Monday 3 January 2011

Tolkien and the sea-yearning - the meaning of Earendil


I was always puzzled by Tolkien's emphasis on the sea as an ultimate yearning.

In the Notion Club Papers there are the examples of Lowtham (and, especially, his father), and of the Numenoreans (the greatest mariners among all Men, perhaps even greater than the greatest elves), and of the Imram poem.

In Lord of the Rings all elves (even those whose ancestors have always dwelt inland, among the woods) are said to harbour a sea-yearning; indeed most of the most admirable and heroic characters (Aragorn being an exception) have this longing.

And Tolkien's original legendarium hero- Earendil - was of course a mariner. Also the very early Aelfwine character, who visited fairyland and linked it to England.


This has always struck me as strange - since Tolkien did not write very much detail about the sea in the way that he wrote about trees and mountains.

It seems to me that Tolkien's own sea longing was deeply buried, and that - unlike his heroes - in his actual behaviour Tolkien seems not to have had a need to get into boats and launch out onto the waves.


But Earendil may be the clue.

In essence, this complex and changing character was an 'angel'; a messenger, and specifically a messenger from earth to heaven.

Earendil also became an actual angel, apparently; being transformed from a human (elf or man) to a spiritual and semi-divine form. 

And (perhaps) Aelfwine was 'merely' a diluted and more materialistically-plausible version of Earendil the messenger; bringing back knowledge of the elves to Middle earth.


I think Tolkien regarded the sea longing as an aspect or representation of saintliness, where sainthood is conceptualized as being a link between the earthly and heavenly realms, the saint as intercessor for humankind with God.

And that Tolkien saw this - on the one had - as the highest conceivable human calling; yet on the other hand - not his personal calling.

So Tolkien wrote-about the sea-longing as representing sainthood - the highest aspiration; but did not himself share this longing to a significant extent, and did not regard himself as a saint nor called to strive for sainthood.

He was, pretty much, happy enough with trees. 


More specifically still, I would say that the sea-longing stands for ascetic sainthood - the launch into the unknown and placing oneself (ultimately, whatever strivings are needed for navigation) at God's mercy.

The single-minded pursuit of holiness.

The obvious link here is Tolkien's Imram versions of the St Brendan legend, which appears in the NCPs.


Spiritual striving towards sanctity is, at some level, what Tolkien's mariner heroes are doing - when their sea-desire is not corrupted into power-seeking and conquest (as happened to the Numenoreans).


In real life, Tolkien achieved the lower (although still highly admirable) aim of communion with nature in the forms of a well-tilled landscape, of woodland and forest especially, and with yearning glances in the direction of distant mountain peaks.

But although the even-higher yearning towards the sea fascinated Tolkien, it was probably somewhat alien to his nature.

He repeatedly, compulsively, with fascination and admiration, wrote about those individuals (and races) who were subject to this sea-yearning, and seemed to accord them the highest esteem - yet I would guess Tolkien himself did not directly share this yearning, which is why he wrote comparatively little about the sea itself, and even less about the experience of sea-going.



Anonymous said...

Dear sir, I am a great fan of Tolkien and especially of the NCP. I discovered them some six years ago in the book "Sauron Defeated," a compilation of LotR notes by Christopher Tolkien. The sheer thought and history behind the work fascinates me, and I have searched in vain for much work done on or for it.

It is a great encouragement, then, to find a site like this. I applaud your devotion, and will comment and watch as I am able.

Bruce Charlton said...

Afalstein - Your name is known to me!

- you will probably be pleased to know I have at times used a couple of your Notion Club pictures as wallpaper on my PC!

Anyway, I'm pleased to know that you like this intermittent blog. We NCP fans need to stick together!

Anonymous said...

I am pleased indeed! It's not often I meet up with people familiar with my work, though I suppose the small amount of NCP fanwork in the world makes it more likely.

I'm sorry for my brief absence. My computer has been acting up lately.

Unknown said...

I was very happy to find some thoughts here on the motif of sea-yearning in Tolkien's work.

When I looked at different books or texts of Tolkien searching for traces of characters that get drawn to the sea, I had the feeling, this sea-yearning often stands for a desire to switch to some kind of other-world. It's clear with the Elves in Middle-Earth that want to go into the West to be reunited with their people. But it's not only Elves (or NĂºmenoreans) that feel this urge. It may also hit humans like Tuor when he first beholds the sea or Eriol in the Lost Tales when he is warned in Tol Eressea that one day he will feel the desire to go back where he came from. In these contexts, the sea-yearning is connected with the danger of estrangement and alienation. Once you feel it, your home ceases to be your home and you have to depart whether you want it or not (like Legolas is warned of the gulls that will awake his yearning for the sea).
A very impressive account of sea-yearning and its dangerous outcome is desribed in the poem Sea-bell (which is not really part of the mythology but I think closely linked to what Tolkien described as Fearie), where the narrator follows a sea-bell's call, is brought by a boat to an other-world but finds himself as an alien there and is still an alien in his own land when he returns.

So I think, the sea-yearning may have different meanings in Tolkien's works. There is this sense of possession and conquering as you described it with the NĂºmenoreans, there is a pursuit of holiness as you showed above and there may also be a dangerous urge to travel to an other-world going hand in hand with an alienation from your home.

Unfortunately I am not very familiar with the NCP but I'm glad that you regularly post your thoughts about them.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks Martin - enlightening stuff.

One thing about the elves - I was surprised that Legolas had teh sea yearning since he was, pretty much, a wood elf by culture having no experience: or rather a Sindar/ Grey Elf - who I might have expected to be fixed in Middle Earth.

Also, I gather that the Valar made a mistake in inviting the elves to dwell with them in Valinor - that this was not part of the original plan. And therefore that the Silvan elves were more as the elves were intended to be, more truly elvish than the 'angelic' High Elves (or the in-between Grey Elves).

At any rate, I cannot remember where it says that all and any elves (including the Silvan elves) are allowed/ invited to go across the sea to the West; presumably this is somewhere in the Legendarium that I cannot recall. But it looks as if this is probably the case: the choice is to go West or dwindle...