The Wordstapas are currently reading The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the latest meeting we spoke briefly of Eärendil the Mariner, and his origin in the Old English poem Christ. As we had little time left in the meeting to discuss this at length, and lack of resources at hand, I have taken the opportunity of doing so here.
J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired to create the character of Eärendil after reading lines from the Old English poem Christ I.1 Christ I (or Christ A) is one of three poems containing Old English versions of the Advent O Antiphons. The first line of the Old English version of the O Oriens “O Dayspring” antiphon reads,
Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended
“O Earendel, brightest of angels,
sent to mankind over middle-earth.”2
Earendel “brightest of angels” is generally believed to refer to Christ, though some think it refers to John the Baptist because engla signifies a divine herald or messenger. Tolkien read these lines during his undergraduate year at Oxford. Later, in a draft letter to a certain “Mr. Rang,” he wrote that he was “struck by the great beauty of this word (or name).”3 He continues to explain his belief of its origin,
…[I]ts form strongly suggests that it is in origin a proper name and not a common noun. This is borne out by the obviously related forms in the Germanic languages; from which amid the confusions and debasements of late traditions it at least seems certain that it belonged to astronomical-myth, and was the name of a star or star-group.4
Tolkien maintained that earendel was the name of a person who eventually became a star or constellation, just as Orion did in Greek mythology. As usual, Tolkien was intrigued by this half-whispered myth and adopted earendel into his own mythology, respelling the name Eärendil and giving it a new meaning in Elvish: “sea-lover.” In Middle-earth, Eärendil is a mortal descendent of Beren and Lúthien. He sails into the West on behalf of Elves and Men to beg for the Valars’ help against Morgoth, the Dark Lord. The Valar agree, and Eärendil is allowed to leave Valinor, however, being mortal, he is not permitted to return to Middle-earth. Instead, he sets his course for the heavens, and the Silmaril jewel which he wears on his brow becomes a star of hope for Men.
And so, whether intentionally or not, the myth returns to its origin: Earendel “shining light” of the Old English antiphon, “sent to mankind over middle-earth,” slips into Tolkien’s hands and emerges as Eärendil “sea-lover,” “a herald star, and a sign of hope to men.”5
1The use of the Roman numeral here means “Christ 1” (there are three Christ poems) not “Christ the First” as it does in the cataloguing of kings, e.g. Richard III.
3The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 297, edited by Humphrey Carpenter
Other Eärendil-related delicacies:
- The poems Christ I, II, and III in Old English…
- …And the translation of Christ I by Dr. Aaron Hostetter (the translations for Christ II and III are also available on his website)
- Eala Earendel read in Old English (Christ I, ll. 104-129, if you wish to follow along with the OE text)
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem “Éala Éarendel Engla Beorhtast,” originally “The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star”