Tolkien’s MythologyEven J.R.R. Tolkien, interestingly enough, could not pinpoint exactly when the mythology began. One can most certainly date the mythology if only in its barest, least recognizable form sometime prior to his participation in the Great War, when the young man wrote his poem, “The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star.”[1] In a letter written to the Wheaton College literary professor and early scholar of the Inklings, Clyde Kilby, Tolkien added at the end as a footnote: “I hope that this may reach you at or about Christmas. Lux fulgebat super nos.* Eala Eärendil engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended (Rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology).”[2]

The lines come from the Medieval poetic epic, Crist, by Cynewulf. In a letter dated nearly two years later than the one addressed to Kilby, Tolkien again explained the importance of the name Eärendil to his mythology, noting that he had first taken notice of it in 1913 while studying Anglo-Saxon and playing around—as he often did—with the possible origins and derivations of a word.[3]

In his own scholarly work, Carl Hostetter has dug deep into the philological sources and meanings of Eärendil better than anyone has, finding the actual sources Tolkien would have used—especially the work of Jacob Grimm and Israel Gollancz—to understand his own reading of Cynewulf’s Crist, the source of the inspirational lines. Hostetter convincingly reveals that Tolkien’s Eärendil, taken from Cynewulf, had five distinct but intertwined aspects that informed Tolkien’s own mythology from its beginning. These aspects are Eärendil as a star (in particular, Venus); as a messenger or angel; as an eagle; as a mariner; and as as a herald of Christ. Taking these five things as one, “Tolkien synthesized a powerful myth for his Middle-earth,” Hostetter ably explains. “Indeed, one could argue that much of Tolkien’s mythology ultimately springs from this philological source.”[4]

Earendil_the_MarinerAt the time Christopher Tolkien published The Silmarillion in 1977, Eärendil remained a mystically powerful being, the husband of Elwing, father of Elrond and Elros, and powerful ally of Cirdan the Shipwright. Burdened with restlessness, Eärendil ever sought discovery and voyage. He and Cirdan designed and crafted Vingilot, perhaps the greatest ship of its kind, and Eärendil explored much, always torn by his love of adventure and his desire to reside with Elwing. After Elwing comes in possession of a Silmaril, its sworn protectors, the sons of Fëanor, attack, decimating Eärendil’s people. To protect her and the Silmaril, the great water god Ulmo turned her into a white bird and flew her across the waters in search of Eärendil. Upon landing on Vingilot, she returned to Elf form and Eärendil planted the Silmaril on his brow. They sailed into the forbidden West. Upon arriving, Eärendil left Elwing, hoping that the curse that demanded death for all mortals who touched the Blessed Realm would bypass her. As Eärendil ventured onto the land of the gods, its emptiness struck great fear in him. What had befallen the immortals? Celebrating as one people at a major festival, the gods send Eönwë as a herald to Eärendil.

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![5]

Summoned to explain his actions and his purpose, the gods forgave him, and Mandos rewarded his line by bestowing upon it the choice of doom, that of Elf, tied to the world, or that of Man, mortal and ephemeral. Ulmo stated the place of Eärendil most clearly: “For this, he was born into the world.”[6] He and Elwing each chose to be regarded and destined as Elf-born, though Eärendil chose with reluctance. Hallowing Vingilot and bearing the Silmaril on his brow, Eärendil sailed beyond the walls of the world, becoming Venus, brightest in in evening and in the morning. To the good of Middle-earth, Eärendil became a beacon of hope—aid from the gods—but he became a terror to Morgoth. In the last “Great Battle” for Middle-earth, thus ending the First Age, Eärendil flew Vingilot and victoriously led the eagles and hosts of birds against the dragons and fell flying things of Morgoth.[7]

