Thursday, October 22, 2009

DBTL 43: Book Review - The Voyage of Eärendil

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

From Time Magazine
2 June 1947

Ten years ago, the literary world was shaken awake by the publication of JRR Tolkien's Tinúviel. With that (literally) epic work, a world that had all but forgotten the virtues of heroic romance was suddenly reminded of its existence, in a manner that ensured that it would be long before that particular literary genre would again be allowed to pass out of thought. Professor Tolkien laid out before an astonished public an ageless love story between an ordinary mortal man and an immortal fairy woman, set against the backdrop of a vast war between the forces of good and evil.

The story of that war, the War of the Silmarils, continued in Professor Tolkien's next two works, The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin. By the end of the latter volume, the last bastion of the Elves had been overwhelmed, and the Dark Lord Morgoth had established his dominion over all the lands of Middle-earth. In The Voyage of Eärendil, Professor Tolkien brings the War of the Silmarils to its final triumphant conclusion.

Eärendil, whose birth we saw in The Fall of Gondolin, has grown to manhood among the exiled Gondolindrim who have taken refuge at the mouth of the River Sirion. There he meets Elwing, herself an exile from the ruin of Doriath, and the two marry. Eärendil sets out to sea in search of the Lost Road to the Undying Land of Valinor in hopes of persuading the semi-divine Valar to come to Middle-earth to rescue the Elves from Morgoth's rule. Elwing remains behind with their sons Elrond and Elros. However, Elwing has inherited one of the Silmarils from her grandparents Beren and Lúthien, and this brings the remaining sons of Fëanor, who have sworn an oath to recover their father's stolen masterworks. Attacking the Elves of Sirion, the sons of Fëanor capture Elwing's children, but Elwing takes the Silmaril and throws herself into the sea. She is rescued from drowning by Ulmo the Sea Lord, who changes her into a bird and sends her aloft. Elwing reaches Eärendil's ship, where she resumes her human shape, and the two set off together to find the Undying Lands. The results of their search provide the book's climax, and a fitting conclusion to Professor Tolkien's Silmaril tetrology.

Professor Tolkien has acknowledged his debt to Elias Lönnrot, the Finnish country doctor who crafted the Kalevala out of various Finnish folk tales over a century ago. Not only did the Finnish language provide the model for Quenya, the High Elven tongue of the tetrology, but the whole work is meant to provide England with a counterpart to the Kalevala. Professor Tolkien first began work on an early version of The Fall of Gondolin in 1917, and over the next twenty years he drew upon sources many and varied in compiling the vast epic that has resulted.

When it was first published in 1937, Tinúviel struck a chord within a nation that had seen disillusionment and discord end with victory over the brutal regime of Ernst Röhm. Professor Tolkien in his Forward to The Voyage of Eärendil denies creating an allegory of the Danzig War, and given that the basic story of the War of the Silmarils had been finalized by him as early as 1930, there is no denying the truth of his assertion. And yet, there are undeniable parallels between the war against Morgoth and the war against Röhm. Morgoth's theft of the Silmarils can be seen as an echo of Röhm's seizure of Danzig. And there is no denying the similarities between the Breaking of Angband and the fall of Berlin and the subsequent partition of Germany. If there are parallels between Middle-earth and modern history, though, it can be seen as a testament to the universality of Professor Tolkien's themes, that have caused life to imitate his art.

JRR Tolkien was recently appointed Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. He is currently at work on a modern translation of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a precursor to the Silmaril tetrology called The Flight of the Noldor.

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