To The Sea
A look at Middle Earth, Elves and the potent imagery of water.
"But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she's so strong in herself. You, you could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock; or drowned yourself, like a hobbit in a river. But neither rock nor river would be to blame." (Sam on Galadriel, wielder of Nenya, the Ring of Water...and as good a description of the power of water as any.)
"I have the sea-heart of my mother's people."
(Voronwe, mariner of the Grey Elves to Tuor, Earendil's father, in Unfinished Tales)
On The Sea Longing
And now Legolas fell silent, while the others talked, and he looked out against the sun, and as he gazed he saw white sea-birds beating up the River.
'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.'(The Last Debate, Return of the King)
Somewhere in the early spring of 1978, riding my horse over grey fields, I looked out across the neighboring farm and saw white birds wheeling down, searching for what they could find, far from the sea. I had never noticed them before, though they must have come there for years, but I had just read the lines above, and suddenly those lines resonated with some deep part of my soul.
Here in southcentral Pennsylvania, we are at the end of the long Susquehanna River, which starts somewhere in New York as a trickle, and winds down to the Chesapeake Bay, and then to the Sea. To the Sea! As on the Anduin, gulls come up the Bay, and the River, and in winter and early spring, hang out at the malls, looking for leftover Happy Meals, or whatever else they can glean from civilization. Not very romantic, perhaps, but definitely a survival skill. Most people see them, I guess, as noisy raucous sea-crows, rats of the air. Not me. Not any more.
Since I read those lines in RotK, gulls have become, for me, the spirit of the Sea-longing, of wind and wave and mysterious depths. Of far horizons and dreams yet unreached. Of quests both physical and spiritual.
For the Sindar, (the Grey Elves, Legolas' people) the Sea-longing is the long-buried Call of the Valar, a summons they originally ignored, or became distracted from. It is a spiritual calling, a call to come home. A journey both physical, across the wide lonely sea, and spiritual, to "Elvenhome, which no Man can discover, where the leaves fall not, land of my people forever!" as Legolas says in his sea-song (Field of Cormallen, RotK).
For me, it was first, a literal Call to the Sea.
When I was small, I watched Flipper, and Sea Hunt, and later Jacques Cousteau specials and wondered about the "world full of wonder" that they sang about in that Flipper theme song. Dragging either of my parents to water was about as easy as dragging Gimli to Fangorn. I finally learned to swim in high school, got a pool membership, a mask, snorkel and set of fins and rarely came up for air after that. I finally got to the Sea itself, with an aunt, at age twelve. I came up over the Last Sand Dune At the Edge of the Known World and stood in awe for a heartbeat, for forever. It roared, it breathed, it danced, it sang. I wanted to be part of it.
My dad took the family to Assateague Island when I was in twelfth grade. Not for The Sea, but for the wild pony roundup on neighboring Chincoteague. We dragged him out onto the beach, where he clumped about like a Dwarf in his work boots and jeans, and long-sleeved chambray shirt, as far from the reaching waves as possible.
I, however, was struck with a terrible case of Sea-longing. I knew I would be back, somehow, somewhen.
Assateague is a thirty mile long barrier island off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. A hiccup of sand barely lifting its dunes and marshes and loblolly woods out of the Atlantic. It's home to seabirds and marsh birds; herons, egrets, marsh-hawks, gulls and brown pelicans. Eagle, owl and osprey, wild ponies, fox and racoon, and two kinds of deer. If you impose a map of Middle-earth over the Real World, putting the Shire somewhere in England, Assateague is just about where Eressea, the Lonely Isle of the Elves, would be. I wonder though, if Eressea had mosquitoes...probably, as they are the foundation of life in the marsh. Maybe the Elves had DEET. Or maybe it was just the Elvish Way With All Good Beasts...or All Good Bugs.
I returned to the island to camp in a tent on the beach. The tent that I borrowed from a second cousin twice removed on my mother's side, or something. The tent that led to a D&D game, Elves and bows and a long long book called Lord of the Rings. I came back to the Sea later with my own tent, then with a backpack, and finally with my own kayak, each year following the siren wail of the gulls, across the Chesapeake Bay and down the Delmarva penninsula. To the Sea, to the Sea. Na 'aear, na 'aear!
to the sea, to the sea, the white gulls are crying
the wind is blowing, the white foam is flying
west, west away, the round sun is falling
grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling?
the voices of my people who have gone on before me?