book of lost talesThe fullest exploration of Eärendil in the early mythology—perhaps the earliest part of the mythology, as just explored—appears in Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales, Part II. As Christopher explains it, his father had written the first poem about Eärendil in September 1914 while at Phoenix Farm in Gedling, Nottinghamshire.[8] In the earliest version of the poem, Eärendil flies so long and so far, that he burns out, as “his light grew old in abysses cold.”[9] Only months later, Tolkien wrote a second poem, “The Bidding of the Minstrel,” in which the songs of the ancient deeds are sung faithfully, but without understanding or real soul. “The music is broken, the words half-forgotten.”[10] On the evening of November 27, 1914, Tolkien read a part of Eärendil—perhaps all that he had written up to this point—to the Essay Club at Oxford.[11] The following summer, in July 1915, Tolkien wrote the third part of Eärendil, “The Shores of Faery,” which echoes the poetic elements of St. Francis of Assisi. “East of the moon, west of the Sun,” the poem begins, taking us beyond the mountain of the gods, Taniquetil, and across the Blessed Realm, Valinor.[12]

How long Tolkien had worked on this part of the poem is unclear, but he completed a gorgeous watercolor with the same title on May 10, 1915.[13] In July, he also wrote the final poem of the Eärendil story, “The Happy Mariners,” a call for the mind to wander and the soul to seek beyond the senses and logic of the world, “chanting snatches of a mystic tune” and catching a fateful glimpse of Eärendil as he flies into the West and even beyond.[14] Whether this is Eärendil resurrected or simply the poet of imagination seeing Eärendil before he burnt out remains unclear in the poetry. Clearly, though, the poet of imagination exists in time and on earth as he witnesses the otherworldly.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course, this leads one back to the vital question: is this the beginning of the larger mythology, out of which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sprang?

Tolkien never wrote the full tale as a prose account in the earliest years of his mythology. Instead, his four poems served as the strong guide to and telling of the Eärendil story. His notes from the oldest manuscripts, as Christopher has so effectively explained, revealed some strange elements in the Eärendil mythology. For example, Eärendil traveled to Iceland and Greenland and he encountered the “Wall of Things in the West.”[15] Despite the chaotic state of the ideas in 1914 and 1915, Christopher reminds us, “the myth was present in certain images that were to endure, but these things had not been articulated.”[16]

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


*A light shall shine upon us this day.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien Letters, 385, 434; HOME2: 267—with the reprint of the poem and CJT’s commentary).  Kilby talks about the importance of this in his memoir, pg. 57 forward.  Carpenter (p. 71) also calls it the beginning of the mythology.  Scull and Hammond less convinced.  See JRRT Guide: RG, 234)  See also Hostetter, “Over Middle-earth,” Mythlore)

[2] JRRT, Oxford, to Clyde Kilby, Wheaton Ill, December 18, 1965, in WCWC. Kilby provided a slightly edited version of the letter on page 57 of his own memoir about Tolkien, Tolkien and the Silmarillion (1976).

[3] JRRT Letters, 385.

[4] Carl F. Hostetter, “Over Middle-earth Sent Unto Men: On the Philological Origins of Tolkien’s Earendel Myth,” Mythlore (Spring 1991): 5-10. See also, Carl F. Hostetter and Arden R. Smith, “A Mythology for England,” in Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, ed. by Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight (Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 1995), 281-290; and Christopher Gilson, letter to the editor, Vinyar Tengwar 4 (November 1993): 18-24. Gilson suggests that Eärendil has more linguistic associations than Old English and Crist. In particular, he notes the similarities to Aurvandill, a giant in Old Norse, one of several connections to Germanic languages and myths as mentioned in Tolkien’s “The Notion Club.”

[5] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 248-249.

[6] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 249.

[7] In his notes to the Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, Christopher notes that the very name Eärendil was related—in Elvish—to eagle.

[8] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 267.

[9] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 260.

[10] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 270.

[11] Letters of JRRT, 7-8.

[12] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 271-272.

[13] Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, 47-48.

[14] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 274-276.

[15] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, pp. 259-261. On “The Wall of Things in the West,” see also Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part I, pp. 215-216.

[16] Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, Part II, 265.

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