife and young sons (Elrond and Elros) behind. It was on one of these journeys that the Sons of Fëanor who had not yet had their lives claimed by their horrible Oath came for their prize. In Arvernien they slew many Elves in their search for the Silmaril, but rather than let it pass into the hands of murderers Elwing took it and flew.

At first this was figurative, but when she cast herself into the sea Ulmo, Lord of Waters, made her to be a great white bird with the Silmaril bound to her breast. She took to the air and found Eärendil far away upon his ship Vingilot in the ‘black and roaring waves’ of the sea.

Allow me an aside here, as this Hasty Stroke becomes a Heavy one. Part of the art of Tolkien was the seamless meshing of the historical (and political) and mythological. The flight of Elwing is one of these points of departure and, I think, what sets his stuff higher above some other of like make. All of his stuff is also modeled after actual historical sources, how they evolve over time and do not always reflect the whole truth. For example, the final chapter of The Silmarillion tells how the heroic Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, went all the way to Mount Doom and, with his faithful servant, cast the Ring into the Fire. No mention of his failure, no mention of Gollum. By the same turn, Bilbo’s song seems to embellish a bit and make all the more splendorous and wonderful the tale of Eärendil, though by itself it is a wonderful tale.

Earendil and the Battle of Eagles and Dragons by Ted Nasmith

Earendil and the Battle of Eagles and Dragons by Ted Nasmith

Together upon Vingilot, Eärendil and Elwing became the only mortals to find the shores of Valinor, which had been hidden long ago. There he did his great deed and convinced the Lords of the West to aid Elves and Men against the Enemy before all was lost, ending the First Age in a great and terrible battle where Eärendil, flying upon his ship, destroyed Ancalagon the Black, first and mightiest of all the winged dragons.

Eärendil himself was set above and beyond Arda. Fastening the Silmaril upon Vingilot he became the brightest star for elves to look upon, and a source of hope in dark places. But the Half-elves were forced to make a choice: to share in the destiny of either Men or Elves. His son Elros chose the destiny of Men and became the first King of Numenor; Elrond chose to be an Elf and was the wisest of all his kind throughout the Second and Third Ages of the Sun. The same choice remained for his children: Arwen, Elladan, and Elrohir

As a card, the Song is very useful but in a very specific context. Paired with a deck with high starting threat, or a threat raising ability like Boromir‘s, in a deck with cards like Elfhelm or Aragorn, it can become a way to ‘eat’ much of your partner’s threat to spare them any nasty consequences. By itself it’s kind of a novelty, and Aragorn with Desperate Alliance might be a better way to circumvent the high threat of a partner deck, but being more intentional can yield some interesting possibilities. Specifically, it could keep  a high(er) threat deck from crossing the threshold to start engaging enemies when paired with a Secrecy deck, effectively running a Secrecy model with a deck that isn’t designed for it.

Thematically the card kind of works, as I suppose the one hero is counting on the hope that Eärendil’s story represents to keep his allies from losing hope and drawing the threat of the Enemy. Oh well, there’s only so much abstraction one can make. While we will never see a card representing the character Eärendil, we have the next best thing in Ian’s fan created one, which I leave as a parting gift.

earendil

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5 comments

  1. I’m jealous you beat me to the punch on Ëarendil as he is someone I’ve been wanting to write about for a long while! Interestingly, the name “Ëarendel” is the kernel of all Middle-earth (including the name “Middle-earth”) in Tolkien’s mind. He was mesmerized by its etymology after stumbling across it in an Old English poem in the 1910s. He didn’t know what the name meant at the time, but began studying it and discovered associations with the Morning Star and a Mariner that became the inspiration for writing his own mythology. Thanks for this awesome article on the foundational figure of Tolkien’s lore!

    1. This is just a teeny sketch of his story, so there’s plenty of room for you to hop into the meta. His name is very interesting indeed.

  2. You know between your articles, the lcg and LOTRO you would think that I would have more than enough LOTR stuff. Nope.

    1. Yeah Tolkien studies is more like ‘Tolkien addiction’.

  3. […] short version after all! There’s plenty more to tell, so check out my Grey Company compatriot Derek’s article on this card if you want further lore […]

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