To the Sea! To the Sea! With the release of The Grey Havens, we are taking to our ships and setting sail to chase dreams on the high seas. But wait! What does the ocean have to do with the lands of Middle-earth? After all, the Fellowship of the Ring was composed of the Nine Walkers, not the Nine Sailors. Sure, there was that little flashback in Return of the King to Aragorn and the Grey Company taking out the Corsairs of Umbar and coming up the Anduin in their boats, but the Great Sea is nothing more than the edge of the map for a proper Middle-earth adventure, right?
Does our departure from the Grey Havens mean that the pessimists’ gloom is being realized and that our game is coming to an end? Are we setting off for our final journey on the Straight Path to the Valinor? Quite the contrary! While this cycle will expand the saga beyond the borders of our maps, “going sailing” in Middle-earth is not a euphemism akin to our “going to live on the farm” (I still miss you, Buddy!). Instead, adventure on the oceans hearkens back to the very beginning of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle-earth, his own personal dreams, and the spiritual calling that is at the heart of life’s true quests. Batten down the hatches, we’re about to head into some deep waters here at Master of Lore!
TOLKIEN’S INCEPTION OF MIDDLE-EARTH
The desire of my spirit urges me to journey forth over the flowing sea, that far hence across the hills of water and the whale’s country I may seek the land of strangers. No mind have I for harp, nor gift of ring, nor delight in women, nor joy in the world, nor concern with aught else save the rolling of the waves.
These lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished time-travel novel The Lost Road are adapted from an Old English poem titled “The Seafarer”. Like many of his ideas, Tolkien felt these words came to him as a ‘genuine transmission’ from the past, a sort of dream, that pulled at him with ‘hidden resonances from [ancient] names and languages’.
Indeed, Tolkien’s very inception of Middle-earth came from such an ancient name, one associated with the sea who would become the first character of his invented world — Eärendil. Tolkien first encountered this name as a young student reading Old English poetry in the library between semesters. From an 8th century work by Cynewulf called “Christ II” about the ascension of Jesus, Tolkien read:
Eala Earendel! engla beorhtast (Hail Earendel! brightest of angels)
ofer middangeard monnum sended! (above the middle-earth sent unto men!)
Something about the name swept Tolkien up into thoughts and dreams of stories lost beyond recall. Who was this Earendel? The Old English dictionary said the name meant “ray of light”, but Tolkien felt as though it had an older meaning that came before Anglo-Saxon and even before Christianity, something deep, now forgotten from the pagan Germanic heritage of his people. The dictionary and poem suggested that Earendel was someone above the world, perhaps like the mythological charioteers of planets and stars, but the similarity to the Old English ēar meaning “sea” made the character sound like more of a mariner than a driver. Who was this guy? Tolkien’s answer was the spark for his lifelong work.
In September 1914, Tolkien composed his first poem about Éarendel, the star-mariner who sails across the sky. It was shortly after the beginning of the Great War and the 22-year-old Tolkien was studying at the University of Oxford. As Tolkien’s Éarendel flies, he witnesses the ‘the gathering tide of darkness’ and listens to the world’s weeping. The poem was called “The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star”.
It would take many years for this early draft of “Éarendel” to fully develop into the canonical Eärendil we know from Bilbo’s song in The Lord of the Rings, the half-Elf who carries the cries of his kin in Middle-earth to the gods of Valinor at the end of the First Age. But this intercessory sailor of the heavenly seas was the initial inspiration and first character created by Tolkien for what would become his middangeard or Middle-earth.
When we consider the role Eärendil came to play in the saga, we discover that a journey on the sea is not tied in with the end of the game, but with escaping that end, with dreams and names, and with a new beginning that comes afresh from the ancient past. The journey to the Sea is a spiritual journey that connects the ages.
THE SEA IN THE FIRST AGE
Reflecting the feeling that his stories were dim echoes of the primary themes written into the very fabric of the cosmos, Tolkien writes about the Sea in Middle-earth as the best remaining medium to hear the Music of Ainur that gave birth to the universe. Featuring as ‘the most greatly praised’ element of creation, the Sea is introduced in the Ainulindalë with language that could easily be describing the mysterious joy Tolkien found reading Old English poetry as a young college student.
And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in the Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
It’s enough to make me want to head to the beach, or at least listen to the waves crashing against the shore while I play LOTR LCG! Go ahead and give it a try while you read the rest of this article.
Throughout the First Age, the Sea is much more like the Calm Waters than the Rolling Seas of our card game. It is not a threatening location, but the sole life-giving force that brings the Favor of the Valar to our heroes.
