October already, and some members of the group are once again following the footsteps of Sam and Frodo and Pippin and Merry day by day and mile by mile. The rest of us are avoiding the Black Riders by still treading the legendary and mythic paths of Middle-earth before the seas were bent.
Seven of us met on an unusually warm day and our first consideration, after a general catch-up on Oxonmoot and its delights, was to address Laura’s concern that we had so far made no provision for Wessexmoot this autumn. With Yule approaching fast, it was decided that our best plan would be to aim for the New Year.
With that out of the way we settled down to our discussion of Chapter 24 ‘of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath.’ Carol’s comments are included.
Tim immediately reminded us that the story of Eärendil was the first thing Tolkien wrote so it was the beginning of Middle-earth.
Laura remarked that this creative engagement with the ‘brightest angel’ reflected and combined Tolkien’s love of Anglo-Saxon with his innate spirituality. It also speaks to our need for hope in darkness as Eärendil is both the morning and the evening star.
Eileen was somewhat disturbed that Elwing was left behind in sorrow when Eärendil sailed the seas, but I proposed that Tolkien actually subverts the stereotypical concept of the passive female because without Elwing the silmaril would never reach Earendil and he would not carry it as a ‘passport’ to the Valar. Thus Elwing, like other apparently passive or constrained female characters is essential to the story in an unexpectedly active role.
Laura remarked on the importance of Círdan in making Eärendil’s ship, and Chris commented on the number of trees that would have had to be felled.
Laura noted that although Elwing sits in sorrow she is not depicted in any necessarily domestic situation. Laura went on to compare her to Penelope who sits weaving while Ulysses is away. To this image Eileen added the example of The Lady of Shallott, and Laura noted that it takes weeks to set up a loom for weaving, but that the image of weaving is constantly associated with high-status women, such as the ‘peace-weavers’ in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and of course with Arwen.
At this point we got deeply involved in a discussion on the nature of the black standard Arwen weaves for Aragorn. Although it seems simple enough, Ian questioned many aspects of this important artifact. How, he asked, did other allies recognize its significance when it broke unexpectedly on the masthead of Aragorn’s galley? How did Arwen know what symbols to weave? After so long working in secret how was the symbolism known to other races? We attempted some answers.
Laura remarked on the importance of battle standards, citing the demoralizing consequences to the enemy after the Anglo-Saxons captured the black raven standard of a Viking army.
Angela observed that when Aragorn’s standard is unfurled at the Stone of Erech is appears entirely black, yet the Dead rally to it.
Ian then objected that if it can’t be seen [except by the Dead?] who else rallies?
Angela, Laura and Tim all commented that it has mithril symbols on it and they shine in the sun as the ships arrive. Angela at this point found the exact description of the standard.
Ian proposed that the power of the signs would be different for different people, but they are not known to everyone.
I suggested that recognition turns on the fact that, even if someone doesn’t recognize the significance of the 7 stars, or the white tree, anyone would recognize that it doesn’t carry a red eye, a white hand, or any of the heraldry of Harad and the easterlings.
Tim identified it as the royal standard of the kings of Gondor.
Laura remarked that as it was Arwen’s work it provided a boost to Aragorn’s morale. Angela added that Arwen is ‘with’ Aragorn, and not just thinking about him.
At this point I felt we should return to our appointed chapter and both Angela and I noted the fact that it is Elwing and the people with her who defend the silmaril from the sons of Fëanor.
Laura remarked on the motifs of refusal to fight and rebellion in this battle.
Angela noted that Elrond and Elros are taken captive at this time, and I commented on the narrative structuring that leaves the reader in doubt as to their fate at this time.
Angela observed that the Tolkien scholar and astronomer Kristine Larson had identified Elwing as the planet Mercury while Eärendil is Venus.
Eileen observed that Elwing and Niennor both choose watery deaths in desperation, although Elwing undergoes an apotheosis as Ulmo transforms her.
Angela noted that in fact Elrond and Elros have been fostered by Maglor, but that Maglor eventually throws a silmaril into the sea, and then throws himself into a fiery chasm.
Eileen then questioned why the chapter is called the War of Wrath? Tim explained that it is because the Valar finally confront Morgoth.
Carol commented that ‘right up to the last it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the hosts of the West will win.
I observed that Tolkien constantly appears to give the final word on everything only to qualify it immediately. He does this with the destruction of Balrogs, orcs and dragons in this battle.
Laura noted that ominously many Men from the east march with Morgoths forces.
Eileen remarked that the sons of Fëanor are finally released from their Oath.
Chris compared the fate of Morgoth – thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void, with the unknown fate of Men who are said only to leave the confines of the World. Chris interpreted this to mean that there were indeed walls around the world, but this leaves the fate of Men unresolved.
Ian proposed that Men in death are no longer held by the story of that particular world, and that it would be a powerful concept for a storytelling folk.
Angela picked up Aragorn’s last words to Arwen in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings: ‘Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.’ Angela saw this as implying an afterlife.
Tim picked up the last words of The Silmarillion, which refers to the ‘dark fruit of evil which will be perpetuated, so that evil is not just one individual/entity but in the hearts of people.
Chris reminded us that at the creation Eru knew all the time that corruption would happen.
Carol commented: I don’t seem to have much to say about this chapter. As Tolkien writes, life has “passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin”. Living with power among the ‘high and the beautiful’ seems to ruin both Elves and Men who seem to be born with stubbornness and pride that tends to darkness and ruin, both individually and generally. Dissatisfied with the blessings they have and wanting to possess more and more, this brings about ruin. As we shall see, no lessons learned.
With discussions raging in all directions around the table we nevertheless agreed that our reading for next time would be ‘The Akallabeth’ and ‘The Third Age’. This will finish the book.
Therefore we also took thought for our next reading and it will be an across-the-board study of The Fall of Gondolin, comparing its treatment in The Silmarillion, the History of Middle-earth and the recently published book focusing on this episode. This means that we can accommodate everyone without the cost of additional books just before Christmas (!) it also makes appropriate use of the books we already have.