15 July 2015

Is That An Allusion To Ulmo and Tuor in "The Great River" (FR 2.ix.380-81)?

... they let the River bear them on at its own pace, having no desire to hasten towards the perils that lay beyond, whichever course they took in the end. Aragorn let them drift with the stream as they wished, husbanding their strength against weariness to come. But he insisted that at least they should start early each day and journey on far into the evening; for he felt in his heart that time was pressing, and he feared that the Dark Lord had not been idle while they lingered in Lorien. 
Nonetheless they saw no sign of an enemy that day, nor the next. The dull grey hours passed without event. As the third day of their voyage wore on the lands changed slowly: the trees thinned and then failed altogether. On the eastern bank to their left they saw long formless slopes stretching up and away toward the sky; brown and withered they looked, as if fire had passed over them, leaving no living blade of green: an unfriendly waste without even a broken tree or a bold stone to relieve the emptiness. They had come to the Brown Lands that lay, vast and desolate, between Southern Mirkwood and the hills of the Emyn Muil. What pestilence or war or evil deed of the Enemy had so blasted all that region even Aragorn could not tell.
Upon the west to their right the land was treeless also, but it was flat, and in many places green with wide plains of grass. On this side of the River they passed forests of great reeds, so tall that they shut out all view to the west, as the little boats went rustling by along their fluttering borders. Their dark withered plumes bent and tossed in the light cold airs, hissing softly and sadly. Here and there through openings Frodo could catch sudden glimpses of rolling meads, and far beyond them hills in the sunset, and away on the edge of sight a dark line, where marched the southernmost ranks of the Misty Mountains. 
There was no sign of living moving things, save birds. Of these there were many: small fowl whistling and piping in the reeds, but they were seldom seen. Once or twice the travellers heard the rush and whine of swan-wings, and looking up they saw a great phalanx streaming along the sky.
'Swans!' said Sam. 'And mighty big ones too!' 
'Yes,' said Aragorn, 'and they are black swans.'
(FR 2.ix.380-81)

The Valar and Ilúvatar are famously obscure in The Lord of the Rings.  While the Dark Power, Sauron, is named and identified as a present actor in the affairs of this world from near the very beginning (FR 1.ii.47, 51), the other Powers are much harder to descry. The best example is of course Elbereth.  She is mentioned by Frodo as early as Three's Company (FR 1.iii.79) as someone whom the High Elves greatly revere. Clearly she is a godlike figure of great power -- she made the stars themselves -- but neither here nor later is she identified as one of the Valar, and it is not suggested that she is anything more than a source of inspiration or illumination to the Elves of Middle-Earth. She is sung of, sung to, invoked (with varying effect), and her name is even used as a password, but, within The Lord of the Rings itself, she is never explained.Manwë, her spouse and ruler of the Valar, receives notice only from Bilbo in a single mention of the 'Elder King' in the poem Eärendil (FR 2.i.235);

Moreover, Frodo's ability in Three's Company to recognize the Elves he meets as High Elves because they call Elbereth's name reveals almost nothing.  Even an atheist, for example, could recognize as Roman Catholic someone heard reciting the Hail Mary, and could know that devout Catholics honor the Virgin Mary with a special reverence, but that does not imply any greater knowledge of the Virgin Mary or Roman Catholicism on the part of the atheist.2

It is likely, moreover, that Frodo knows little or nothing about the Valar in general or Elbereth in particular at this point -- not to mention Eru Ilúvatar -- since he is rather mystified when Gandalf hints at the intervention of Providence within time:
‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable:  Bilbo from the Shire! 
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.' 
‘It is not,’ said Frodo.  'Though I am not sure that I understand you.' 
(FR 1.ii.56, emphasis original)
One could well regard Frodo's lack of knowledge and clarity here as typical, at least for the hobbits, by whom and from whose viewpoint the Tale is told.  When, for example, Gildor invokes Elbereth's protection for Frodo, his instant response is hardly one of faith and understanding, and not at all unlike his reply to Gandalf: 'But where shall I find courage?... That is what I chiefly need' (FR 1.iii.84).