Indeed, as the relationship between most of the Valar and the Children of the Sea grows more and more distant, it is Ulmo, the Lord of Waters, who continues to seek and save the peoples of Middle-earth. He is the only Vala who does not retreat to Valinor after Melkor mars the world at its foundations, instead using his power to keep the Earth alive even as Melkor thinks he has destroyed it. Ulmo arranges for the first ever sailing expedition of the Elves, not in grey ships, but on the island of Tol Eressëa which he uproots and moves by his power across the Sea to provide his friends safe passage from Beleriand to Valinor. It is Ulmo who urges the Lords of the Eldar, Turgon and Finrod, to build Gondolin and Nargothrond, the great Elven strongholds which thrive out of the reach of Morgoth. Ulmo chooses Tuor, a Man of the North, to warn Gondolin when the hidden city is discovered by Morgoth. Ulmo calls Tuor to his destiny through his longing for the Sea, leading him on an epic journey in which he becomes the first Man in history to behold the ocean.
With Ulmo’s guidance, Tuor finds Gondolin, but Turgon fails to heed his warning. As the city falls, Tuor escapes back to the Sea with his Elven wife Idril and their child Eärendil, upon whom the whole story now hinges.
EÄRENDIL THE MARINER, SAILOR OF THE SKIES
Long before the Dream-chaser and the Stormcaller, there was the Foam-flower, Vingilot, the trusty ship of Eärendil the Mariner, which he built with Círdan the Shipwright. Aboard the Foam-flower, Eärendil undertakes the most important sailing test in the history of Middle-earth, to cross the Great Sea and plead for the Valar’s mercy before Morgoth succeeds in destroying the last of his people. His wife Elwing remains behind with the refugees of Gondolin and the Silmaril reclaimed by her grandparents Beren and Lúthien. Unfortunately, this treasure attracts the sons of Fëanor in pursuit of their ill-fated and bloody Oath to reclaim their father’s gems. Out at sea, Eärendil has a dark premonition and turns back, but he is too late. The sons of Fëanor have already attacked!
Elf on Elf violence ensues and to escape the slaughter, Elwing throws herself into the Sea. All seems lost when, once again, Ulmo intervenes. He lifts Elwing from the waters and transforms her into a great white bird with the Silmaril shining upon her breast. Elwing flies to Eärendil ‘as a white cloud exceedingly swift beneath the moon, a pale flame on the wings of storm’ and swoons to the deck of Vingilot while Eärendil is at the helm. She transforms back into an Elf overnight while resting on Eärendil’s chest, and in the morning, the ship is set back on course to Valinor, with Eärendil at the prow and the Silmaril gleaming upon his brow.
This time, his quest succeeds. The Valar heed Eärendil’s plea and ready themselves to engage Morgoth and his armies in the War of Wrath, the greatest combat phase in the history of Middle-earth. Eärendil’s ship Vingilot is ‘hallowed’ and ‘lifted up even into the oceans of heaven’ where it first glimmers in the evening and comes to be known as Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.
In the battle, Ëarendil’s flying ship joins Thorondor and the Eagles in aerial combat against the dragon-host of Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of Morgoth’s foul creatures. In the midst of ‘the dark night of doubt’, Ëarendil outmaneuvers Ancalagon in the sky, slaying him in the pre-dawn shade, and casts him down upon the towers of Thangorodrim, shattering the fortress of Morgoth.
In the end, the Valar defeat Morgoth, beat his iron crown into a collar for his neck, and bind him in the Void beyond the Circles of the World until the end of Time. With this dramatic victory, the First Age comes to a close, and the Valar return to the Blessed Realm — all because of the epic sailing expedition of Eärendil the Mariner and flight of Elwing.
THE SEA IN THE SECOND AGE
Of the three main eras of Middle-earth’s history, Tolkien wrote the least about the Second Age and yet, the role of the Sea is even more central to this age than any other. The two main kingdoms of the Second Age are Lindon and Númenor.
Lindon was founded by the Elves in what remained of Beleriand under their High King Gil-galad. The “Tale of Years” in Appendix B tells us that the Grey Havens were founded in the Year 1 of the Second Age. According to The Silmarillion, the ‘mighty convulsions’ of the War of Wrath had ‘broken and laid waste’ to much of the land of Beleriand, forming ‘a great gap’ into which ‘a gulf of the sea flowed in’.