I will leave, I will leave, the woods that bore me
for our days are ending, our years failing
I will pass the wide water's lonely sailing
long are the waves on the last shore falling
sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling
in Eressea, in Elvenhome, which no Man can discover
where the leaves fall not, land of my people forever
Legolas' Sea-song became my Going to the Sea Song. And a paddling song for the kayak. Emphasis on the joyous "to the Sea! to the Sea!" part, not the "our days are ending" bit. In fact, I often left those lines out. For Legolas, the Sea was an end, and a beginning. The end of his days in Middle-earth, of running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beechwoods. Of seasons and mortal friends who are but ripples ever repeated in the long stream. No more mallorns, no leaf-fall, no war, no grief. The beginning of a new (and maybe a little scary and unknown) life in Eressea, the Undying Lands, the Promised Land, Paradise Eternal.
The Sea is an end, and a beginning. A circle. Inside it you are in the center of a perfect sphere of water, with seven directions, not just four (north, south, east, west, up, down, center).
For me, the Sea was the place I escaped to, away from the troubles of "Middle-earth". And yet, like any Hero Quest, it was more than just an escape. It was a physical journey of five or six hours and several hundred miles. Preparation and packing and gas money, and who-would-take-care-of-the-horses-and-dogs-and-cats, and then a long hard hike with a fifty pound backpack, or a long hard paddle in a seventeen and a half foot kayak. (They will not sink, lade them as you will, unless you park them on broken glass...duct tape is my friend). It was a spiritual journey as well; a vision quest to the ends of the earth (literally, the edge of the continent); four days alone with only the sun and sand and seagulls, walking back with the sun coming up over the edge of the world, and saying hello to the only other human in miles, and the sound of my own voice strange in my ears. Two days of backcountry paddling against the wind where the world is an endless circle of marsh grass and water and sky. Pelicans and ponies, hot sun and cool water, the song of the wind and the gulls. A Quest from which I returned with a different perspective on the world I had left. To truly see the woods...you have to get out from under the trees.
It is the Undying Lands; nothing matters here, on this Lonely Isle but the eternal cycles of Nature. Wind and tide and sun and desert sand moved by tide and wind; the Barrier Island rolling over itself, renewing itself, ever young, ever changing, ever the same. No water but what you carry. No shade but what you provide. Six kinds of bloodsucking flies, six kinds of mosquitoes, three kinds of ticks. Where the leaves fall not: loblolly pine and bayberry bush. Brown pelicans, once an endangered species. Wild ponies, introduced centuries ago. A stingray wider than a warshield exploding from beneath the boat. Gliding along in the midst of dolphins journeying up the channel at twilight. Magic in the water in May: green light going off like Gandalf's fireworks when the water is struck with hand or fin or paddle; bioluminescence, a marine biologist would call it. The ephemeral beauty of a sea nettle or moon jelly, like Galadriel's gown, in the clear water of the back bay.
Water and the Sea, are potent archetypal images. Water hides. Water reveals. It can draw you down, or hold you up, depending on how you react to it. It can save you, or destroy you. You can't fight it, you must go with its energy. Someone, Bruce Lee, I think, said "water is the strongest stuff on earth".
In Middle-earth, water destroys Evil; the corrupted Atalante (Numenor), the horsed Nazgul. In Middle-earth (as in many Primary World legends) Evil fears to cross water, especially moving water. And Nenya, the Ring of Water, holds great power of healing and protection. Things are revealed in Galadriel's mirror of water. The mighty River Anduin carries the Fellowship to safety, and carries the fleet of Corsairs, led by Aragorn, to the aid of Minas Tirith. The Argonath, and the narrow chasm after it, ("the black waters roared and echoed") are a gateway, guarded by the forces of water, into an ancient kingdom, and to Aragorn's future. Boromir has a "viking burial", laid to rest on the bosom of the Anduin, and the River carries him home to his kin. Merry and Pippin are healed and refreshed by entdraughts. Isengard is cleansed by water. Faramir's Henneth Annun is hidden and protected by water. And in the Paths of the Dead, Gimli's dread is broken by a "tinkle of water, a sound hard and clear as a stone falling into a dream of dark shadow". The Watcher in the Water at the gates of Moria is the archetypal Monster in the Depths, one of the few places in Middle-earth where water becomes ominous.
