16 June 2016

Nienna's Room With a View -- Silmarillion, 28

Taken from the International Space Station in September 2010
[Nienna's] halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.
(Silmarillion, 28)
Recently on the Prancing Pony podcast (which I recommend) the hosts, Alan Sisto and Sean Marchese, were discussing a question sent in by a listener about the Valaquenta, specifically on the meaning of the last sentence quoted above. Is Nienna looking out across Ekkaia, the vast sea that encircles the world, to a physical horizon, or is she somehow looking beyond the world itself to the Void and the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar? 

The question seems vexed. Over the decades Tolkien wrote of the Walls of the World, the Walls of Night, or even the Wall of Things; nor is it quite clear whether in every case he meant the same walls, or, if he did, whether he conceived of them in precisely the same way, or, if they were different, how they differed. It is also difficult to say if we should make something of the lack of capitalization of the phrase in The Silmarillion, though it is very tempting to do so. In Morgoth's Ring Christopher Tolkien examines these phrases, but does not feel that the matter can be completely sorted out (26-29, 62-64). At this point I can't disagree with him. 

But it got me thinking.  I have, quite literally, just been reading a book that furnishes an interesting context in which to begin thinking about Tolkien's description of the halls of Nienna. In his The Sea and Medieval English Literature Sebastian Sobecki discusses (72-99) how from antiquity onward England was seen as the end of the earth, the farthest shore bounded by the great, all encompassing, infinite Ocean. The Old English word for this shoreless sea that lay beyond England (Ireland notwithstanding -- pay no attention to that far green country behind the grey rain curtain) is garsecg, and while its etymology is in dispute one intriguing possibility is gares secg, literally 'promontory's edge', that is, 'the end of the world' (Anderson, 272; Smith, 16). What makes this attractive is the note of harmony it strikes with what we later find in Middle English (a citation for which I am indebted to Sobecki, 84). In the MED s.v. 'occean' 1a, 'the circumferential sea surrounding the world' we find two instances of the phrase 'clif of occean' defined as 'the end of the world.'

If we look earlier we will see that both the Beowulf poet and the translator into Old English of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, moreover, use garsecg to suggest the liminality of this natural boundary and to hint at what might lay beyond. In Beowulf Scyld comes from and returns to the western sea, and 'no man, not the counsellors in the hall, not warriors under heaven, could say in truth who received' the ship bearing Scyld back into the west (50-52). And as Sharon M. Rowley points out in The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica (71-72)the use of garsecg there, like that of oceanus in the original Latin Bede, not only places the island of Britain on the border of the world, but is part of the strategy of the translator to recast Bede's account of the salvation history of Britain. In both cases this outer sea is the edge of the world, but like an icon directs our attention beyond itself.  For beyond that sea might be found the Earthly Paradise, denied to men since the Fall. Seeing the western sea in this way was quite common in the Middle Ages, as Sobecki shows in his discussion cited above. Indeed, the tradition that the outer ocean was a path to another world was as old as Homer (Odyssey x.520-xi.25, transl. Fagles. See also here.)*

In Tolkien this notion of the sea does a kind of double duty. First there is Belegaer, The Great Sea, that lies between Middle-earth and the Undying Lands, which became inaccessible to all but Elves at the end of the Second Age when Ilúvatar removed Aman from the Circles of the World (another term only indifferently clear). But, in the second place, still the Halls of Nienna remain, and still presumably look outward across the Encircling Sea. There are, moreover, two other factors we cannot ignore here.  First,
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. 
(Silmarillion, 19) 
Second, Nienna is in and of the world, as all the Ainur became once they entered it, but her face is turned towards what is beyond. Her halls are near the Halls of Mandos, from which the Elves return to life in Aman, and from which Men depart Ëa entirely.  Let us turn back to the passage with which we began, but expand out focus somewhat:
So great was [Nienna's] sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world. 
(Silmarillion, 28)
Given the echo of the Music in the Sea, and given the weaving of Nienna's sorrow into that Music, it is hard to see how the Encircling Ocean, by sight and by sound, could not evoke the thought of what lies beyond the Walls of the World. The Sea does so in and of itself, even if those who hear the Music in its waters do not understand what they hear. And, without the reincarnation within Ëa that is natural to the Elves, the hope, strength, and wisdom Nienna brings to the souls of Men in Mandos can look nowhere but beyond Ëa.

The answer, I fear, can only be a bit Elvish. Do the windows of Nienna's halls look out from the edge of Creation? Physically, no; metaphysically, yes.

photograph by Rick Battle


Anderson, Earl R., Folk Taxonomies in Early English, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (2003), 272, cited in Rowley, 71 n. 5.

Rowley, Sharon M., The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, Anglo-Saxon Studies, Boydell and Brewer (2011) 71-98.  

Smith, Roger, Garsecg in Early English Poetry, English Language Notes 24.3 (1987), 16, cited in Rowley 71 n. 5.