Another example of this comes in Henneth Annûn.  Faramir and the other Dunedain of Gondor turn to the West for a moment of silence before they eat, as they 'look towards Númenor that was, and beyond that to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be' (TT 4.v.676), but this custom is unknown to the hobbits, who are left 'feeling strangely rustic and untutored' (TT 4.v.676).  Here again the Valar are alluded to quite vaguely, not even named, not even in a periphrasis of the kind Elrond had used when he said that 'they who dwell beyond the Sea would not take' the Ring (FR 2.ii.266).  Here reference is buried in an allusion to a nameless land, remote and eternal.

Indeed the word Valar appears only three times in The Lord of the Rings. In Ithilien a soldier of Gondor calls upon them for protection from the Mûmak (TT 4.iv.661). At Aragorn's coronation Gandalf wishes that the days of the King may 'be blessed for as long as the thrones of the Valar endure' (RK 6.v.968).3 And finally in a moment that is as shining and evocative as it is mysterious, the narrator likens Théoden to 'Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young' (RK 5.v.838).

Yet the Valar and Ilúvatar are involved, exerting a subtle but important influence on events from afar that may be detected through seeming coincidence.  Gandalf suggests (but cannot openly say) as much in his remarks to an uncomprehending Frodo in The Shadow of the Past. In the same conversation the wizard also points out that Frodo was 'chosen,' but without saying by whom (FR 1.ii.61), and that '[i]t was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo's arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark' (FR 1.ii.55-56).4 Gildor says of his meeting the hobbits that '[i]n this meeting there may be more than chance' (FR 1.iii.84). Bombadil remarks: 'Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine....' (FR 1.vii.126). And finally Elrond states at the beginning of the Council:
'...The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies? That is the doom that we must deem. 
'That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say. though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.' 
(FR 2.ii.242)
 'Tuor is Led by the Swans to Vinyamar'© Ted Nasmith
'Tuor is Led by the Swans to Vinyamar'© Ted Nasmith
We needn't labor this point. It is long established and well understood, and obvious to every attentive reader. What is not so obvious is what looks like an allusion to the Vala Ulmo, the Lord of Waters -- of lakes, streams, and rivers as well as seas -- and to Tuor, an important forefather of Aragorn, an allusion so subtly made and so quickly passed by that I've only just caught it after over four decades of reading The Lord of the Rings. Though I had at times wondered about Aragorn's comment about the swans when I encountered it, I had never given it any further thought in all the years I had known it.

Elsewhere in Tolkien, in works ranging across his entire career of work on the legendarium -- in The Book of Lost Tales, in Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin, and in The Silmarillion -- Ulmo is the Vala who most openly involves himself in the affairs of Elves and Men in their war against Morgoth.5 And not just then, it would appear: '[n]or has he ever forsaken Middle-earth, and whatsoever may have since befallen of ruin or of change has not ceased to take thought for it, and will not until the end of days' (Silmarillion, 40). So not only did Tolkien continue to cherish the links between Ulmo and Tuor and the swans as important elements in his tales, but he asserts that Ulmo's concern for Middle-earth never ended; and the intertextuality between The Lord of the Rings and the versions of Tuor's tale quoted below harmonizes nicely with Ulmo's ongoing devotion to the affairs of Middle-earth.  Let's turn to those other works for a moment.