Upon the shores of [this] Gulf of Lhûn the Elves built their havens, and named them Mithlond; and there they held many ships, for the harbourage was good. From the Grey Havens the Eldar ever and anon set sail, fleeing from the darkness of the days of Earth…
Meanwhile, Númenor was founded by Elros, son of Eärendil and Elwing and twin brother of Elrond. He was the first King of those Men who were faithful to the Elves in the War of Wrath, establishing his realm on the star-shaped island gifted to his people by the Valar. From their founding, the Númenoreans too became enamored with the Sea. As the Unfinished Tales “Description of Númenor” tells us:
Beyond all pursuits the strong men of Númenor took delight in the Sea, in swimming, in diving, or in small craft for contests of speed in rowing or sailing.
While the first Númenoreans sailed to their island by ‘following the Star [of Eärendil]’ in ships ‘steered and captained by one of the Eldar deputed by Círdan’, it wasn’t until much later that their shipwrights developed ‘their own study and devices’ sufficiently and ‘dared to sail ever further into the deep waters’. For more about Númenorean ships, check out this detailed article by Quora user Thomas Snerdley, a true master of Tolkien’s lore.
It was 600 years into the Second Age that Vëantur, the ship captain of the fourth King of Númenor, sailed into Mithlond ‘on the spring winds blowing from the west’ re-establishing contact between the Men of Númenor and the High Elves of Lindon. As the “Description of Númenor” concludes:
Thereafter seafaring became the chief enterprise for daring and hardihood among the men of Númenor; and Aldarion son of Meneldur, whose wife was Vëantur’s daughter, formed a Guild of Venturers, in which were joined all the tried mariners of Númenor, as is told in the tale that follows here.
This tale, called “The Mariner’s Wife” may be my favorite story in all of Tolkien’s lore. I won’t recount it in full here, but allow me to say that it not only shows the power of the Sea in Tolkien’s works, but features some of the most complex characters and themes in any of his Middle-earth stories. If you haven’t read the Unfinished Tales chapter “Aldarion and Erendis” yet, add it to your to-do list!
What’s important to our purposes here though is that in this tale the Sea once again represents a mysterious longing for something greater beyond earthly delight. Early in the story we learn that:
Aldarion had become enamoured of the Great Sea, and of a ship riding there alone without sight of land, borne by the winds with foam at its throat to coasts and havens unguessed; and that love and desire never left him until his life’s end.
While most of the early Númenorean sea-faring was directed east towards the coasts of Middle-earth, it was ultimately a sailing expedition to the West to seize immortality in the land of Valinor that brought about the downfall of the kingdom and the end of the Second Age. We’ve written more about the Fate of Númenor elsewhere, but what is most relevant to our theme is that, like other references to the Sea in Tolkien’s writing, this one issues directly from his sense of a mystical connection to the distant past. As the Professor writes in Letter 257:
Another ingredient [in my story is] what I might call my Atlantis-haunting. This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me. In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green islands… It always ends by surrender, and I awake gasping out of deep water.
With the close of the Second Age, we see that while the Sea is an echo of the Music of the Ainur, it is not always a pleasant song. Whereas the Sea brought deliverance and grace to Men at the end of the First Age, it is the agent of their doom here in the Second.
Yet even as the ‘devouring wave rolled over the land and Númenor toppled to its fall’, another heroic sailing quest is making its departure. Elendil and his sons have built no Shrine to Morgoth nor sought to reject the strange gift of death given to Men by the Valar. Their fleet is prepared, nine ships in all, when ‘the deeps rose beneath them in towering anger, and waves like unto mountains moving with great caps of writhen snow bore them up amid the wreckage of the clouds’. They are ‘swept away’ and deposited on the newly shaped ‘shores of Middle-earth’. Here the Faithful establish the Realms in Exile, Arnor and Gondor, and the saga continues.
THE CIRCLES OF THE WORLD, AFTER THE CHANGE
With the Downfall of Númenor, the world was changed once again.
All the coasts and seaward regions of the western world suffered great change and ruin in that time; for the seas invaded the lands, and shores foundered, and ancient isles were drowned, and new isles were uplifted and hills crumbled and rivers were turned to strange courses.
But the greatest change of all is that Valinor was removed from the Circles of the World. As Men travelled across the Sea in this new age, they discovered that ‘those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said: “All roads are now bent.”‘ The flat world became round.
This did not stop ‘tales and rumours’ arising among Men however of a Straight Way, an ‘old road and path of memory of the West’ that might ‘by some fate or grace or favour of the Valar’ be entered upon. Gathered around a few pints, someone would tell of a mariner or man ‘forlorn upon the water’ who saw a glimpse of the ‘lamplit quays’ and ‘last beaches’ and the ‘White Mountain’ of Valinor before he passed away.