Sobecki, Sebastian, The Sea and Medieval English Literature, Boydell and Brewer (2008).


*For a good example of Tolkien's awareness and use of this idea of the Sea, see The Notion Club Papers (Part Two) in Sauron Defeated 257-273, passim, especially the included poem, The Death of Saint Brendan, and its revised (later separately published) version on 296-99:


 At last out of the deep sea he passed,
 and mist rolled on the shore;
 under clouded moon the waves were loud,
 as the laden ship him bore                                        4
 to Ireland, back to wood and mire
 and the tower tall and grey,
 where the knell of Cluain-ferta's bell
 tolled in green Galway.                                             8
 Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
 under a rain-clad sky
 Saint Brendan came to his journey's end
 to find the grace to die.                                             12

 'O tell me, father, for I loved you well,
 if still you have words for me,
 of things strange in the remembering
 in the long and lonely sea,                                         16
 of islands by deep spells beguiled
 where dwell the Elvenkind:
 in seven long years the road to Heaven
 or the Living Land did you find?'                              20

 'The things I have seen, the many things,
 have long now faded far;
 only three come clear now back to me:
 a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.                                               24

 'We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
 no field nor coast of men;
 no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
 for forty days and ten.                                                 28
 Then a drumming we heard as of thunder coming,
 and a Cloud above us spread;
 we saw no sun at set or dawn,
 yet ever the west was red.                                           32

 'Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
 a shoreless mountain stood;
 its sides were black from the sullen tide
 up to its smoking hood,                                               36
 but its spire was lit with a living fire
 that ever rose and fell:
 tall as a column in High Heaven's hall,
 its roots were deep as Hell;                                         40
 grounded in chasms the waters drowned
 and swallowed long ago
 it stands, I guess, on the foundered land
 where the kings of kings lie low.                                 44

 'We sailed then on till all winds failed,
 and we toiled then with the oar;
 we burned with thirst and in hunger yearned,
 and we sang our psalms no more.                                48
 At last beyond the Cloud we passed
 and came to a starlit strand;
 the waves were sighing in pillared caves,
 grinding gems to sand.                                                 52
 And here they would grind our bones we feared
 until the end of time;
 for steep those shores went upward leaping
 to cliffs no man could climb.                                       56
 But round by west a firth we found
 that clove the mountain-wall;
 there lay a water shadow-grey
 between the mountains tall.                                         60
 Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
 and passed, and left the sea;
 and silence like dew fell in that isle,
 and holy it seemed to be.                                             64

 'To a dale we came like a silver grail
 with carven hills for rim.
 In that hidden land we saw there stand
 under a moonlight dim                                                68
 a Tree more fair than ever I deemed
 in Paradise might grow:
 its foot was like a great tower's root,
 its height no man could know;                                    72
 and white as winter to my sight
 the leaves of that Tree were;
 they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
 long and soft and fair.                                                  76

 'It seemed to us then as in a dream
 that time had passed away,
 and our journey ended; for no return
 we hoped, but there to stay.                                         80
 In the silence of that hollow isle
 half sadly then we sang:
 softly we thought, but the sound aloft
 like sudden trumpets rang.                                           84
 The Tree then shook, and flying free
 from its limbs the leaves in air
 as white birds rose in wheeling flight,
 and the lifting boughs were bare.                                 88
 On high we heard in the starlit sky
 a song, but not of bird:
 neither noise of man nor angel's voice,
 but maybe there is a third                                             92
 fair kindred in the world yet lingers
 beyond the foundered land.
 But steep are the seas and the waters deep
 beyond the White-tree Strand! '                                    96

 '0 stay now, father! There is more to say.
 But two things you have told:
 the Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
 The Star in mind do you hold?'                                    100

 'The Star? Why, I saw it high and far
 at the parting of the ways,
 a light on the edge of the Outer Night
 beyond the Door of Days,                                             104
 where the round world plunges steeply down,
 but on the old road goes,
 as an unseen bridge that on arches runs
 to coasts that no man knows.'                                        108

 'But men say, father, that ere the end
 you went where none have been.
 I would hear you tell me, father dear,
 of the last land you have seen.'                                      112

 'In my mind the Star I still can find,
 and the parting of the seas,
 and the breath as sweet and keen as death
 that was borne upon the breeze.                                    116
 But where they bloom, those flowers fair,
 in what air or land they grow,
 what words beyond this world I heard,
 if you would seek to know,                                            120
 in a boat then, brother, far afloat
 you must labour in the sea,
 and find for yourself things out of mind:
 you will learn no more of me.'                                       124

 In Ireland over wood and mire
 in the tower tall and grey
 the knell of Cluain-ferta's bell
 was tolling in green Galway.                                         128
 Saint Brendan had come to his life's end
 under a rain-clad sky,
 journeying whence no ship returns;
 and his bones in Ireland lie.                                           132

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