Aman, Beliefs, Bran, cult statues, heroa, immrama, Istari, Ithaka, Mael Duin, Middle-earth, monotheistic, N.C. Wyeth, Odysseus, religion, Rip Van Winkle, Saint Brendan, Saruman, shrines, Stone Table, temples, The Grey Havens, The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, Tireisias, Tolkien, Valar, Valinor, ziggurats
Dear readers, welcome as always.
Although there are no temples or shrines to him (the closest thing is perhaps the Stone Table),
is clearly someone with divine powers and his influence is felt directly and indirectly throughout all of the Narnia books.
JRRT once said that Middle-earth had a monotheistic religion, but the traces, as has been written about more than once, are almost invisible.
There are no ziggurats,
no cult statues
no heroa (shrines for demi-gods or heroes).
The Valar are mentioned once (some of Faramir’s men call on them to protect them from a mumak), of course, and there is that ceremony of standing and looking west before a meal.
That idea of looking west has long interested us, mainly because, in much of western tradition before the Age of Exploration, the west was looked upon as a place of uncertainty, if not outright fear.
Although Odysseus, in Odyssey 9, is careful to point out that his home island, Ithaka, lies farthest towards dusk in its island group, in Odyssey 11, in the far west lies the Land of the Dead,
to which Odysseus sails
to consult the seer, Tireisias,
on the way to get home. This is, then, hardly a choice direction in which to sail, for all that Tireisias does provide some guidance.
The same is true for a series of stories about immrama, “voyages” (literally “rowings around”) in Old Irish, not only secular stories, like those of Mael Duin
but a famous religious one about Saint Brendan.
In each of these stories, sailing westward commonly means sailing rather haphazardly among sea monsters and islands with strange people or creatures. There is also the possibility of time distortion: the voyager believes himself gone in terms of a few years, at most, when, instead, he may have been gone for much longer (as in Washington Irving’s short story, “Rip Van Winkle”, in which Rip, falling asleep in the Catskill Mountains after drinking with the ghosts of the crew of the explorer Henrik Hudson’s ship The Half Moon, thinks that he has been gone only overnight when, instead, he’s been gone for twenty years.)
(by one of our all-time favorite illustrators, N.C. Wyeth, from his Rip Van Winkle, 1921—the whole work is available, with all of its wonderful illustrations, to download for free at the Internet Archive, may their beards grow long!)
“To go west”, probably based upon the idea of the sinking sun, as an older English expression has the meaning of “to die/to fail catastrophically” (now people in the US seem to be replacing it with “to go south”, which has none of the older resonance, unfortunately), but it ties in very nicely with these older beliefs about what lies west of Europe, so full of danger and mystery.
But then we come back to that looking west.
In the belief system of Middle-earth, westward across the sea lies the continent of Aman, and on that continent is Valinor, home of the Valar, those powerful and immortal beings who are perhaps to be likened to the archangels of Christian belief—with a bit of patron saint and even Norse and Greco-Roman pantheons thrown in. (We admit to having a very shallow knowledge of Arda theology, being less interested in the finer points of belief than in the adventures and the cultures and the languages of Middle-earth.)
The Istari, the five wizards are from there and it’s for us one of the most melancholy moments when, after his murder by Grima, it is clear that Saruman is denied a return.
Gandalf, however, is permitted to return, as are Bilbo and Frodo (and, in time, Sam, apparently), all part of the defeat and disembodiment of Sauron.
The elves are also allowed to make the voyage to Aman, although they have their own separate place there, and, when Gandalf leaves, so do Galadriel, Celeborn, and Elrond, part of a slow general leave-taking of the Elves.
No human is admitted however, to the Undying Lands, as they are called, and it occurred to us that perhaps, in that fact, the mortals of Middle-earth are closer to Saruman than to Gandalf or the Elves:
“To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale, shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.” (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
Could that ceremony of looking westward also be done with a sigh, an acknowledgement that there are no undying lands for them?
What do you think, dear readers?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
This, for us, is a rather historical posting, being our Number 100. By earlier September, we will have reached 104, making exactly two years since we began our blog. We thank you for reading, hope that you will continue to do so, that you will share our work among your friends and that, in the future, you will be willing to share your thoughts with us, as we always encourage you to do.