The Elves knew of this path in story and song and Círdan resided still in the Grey Havens preparing ships to take his kin on the Straight Way. Even Legolas, a Wood-elf, is filled with sea-longing when he hears the cry of gulls in Lord of the Rings. This passage comes from “The Last Debate” as he is discussing the final stage of the War of the Ring after the Battle of Pelennor Fields, overlooking the Anduin.
And now Legolas fell silent, while the others talked, and he looked out against the sun, and as he gazed he saw white sea-birds beating up the River.
‘Look!’ he cried. ‘Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelargir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing which is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.’
As with Tuor, Eärendil, Vëantur, Aldarion, Elendil, and so many others throughout the ages, the Sea manifests a desire for an experience that is beyond this world, something that can be attained only by leaving Middle-earth, and yet can still be felt within it. Here, all of Tolkien’s themes related to the Sea are tied together — a resonance with the ancient past, a dream of the world’s ending, the calling to transcendent adventures, and the path to God. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis wrote about this longing another way in Mere Christianity, using it as an experiential proof for a spiritual existence.
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
For me, the connection between this longing for the Sea and another world is imparted with stunning beauty in the song “Into the West” by Annie Lennox. Composed and performed for the credits of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, it is like the Music of the Ainur to me, igniting a wonder that is fair and perilous.
SAILING QUESTS IN THE LOTR LCG
Although FFG does not have licensing rights to The Silmarillion (these will need to be pried out of the dead, lifeless hands of Christopher Tolkien due to his assessment of Peter Jackson’s films), the allusions to that earlier lore within The Lord of the Rings and brief sketch of the history in the Appendices are what avail the names of characters like Eärendil and Elwing for cards in our game. Far beyond these nominal callbacks though, the inclusion of dreams, the drowning of Númenor, undead Morgoth worshippers, and other thematic elements from Tolkien’s sea stories show that our designers are nevertheless deeply familiar with the full legendarium. In fact, the storyline of the Dream-chaser cycle appears to have its direct inspiration in this passage from the end of the Akallabêth about Meneltarma, the mountain peak which once rose in the center of Númenor:
Among the Exiles, many believed that the summit of Meneltarma, the Pillar of Heaven, was not drowned forever but rose again above the waves, a lonely island lost in the great waters; for it had been a hallowed place, and even in the days of Sauron, none had defiled it. And some there were of the seed of Eärendil that afterwards sought for it, because it was said among lore masters that the far-sighted men of old could see from Meneltarma a glimmer of the Deathless Land…
Thus it was that great mariners among [the Dúnedain] would still search the empty seas, hoping to come upon the Isle of Meneltarma, and there to see a vision of things that were. But they found it not.
That hasn’t stopped Lord Calphon, our new FFG-created ally, from trying. Calphon comes from Dol Amroth, a fiefdom of Gondor that was initially settled by Elven refugees from Beleriand and, later on, by a Númenorean family of the Faithful. Like Tolkien himself, Calphon’s interest in Númenor begins with a dream, “the most vivid” he has ever had. The Lost Island that we discover is purportedly the ruins of Númenor, though the presence of the Shrine to Morgoth suggests it is not Meneltarma since the Exiles held that it was never defiled. We are, however, the first to actually discover any remains of the downfallen Atalantë and I am certainly curious to see where our designers take this storyline next. Will Calphon turn out to be a direct ancestor of the Faithful family who settled Dol Amroth? Or might he be a servant of Morgoth seeking to re-establish the ancient cult? What will we discover in our next adventures on the Great Sea of Middle-earth?
Whatever may come, I must commend the quests of The Grey Havens deluxe box and the emerging storyline of the Dream-chaser cycle for the amazing work capturing the spirit of the Sea and connecting to Tolkien’s stories. Even the “Raid on the Grey Havens”, which features no sailing or exploring, has strong similarities to a Silmarillion episode we haven’t discussed in which the Noldor following Fëanor burn the ships of their kin after arriving in Middle-earth.
With fun new mechanics and themes from Tolkien reaching back to his first poem about the Evening Star and the inception of Middle-earth, these new quests have stirred my sea-longing. Like Legolas and so many characters before him, I feel these adventures reminding me that I am made for another world, more beautiful than our own, which finds only faint echoes in our day-to-day. Yet it is still there, beneath the surface, in my depths, quietly and lovingly calling me back to greater things. To the Sea!
Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth