23 June 2017

Sand of Pearls in Elvenland, or, Boethius on the Shore

Being a lifelong lover of the Sea and the shore, I have always found Tolkien's evocation of the home of the Teleri beyond the Sea appealing. So the moment in The Silmarillion in which Finrod conjures this place in song, only to have it turned against him by Sauron in his song has always been for me, not surprisingly, one of great enchantment and dismay:

Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
     Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn --
And Finrod fell before the throne. 
                                                                 (Silm. 171)

In these lines the most striking have always been the turning point: 
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland. 
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea...
The sound of the water sighing as it slides up the beach is one well known and well loved by me. And there's always this instant, this caesura if you will, when the water pauses ever so briefly as it reaches its highest point before slipping away down the slope.  The words 'on sand, / On sand of pearls in Elvenland' mark that instant of nature and peripety, both for the Sea as Finrod conjures it and for Finrod in his battle against Sauron. The cunning of Sauron turns the memory of Finrod against itself by recalling the Kinslaying.

It is a sweeping moment and the image of 'sand of pearls' is vivid and powerful not only in itself, but more importantly in its contrast to the gloom and 'red blood flowing' which is the next wave, as it were. The very images that Finrod conjures to combat the darkness themselves end in darkness. They do so now because they did so then. Paradoxically, Sauron is here the Undeceiver. He will not allow Finrod to see the pearls shining on the jeweled strand, but forget the blood which stains them. That it was the quest to regain other jewels that led to their staining only increases the irony, and the force of what may be an implicit lesson.

For in one of the poems in The Consolation of Philosophy Lady Philosophy bids all those taken prisoner by the desire to possess (libido) to come to her (Book 3, poem 10):

huc omnes pariter venite capti,
quos fallax ligat improbis catenis,
terrenas habitans libido mentes:
haec erit vobis requies laborum
05    hic portus placida manens quiete
hoc patens unum miseris asylum.
non quicquid Tagus aureis harenis
donat aut Hermus rutilante ripa
aut Indus calido propinquus orbi
10    candidis miscens virides lapillos*
inlustrent aciem magisque caecos
in suas condunt animos tenebras.
hoc, quicquid placet excitatque mentes,
infimis tellus aluit cavernis;
15    splendor quo regitur vigetque caelum**
vitat obscuras animae ruinas;
hanc quisqe poterit notare lucem
candidos Phoebi radios negabit.

Which I render:

Come here all you prisoners,
Whom deceitful lust, which dwells in earthbound minds,
Binds in chains of wickedness.
Here you will find rest from labors,
05   Here a haven waiting in gentle peace,
Here a single refuge open to all the wretched.
No gift which the Tagus bestows with its sands of gold,
Or the Hermus with its red-gold banks,
Or the Indus which, at the edge of the Torrid Zone,***
10  Mixes emeralds with shining white pearls --
None of these gifts could illuminate your vision rather than
fixing your blind minds in a darkness of their own.
Whatever pleases and stirs our minds,
This the earth nurtures in its deepest caverns;
15  But the splendor by which the heavens** are ruled and flourish
Shuns the dark ruins of our minds;
Whoever takes note of this light,
Will deny that Phoebus' rays shine bright. 

It is with the image of just such a haven (portus) or refuge (asylum) that Finrod, the exile and prisoner, seeks to combat the darkness in which he finds himself. But he is as deceived as those whom the brightness of jewels deludes. Their splendor does not illuminate the mind but darkens it, because they themselves come from the lowest deeps of the earth (line 14: infimis tellus aluit cavernis). Even the pearls found on the banks of the Indus at the far side of the world lead only to darkness, as Finrod, mutatis mutandis, finds to his cost. In the context of Finrod's tragic failure it is surely worth pointing out that of all the princes of the Noldor in exile he was the one who 'had brought more treasures out of Tirion' (Silm. 114). Wise and noble, kind and generous he may have been, but also not without fault.

The sand, the pearls, the water, the farthest shores of the inhabited world, the false promise of shiny things that offer neither refuge nor enlightenment, all find themselves transformed in Tolkien's hands from philosophy into the setting for tragedy. Through Fëanor's greedy love of the Silmarils and Morgoth's lust to possess them solely (Silm. 67, 69) -- or libido as Lady Philosophy would call it -- moral and physical darkness come first to Valinor, and then to Middle-earth.  Conversely, it is also not until Beren and Lúthien seek a silmaril out of love, not in order to possess it, but only to give it away, that it begins to become something whose splendor will bring hope to the world and illuminate, however briefly, even the oath-blind minds of the sons of Fëanor (Silm. 250).  And this, too, fits, because in an earlier poem, Lady Philosophy had pointed out that love (amor) binds (ligat) the world together properly (Book 2, poem 8.1-15), and that without love the very mechanism by which the world is moved would be destroyed (16-21). Moreover, she concludes (28-30) in words that line 15 of Book 3, poem 10 echoes:

O felix hominum genus,
Si vestros animos amor,
Quo caelum** regitur, regat. 
O fortunate human race,
If the love, by which the heavens** are ruled,
Also ruled your minds!
It is nothing new of course to note that Tolkien knew his Boethius, but he also seems to have drawn on him for one of his most vivid and exotic images in such away that it allowed him to give dramatic life to the ideas expressed by Lady Philosophy in her dialogue with Boethius.

*  This line appears to be an allusion to Horace Serm. 1.2.80, where he refers to a woman 'inter niveos viridesque lapillos', that is, ‘amid her pearls and emeralds’. 'Niveos' -- 'white as snow' -- emphasizes the shining brightness of the color, just as 'candidis' does in Boethius. Roman politicians would wear a specially whitened toga, the toga candidata, to make themselves more visible. 

Given Tolkien's extensive reading in Classics, it is quite possible, even likely, that he will have read this satire of Horace, and so recognized Boethius' allusion.

** 'Caelum' is singular in Latin, but I have translated it as plural to avoid the suggestion that Boethius is talking about Heaven.

*** The Torrid Zone was the area nearest the equator which was commonly thought too hot to sustain life.



My Bentley's Horace


  1. 1. Thanks for drawing out the Boethius/Tolkien connections. 2. Yes, one sees the caesura in the sea's rise and fall IRL; it can be breath-taking. 3. Good choice to start with the lines "Backwards and forwards swayed their song. / Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong / The chanting swelled" -- for me, these specific lines themselves evoke the inexorable rhythm and power of ocean-water. (Our punster friend might say it's not just a dry analogy here, but inherent in the poetry.)

    1. There's an interesting intersection there of the poem and the sea, and the sound of the sea containing a memory of the Music.

  2. What a rich reflection! It raised two questions in my mind. One is to ask how Frodo and Sam are able to get under the defences of Sauron in a way that Finrod could not? Is it because they are innocent in a way that Finrod could never be? The other is more personal and that is to ask myself how I may find that which does not end with me lying prostrate before the Dark Lord as Finrod did? I do not lay claim to the hobbits' innocence. In reflecting recently upon the Quest for the Grail I knew that I was nearer to Lancelot in terms of moral frailty than I was to Galahad.

    1. Thank you, Stephen. Is it innocence? I don't know. Can we say that Frodo is innocent by the time they get to Mordor. I don't think that we can, which is not to say that he was not good. The power of the Ring is like gravity. It pulls on all of us, good and bad.

      I am a charter member of the nearer Lancelot than Galahad Sociey.

  3. Sauron the Undeceiver: that's a compelling observation. This is the moment when we're reminded that Finrod, the wise and noble teacher of Men, is complicit in the crimes of the Noldor just as his kin are, and Sauron uses that against him. And even in the Third Age, Sauron's chief influence is to lay bare the worst tendencies of our desire to possess shiny things. Not such a Deceiver after all, is he?