One morning while casting his eye along the shore -- and it was then the latest days of summer -- Tuor saw three swans flying high and strong from the northward.  Now these birds he had not before seen in these regions, and he took them for a sign, and said: "Long has my heart been set on a journey far from here; lo! now at length I will follow these swans." Behold, the swans dropped into the water of his cove and there swimming thrice about rose again and winged slowly south along the coast, and Tuor bearing his harp and spear followed them. 
(BoLT 2.152)
Then Ulmo arose and spake to him.... And Ulmo said: 'O Tuor of the lonely heart, I will not that thou dwell for ever in fair places of birds and flowers.... But fare now on thy destined journey and tarry not, for far from hence is thy weird set.  Now thou must seek through the lands for the city of [Gondolin]....
(BoLT 2.155) 
And, maybe, from afar birds saw the fell winter that was to come; for those that were want to go south gathered early to depart, and others that used to dwell in the North came from their homes to Nevrast.  And one day, as Tuor sat upon the shore, he heard the rush and whine of great wings, and he looked up and saw seven white swans flying in a swift wedge southward.  But as they came above him they wheeled and flew suddenly down, and alighted with a great plash and churning of water. 
Now Tuor loved swans, which he knew on the grey pools of Mithrim; and the swan moreover had been the token of Annael and his foster-folk. He rose therefore to greet the birds, and called to them, marvelling to behold that they were greater and prouder than any of their kind that he had seen before; but they beat their wings and uttered harsh cries, as if they were wroth with him and would drive him from the shore.  Then with a great noise they rose again from the water and flew above his head, so that the rush of their wings blew upon him as a whistling wind; and wheeling in a wide circle they ascended into the high air and went away south.
Then Tuor cried aloud: 'Here now comes another sign that I have tarried too long!' And straightaway he climbed to the cliff-top, and there beheld the swans still wheeling on high; but when he turned southward and set out to follow them, they flew swiftly away. 
(Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin, in UT, 25-26)
And Tuor came into Nevrast, and looking upon Belegaer the Great Sea he was enamoured of it, and the sound of it and the longing for it were ever in his heart and ear, and an unquiet was on him that took him at last into the depths of the realms of Ulmo. Then he dwelt in Nevrast alone, and the summer of that year passed, and the doom of Nargothrond drew near; but when the autumn came he saw seven great swans flying south, and he knew them for a sign that he had tarried overlong, and he followed their flight along the shores of the sea. Thus he came at length to the deserted halls of Vinyamar beneath Mount Taras, and he entered in, and found there the shield and hauberk, and the sword and helm, that Turgon had left there by the command of Ulmo long before; and he arrayed himself in those arms, and went down to the shore. But there came a great storm out of the west, and out of that storm Ulmo the Lord of Waters arose in majesty and spoke to Tuor as he stood beside the sea. And Ulmo bade him depart from that place and seek out the hidden kingdom of Gondolin; and he gave Tuor a great cloak, to mantle him in shadow from the eyes of his enemies.  
(Silmarillion, 238-39)
While the presence of the swans alone clinches the allusion, I think, there's more here to link these passages than that. The swans in The Lord of the Rings seem to be flying south, just as Tuor's were. For the members of the fellowship detect them only when they hear the whirring of their wings, which suggests that the swans came up from behind them. In both cases they are also of a remarkable size, large even for swans. And like his distant ancestor Tuor, Aragorn has an errand to a white city that is nearly the last bastion of defense against the evil of its age, and the names of their destinations echo each other by sound and etymology: Gondor and Gondolin. Moreover, one of the names of Gondolin in The Book of Lost Tales is Gwarestrin, which means Tower of the Guard, just like Minas Tirith (BoLT 2.158).  Both Tuor and Aragorn feel that they have tarried on their errand.

But why black swans?  It seems too trite to think that Tolkien is here playing with the belief popular from antiquity to the 18th century that black swans did not exist -- the very source of the phrase rara avis -- or with the superstition that associated black animals with evil. Aragorn does not react to them as he did to the spying crows in Hollin (FR 2.iii.284-86). If anything, he seems surprised and pleased by the sight of them. Clearly he regards their color as noteworthy, neither common, which would call for less comment, nor unheard of, which would call for more. But what makes it noteworthy?

