A feature of Tolkien’s writing is how often he expresses the idea of the “sea-longing” – Elves, Men, even Hobbits, all exhibit symptoms of this. Early characters who exhibit this – Aelfwine (Eriol), Tuor, Voronwë, Earendil.
Other races seem more ambivalent. In Treebeard’s song of the Ent and Entwife the two protagonists sing about going into the West together, but would this involve the sea for them? “Together [they] will take the road that leads into the West”, but would this involve the sea? Only one Dwarf as far as we know (Gimli) ever sails West, and that is out of loyalty to his friend Legolas. The Orcs do not look to the West for obvious reasons.
Two famous examples of OE verse from the Exeter Book, i.e. “The Wanderer” and “The Sea-Farer” express the hardship and loneliness of characters who feel this sea-compulsion – whether they are about actual voyages or whether their main purpose is to function as allegories of Christian struggle. “He always has a longing who sets out on the sea” (“The Sea-farer”, line 47). Not a longing for the sea in itself as such but for what one will come to on the other side of it – haven or Heaven or both. The narrator of both poems seems to be wandering in search of lost time – friends, light, warmth, joy, the fellowship of the mead-hall, the generous reward-giving lord – these images could represent real loss, as well as serving as picture-language for what he hopes to gain in the future, after death.
In “The Lord of the Rings” two characters clearly express a desire to return westward across the sea to the undying lands of the Elves, but the language they use expresses ambivalent feelings. Galadriel sings wistfully:
O Lórien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore
And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.
But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?
(“Farewell to Lórien”)
Later Saruman bitterly answers her question with a quotation from her own song:
‘You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’
The last the reader sees of Legolas, he is walking away singing longingly about the Sea, as Galadriel foretold (“The White Rider”) – after he has delivered this message, ‘Gandalf fell silent and shut his eyes.’ Why would he do that? Misgivings?
‘To the sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore mel
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing;
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëa, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not; land of my people for ever!’
(“The Field of Cormallen”)
Legolas sounds enthusiastic at first, but then he talks about the “grey ship” and a “lonely sailing” to the Lost Isle.
Frodo has a dream in the house of Tom Bombadil:
‘That night they heard no noises. But either in his dreams of out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.’ (“Fog on the Barrow-Downs”)
It is a sweet vision, and pre-echoes the description in the antepenultimate paragraph of “The Lord of the Rings”, in which someone (we assume Sam) describes what Frodo smells, hears and sees as he comes to the end of his voyage into the West. Presumably at some point Frodo described his hopeful dream-vision to Sam.
But… not all is sweetness and light
“It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty,” says Frodo on 13 March 1420. Presumably he means the Ring, but what else? Why should everything be dark and empty? The world of the Ring was itself dark and empty:
“Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr Frodo?” [Sam] said. “And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?”
“No, I am afraid not, Sam,” said Frodo. “At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me.” (“Mount Doom”.)
But seven years later (traditionally a significant period of time when mortals have dealings with Elves) and Tolkien published a collection of verse under the title “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. These poems were originally published in various organs in the 1930s, and then refurbished and published with illustrations by Pauline Baynes in 1962. The conceit again is that they are from the Red Book of Westmarch, just as is the story of the “Downfall of the Lord of the Rings” (as Tolkien calls it here).
The poem “The Sea-Bell” is a longer and transformed version of the old poem previously called “Looney”. Verlyn Flieger points out that “Looney” is reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” in that it begins with a dialogue between the narrator and a bystander. In “The Sea-Bell” the bystander has disappeared and it is just a monologue by the narrator. Tolkien seemed concerned that this poem does not fit with the rest of the material in the book. He carefully apologises for it in the mock-scholarly introduction:
“…No. 15 [“The Sea-Bell”], certainly of hobbit origin, is an exception [i.e. not light-hearted or frivolous, like most of the rest of the collection]. It is the latest piece and belongs to the Fourth Age; but it is included here because a hand has scrawled at its head Frodos Dreme. That is remarkable, and though the piece is most unlikely to have been written by Frodo himself, the title shows that it was associated with the dark and despairing dreams which visited him in March and October during is last three years. But there were certainly other traditions concerning Hobbits that were taken by the ‘wandering-madness’, and if they ever returned, were afterwards queer and uncommunicable. The thought of the Sea was ever-present in the background of hobbit imagination; but fear of it and distrust of all Elvish lore, was the prevailing mood I the Shire at the end of the Third Age, and that mood was certainly not entirely dispelled by the events and changes with which that Age ended.”
Tolkien certainly seems to have experienced a lot of anxiety about “The Sea-Bell”. He expressed qualms to Pauline Baynes (Letter 6 December 1961 (p. 312), calling it “the poorest” in the collection. Yet he did not pull it and in the end the illustration on the dust jacket features it (the character holds a sea-shell and there is a sea-bell clearly visible (Scull & Hammond say it depicts the mariner in “Errantry” but it seems more probable to me that it is the narrator of “The Sea-Bell”) – why would Tolkien allow the figure in “The Sea-Bell” to feature on the cover if he really thought it was a poor poem?)
Why did Tolkien at this point (1962) make the poem explicitly about Frodo when it was not before. He recognises that it fits very well with Frodo’s tendency to dream about the sea and in particular the disturbing dreams he was experiencing during his last few sad years in the Shire. What implication does this have for Frodo’s vision in the house of Tom Bombadil and Sam’s assumptions about his eventual destiny?
It has features in common with the two OE poems mentioned above. Exile, loneliness, alienation, cold, winter, emblematic of Frodo’s trials and struggles – but when the narrator arrives at his destination he does not find what the vision in Tom Bombadil’s house suggested that he would
At the beginning, the narrator sees a boat, “empty and grey” suggestive of Saruman’s mocking of Galadriel, but he gets into it anyway. He arrives in the West but the fairi s hide from him wherever he goes and respond to his challenge ‘Speak to me words! Show me a face!’ with silence and absence, and then suddenly the imagery changes. We go from starlight, jewel dust etc, to negative words with dark connotations – “Black came a cloud as a night-shroud…” and it turns out that fairy time has kicked in and the protagonist is suddenly old. His voyage back to the mortal world is described in bleak and depressing language – “sea-wrack”, “cold caves”, “seals barking, and rocks snarling”, “the gulping of waves”, winter, snow, ice darkess, rain, the sea shell silent and dead. He discovers on his return that he is now shunned by his fellow mortals as he was by the longed-for fairies.
As Verlyn Flieger points out, “The Sea-Bell” turns the promise of the vision in the house of TB to “fairy gold” (p.213). Is this really going to be Frodo’s fate once the ship arrives at Tol Eressëa or is it just a deception, a despair-inducing result of Saruman’s parting remarks to him? ’Do not expect me to wish you health and long life,’ he says. ‘You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell.’ (“The Scouring of the Shire”). That Tolkien could even imagine Frodo finding such a non-welcome in the West is deeply depressing. He did suffer from periods of severe doubt regarding his own belief in God and the afterlife but it seems a shame he extended this to his fictional creation. Frodo deserved a break!
Books I looked at
“The Letters of J R R Tolkien.” Ed. H Carpenter. (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1991)
“A Question of Time.” Verlyn Flieger. (Kent State University Press, 1997)
“The J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide”. Christina Scull & Wayne Hammond. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006)
“The Lord of the Rings.” J R R Tolkien. (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1968 – 11th impression 1972)
“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” J R R Tolkien. (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1962 – 3rd impression 1968)
“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” J R R Tolkien, ed. Christina Scull & Wayne Hammnd. (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014)
“Old and Middle English: an anthology”. Ed. E. Traherne. (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000)