28 July 2015

Why Does the Roaring of the Sea Disquiet the Valar?

The Sea -- Copyright © Ted Nasmith. All rights reserved.

A well known theme that runs throughout Tolkien's legendarium is that longing or unquiet which the Sea causes in Elves and Men.  Many will recall Legolas speaking of it in The Last Debate:
'Look!' he cried. 'Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelargir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.'  
(RK 5.ix.873)
This passage clarifies the 'dark words' which Galadriel had sent to Legolas through Gandalf:
Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy hast thou lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.

(TT 3.v.503)
But Legolas is not the first character on whom the sound of the Sea has a disquieting effect. For even before the hobbits have left The Shire Frodo had a dream:
Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.
(FR 1.v.108)
We can trace this troublous longing, this Sehnsucht, all the way back to the beginning of Tolkien's works, to the longing of Eriol and Ælfwine for the Sea and to the earliest version of The Music of the Ainur in The Book of Lost Tales. It is particularly prominent in Tuor from his beginning in The Fall of Gondolin and the bones of The Tale of Eärendel within The Book of Lost Tales, through the earliest versions of The Quenta Silmarillion and Annals of Beleriand, to Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin in Unfinished Tales, and in the end to The  Grey Annals, to The Tale of Years, and to the published Silmarillion.And while the term 'The Unquiet of Ulmo' seems coined almost especially for him, it would apply equally well to Aldarion in The Tale of Aldarion and Erendis (UT 175-76, 178, 185).  There is even the hint that it may have affected Hobbits, including one and perhaps two Took uncles of Bilbo (FR Pr. 7; RK App. C 1103 [Isengar and Hildifons]; The Hobbit 11, 13-14).

As we can easily see, the sea-longing is not something particular to Elves.  Mortal and Immortal alike feel it.  If we turn next to a passage from The Ainulindalë, we shall see that the longing and disquiet caused by the Sea is fundamental in the profoundest sense. Ilúvatar grants the Ainur a vision of the Music they have just sung:
But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colours were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the
Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
(The Silmarillion, 19)
What's most curious here is the reaction of the Ainur to the sound of the Sea, which causes them 'a great unquiet.'  We are used to thinking of Elves and Men, the Children of Ilúvatar, as beset by such disquiet and longing, but not the Valar themselves. Since the Valar have not yet entered Arda, which so far exists only in thought (20), the sea's effect extends beyond 'the circles of the world' and suggests that all sentient beings, whether of flesh or of spirit, are within its reach. That this is so even in a vision attests the power of what they have seen, or, to be more precise, what they have heard, because that is clearly the avenue through which the unquiet and longing come to them.

But why? What is it about the 'voices of the Sea' that is so poignant? '[T]hat in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur' is not a sufficient answer in itself, since it does not explain why the Valar find this reminder of their own music disquieting.  Two clues may help us here.  The first is that Elves and Men do not recognize what they hear, but presumably the Valar do. The second is that Ulmo -- 'of all [the Valar] most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music' (19) -- has a conversation with Ilúvatar even as the music was being envisioned before them, in which Ilúvatar demonstrates to him that the worst efforts of Melkor have but made water and the world more beautiful than Ulmo had imagined in his music. This harks back to Ilúvatar's statement to Melkor 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 but prove mine instrument in devising things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined' (17).

If the themes which the Ainur elaborated in making their music come from Ilúvatar, then it is the voice of Ilúvatar that Valar, Elves, and Men all hear in the 'voices of the sea.' The Valar recognize this. Elves and Men, who have not seen Ilúvatar face to face, as it were, do not.  But all who hearken long for the creator from whom the world divides them, or, in the case of the Valar who are about to enter into Arda and be bound there until the end, will divide them.2

What would the echo of God's voice evoke if not longing?


1 Eriol and Ælfwine (BoLT 1.46; 2.6, 314); The Music of the Ainur (BoLT 1.56); Tuor (BoLT 2.151-52, 156, 196, 254); The Quenta Silmarillion and The Annals of Beleriand  (HoME IV.37, 142-43, 145, 149, 151-52, 214, 308); Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin (UT 24-25, 34); The Grey Annals and The Tale of Years (HoME XI.90-91, 348, 352);  Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin (The Silmarillion 238, 244-45; cf. 246).

2 To be strictly accurate the Valar are a subset of the Ainur who entered the world after the Music:
Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World. 
(Silmarillion 20)

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