In Tolkien swans are most commonly identified or associated with ships, and in a lengthy scene, almost the last before this one, Galadriel comes in a swanship to bid farewell to the company, who have already embarked in their boats.
They turned a sharp bend in the river, and there, sailing proudly down the stream toward them, they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck. Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird. 
(FR 2.viii.372)
But if swans mean ships, then black swans mean black ships. What of that? Again in a scene during the company's sojourn in Lothlórien, in the powerful and memorable vision Frodo sees in Galadriel's mirror, we find black ships:
The mist cleared and he saw a sight which he had never seen before but knew at once: the Sea. Darkness fell. The sea rose and raged in a great storm. Then he saw against the Sun, sinking blood-red into a wrack of clouds, the black outline of a tall ship with torn sails riding up out of the West. Then a wide river flowing through a populous city. Then a white fortress with seven towers. And then again a ship with black sails, but now it was morning again, and the water rippled with light, and a banner bearing the emblem of a white tree shone in the sun. A smoke as of fire and battle arose, and again the sun went down in a burning red that faded into a grey mist; and into the mist a small ship passed away, twinkling with lights. 
(FR 2.vii.364)
The first black ship here is that of Elendil, whose heir Aragorn is, and who is also a descendant of Tuor.  Like Tuor, Elendil escaped from the destruction of his homeland to found a new hope. The second is the ship captured from the Corsairs of Umbar in which Aragorn arrives at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, just in time to turn the tide of battle and save Minas Tirith.

For this allusion to have weight for us, we need to know all this.  That is not so for Aragorn, however. Nothing suggests that he knew of Frodo's vision, but he did not need such knowledge to recall the story of Tuor and Ulmo and the swans here, and therefore to see in them an omen for himself. How much more he might have seen here is debatable.  He was familiar with the Corsairs of Umbar and the danger they posed to Gondor from the time of his service there decades earlier (RK App. A 1055), and black sails appear to have been an identifying characteristic of their ships (RK 5.vi.846-47; vii.853).  Both Galadriel and Elrond subsequently direct his attention that way, as if reminding him of something he already knows (TT 3.v.503; RK 5.ii.775, 781); and once he takes control of the palantír of Orthanc he sees the threat from the Corsairs and their black-sailed ships (RK 5.ii.780-81).

Of the allusion alone can we be sure. As for the rest we can only speculate. Yet I would not find it surprising if Tolkien, whose attention to detail in such matters is a constant revelation, left such an interpretation of this omen there to be found, just as he left the allusion to the tale of Tuor and Ulmo and the swans hanging by a single clue, Aragorn's remark upon their color.


1 I am attending here to only those mentions of the Valar and Eru contained in The Lord of the Rings proper, not the appendices, which within the conceit of authorship are represented in the Prologue as later additions (FR 14-16). Elbereth invoked: FR 1.xi.195, xii.198, 214; sung to: FR 1.iii.79; 2.i.238, TT 4.x.729 (perhaps also an invocation), RK 6.ix.1028; sung of FR 2.i.236, viii.377-78; password: RK 6.i.912-13.

At FR 1.xii.198 Aragorn states that Frodo's invocation of Elbereth on Weathertop (1.xi.195-96) had some effect on the Witch-king, but when Frodo does it again at the Ford of Bruinen it appears to have none at all (1.xii.214).  The resolution of this seeming contradiction probably lies in the greater desperation of the Nazgûl to retake the Ring before it reaches the comparative safety of Rivendell. This harmonizes with Aragorn's earlier description of their methods: they will not attack openly themselves, 'not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador lie before us' (FR 1.x.174).  On this showing Strider's 'leagues' could be those between Bree and Rivendell.

2 I do not suggest here any connection between Elbereth and the Virgin Mary, except perhaps in the degree of reverence the Elves show her. The example means to indicate that the ability to identify someone as belonging to a certain group because of a reference that person makes does not entail any greater familiarity with that person's beliefs.

3 It is interesting to note that the word Valar is used in Gondor and by the people of Gondor. This contrasts with Elrond's avoidance of the word. Without more evidence it is difficult to say much, but this may reflect a difference in human and elven attitudes towards the Valar.

4 Gandalf then goes on to say: 'There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master.... So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!' We appear to have here an example of what Ilúvatar tells Melkor in the Ainulindalë
'And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'
(Silmarillion, 17)
5 The Silmarillion, 26-27, 40, 103, 114-15, 125-26, 155, 158, 196, 209, 212, 238-41, 243-44, 247, 249.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! One of the joys of Tolkien is finding these back and forth connections.