Then again, the Ring was lost, and found, in water.
In the Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales, Ulmo, Lord of the Waters, gives human hero Tuor a mission, that leads to Earendil's voyage to beseech the Valar's aid, opening the Undying Lands once more. Voronwe is the last mariner of an Elven fleet sunk by fierce waves, yet he is saved by the largest wave of all, coughed up out of the Great Sea to sit dazed and soggy on its edge until he is found by Tuor. He becomes Tuor's faithful companion and guide, and the guardian of Tuor's wife Idril and child Earendil in the flight from the fall of Gondolin.
And of course, the last chapter of LOTR is The Grey Havens...a passage over water. An end, and a beginning. The endless circle of the Sea.
Occasionally something rises briefly out of the deeps of the Sea. Out of the Great Unknown. Whale wheeling up and flashing across the surface, a half-glimpsed revelation of the Mysteries below. Leviathan who swallows the Hero like Death and spits him back out in rebirth. Makenuk who sometimes takes off his fin to walk on land in human form, and teach the Secondborn.
My friend Nancy, who writes books for a living, fishes. She casts out a line into the Mysterious Depths and pulls in a shining fish, a treasure. It's like writing, like dreaming, like living. You don't know just what you'll pull in, if anything, when you cast your line...you don't know if there's fish down there...or monsters. It's the subconcious. It's the Dreamworld. The Spiritual. The Unknown. The real Undying Lands.
I find fishing to be a huge yawn, so I decided to dive right in. It took till I was 41, but I finally learned to scuba-dive. For fifty dives, I braved the dark, murky, cold depths of local limestone and slate quarries (set up for diving), struggling into a six-mil wetsuit (like wrestling an octopus from the inside) and what felt like five hundred pounds of dive gear to go look at rocks, mud, sunken airplanes, bluegills the enormous size of Hobbit First Breakfast plates, weedbeds flashing with fingerlings, sunken trees with fish for leaves. Carving pumpkins (with a dive knife, you can carve Cirth, but not Tengwar on the Gourd of the Rings) and decorating Christmas trees at the bottom of those quarries in October and December, in a wetsuit. Each dive was its own kind of Hero Journey, its own kind of Quest; preparation, terror, breaking through the surface; the shimmering illusion that is all that landlubbers see. Then sinking, falling, flying down into ever darker depths. Seeing what others can only imagine: the shining fuzz of hydroids on a sunken tree, catfish guarding a wriggling ball of tadpole sized babies, a bluegill nesting in the Christmas tree on New Year's Eve, the glow of light surrounding your buddy, like Glorfindel driving back the Nazgul, on a night dive.
In many cultures' legends, birds are messengers. So it is in Middle-earth; the thrush and the wise ravens in The Hobbit, the eagles, the birds who brought messages to the people of Mirkwood, Tuor's swans, and of course the gulls. At last I heard the message of the gulls myself... For years I had dabbled in the edges of the Sea, jumping waves and rafting the shallows, and snorkeling along the murky bottom for shells. Then I boarded a smelly diesel dive boat, putt-putted thirty miles off the shore of Delaware, to where the entire world is a shining silver circle of sea and sky, and jumped off a perfectly good floatin' boat.
I landed wrong and lost my mask, then broke the strap on the spare handed to me. I felt like the Hobbits in the first half of Fellowship, where everyone keeps rescuing them. Someone handed me my spare mask (my less than favorite one) and I spent five minutes remembering how to breathe. I finally sank, breaking the surface into that alien world; one where there is no air, no gravity, no color, no fire. Catching hold of the anchor line...a thin, pale yellow connection to reality, trailing away into the bottomless depths. I sank down the line, feeling about as confident as Frodo in Mordor, followed that tenuous thread into green gloom darker than Mirkwood's evening shadows.
A pale ghost materialized out of the dark, the shipwreck we had come to see.
I landed on a jumbled pile of broken steel. Brown and grey and green in the gloom. Then I turned on my flashlight. The orcyard jumble exploded with color and life; pinks and mauves and reds and oranges, anemones, starfish, hydroids and nameless things that weren't in my field guide to Wierd Blobby Things on the Floor of the North Atlantic.
A ship dies, falls to the bottom, and becomes a reef. The Mother of all Mothers gives birth to new life. The cycle continues.
Tolkien probably didn't contemplate Jungian psychology or archetypal mythic imagery. He didn't say "I will use water as an allegory for Life's Mysteries." He hated allegory. He just wrote something that was in his heart; the Sea-longing. The haunting voices of the gulls flying far inland, up the Anduin, have resonated with me for half a lifetime; voices speaking of wind and wave and mysterious depths, far horizons and dreams yet unreached, quests both spiritual and physical. I have dreams full of water, where things lie hidden in the depths, or are revealed with uncanny clarity. And dreams where I can't get to the Sea. To the Sea.
July, 2002. I have spent a week on Assateague Island, the Place Across. I have paddled the clear waters of Wildcat Marsh, the murky shallows of Tom's Cove, and two days of wind and tide from the north end of the island to the south end, solo. I have raced the tide around "the Horn" at twilight, dozed in my boat wrapped in wool cloak and wetsuit while grounded on a sandbar in a dark windy night, danced with dolphins in the mouth of Tom's Cove, ridden the swells offshore, seen the place in the marsh where the laughing gulls nest. It is three am, I drive the truck, with the kayak strapped to its roof, across the long narrow causeway to the Mainland. Halfway across I pull over, the lights of the town of Chincoteague glitter like a string of Elvish jewels across the eastern horizon, the Mainland is a dark smear in the west, behind me. Wind pours across the marsh and bay to either side. Far off, at the edge of the light-twinkle, coming from the marsh I paddled a few hours before, I hear a haunting song. The wail of the laughing gulls on their night nests.
Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea!
For a moment, I was in the scene from the book, I knew the irresistable pull of those distant voices in the dark. I could see Legolas stopping, frozen in his tracks, breathless, heart pulling him one way with all the power of wind and tide; mind and loyalties and love and oaths taken pulling him the other.
Na 'aear, na 'aear! To the Sea, to the Sea!...No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm. But there are "countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do" before I can heed the call again.
"...the best magic---the ability to make reality itself more real...
When the words and images start insinuating themselves into unexpected parts of life, so that suddenly everything seems to refer back to that work, or remind you of things in it, then you know that a secondary creator of unusual skill has been at work in you. " Diane Duane, writer, on hiking in the Swiss Alps and finding elanor in the grass, and Caradhras in the distance. ("Meditations on Middle-earth" 2001 Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc.)
"I have the sea-heart of my mother's people."(Voronwe to Tuor in Unfinished Tales) Voronwe is the last mariner of the last ship to unsuccessfully seek the Undying Lands before Earendil's voyage caused the Valar to lift their ban. Voronwe's mother was of the Grey Elves of the Falas, akin to Cirdan's people. Earendil is the father of Elrond, and Elros (Aragorn's distant ancestor).
(The heart of Legolas was...) running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beechwoods. (The Fellowship paddling down The Great River in FotR)
are but ripples ever repeated in the long stream.(Legolas explaining how to run on Elvish Time to Sam, The Great River, FotR)
"countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do" (Gimli, The Last Debate, RotK)
They will not sink, lade them as you will... (Elves of Lorien about the Elf-boats in Farewell to Lorien, FotR)
the Sea Song can be found in The Field of Cormallen, RotK, a Sindarin translation by Ryszard Derdzinski can be found at http://www.elvish.org/gwaith/tothesea.htm ( on the gwaith-i-phethdain site)
Na 'aear, na 'aear!is "to the Sea, to the Sea!"
Chincoteague and Assateague Islands were made somewhat famous by Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague books. Today Chincoteague is still a quiet tourist town, and Assateague is a series of parks and wildlife refuges, the only truly wild beach for hundreds of miles. Take field guides, binoculars, DEET and the hundred proof sunscreen.
Mak-eh-nukis a badly anglecized version of the Kwakiutl (northwest coast Indian, British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) word for orca. (from Eric Hoyt's excellent book: Orca, the Whale Called Killer) In the legends of some of the northwest coast people, whale folk take off their fins to walk on the land in human form. The fin becomes the boat. Thus the name of my sea kayak; Mak-eh-nuk's Fin.
The Gourd of the Rings and other LOTR goodies can be found at www.swordwhale.com