Where the previous chapter was a straight-forward adventure, this chapter is decidedly the opposite sort of thing: a straight-forward bit of relaxation after the preceding excitement. It’s a chance for both the adventuring party and the reader to catch our metaphorical breaths before heading in to the Misty Mountains.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much to talk about. Our heroes do some walking. They look for white stones. They meet some elves. They hear some songs. They meet Elrond and hang out for a bit. They find out some secrets from their map and then move on.
Fortunately, there are enough hints of the larger world to give a Tolkien fan-boy something to latch on to. Elrond and Rivendell are introduced. Moria and the dwarves’ war with the goblins are mentioned. The ancient city of Gondolin and the elves’ ancient war with the goblins are connected with the blades found in the previous chapter. There’s a lot of history there.
So, since there’s not a lot in this chapter, let’s talk about some of that history.
In the text, Tolkie says of Elrond: “In those days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for ancestors, and Elrond…was their chief.”. This is something of an understatement and Elrond’s lineage tells an engaging story in its own right.
Elrond was the son of Eärendil and Elwing. Elwing was the daughter of Dior, the first half-elf. Dior was the only son of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel, who have one of the founding tales of Tolkien’s mythos.
But — as wonderful and Beren and Lúthien are — my favorite story in the entire legendarium is that of Elrond’s father, Eärendil. I’d like to tell you that story. But theirs is the culmination of the much longer tale of the Silmarils. So I need to very briefly recount that. The full story is much richer (and much better told) and is available in The Silmarillion, which was published after Tolkien’s death.
In the beginning of the creation, the great Valar were given dominion over the world and they ruled it from their home in Valinor. To ease the darkness, the Valar created two great Trees. The Trees would glow and provided a beautiful light for the world. A great elven craftsman was so taken with the light of the Trees that he created three great jewels and captured the light of the Trees in them. These jewels were named Silmarils.
The great enemy, Morgoth, was jealous of the light of the Trees and he conspired to destroy them. He was eventually successful (though, to keep the world from plunging back into darkness, the Valar then created the sun and the moon) and stole the Silmarils as a bonus. This caused rather a lot of problems for everyone, one of which was that the Valar curved the path of the world and removed Valinor from it. For good measure, they decreed that any mortal who set foot on Valinor would die.
Much later, the man Beren fell in love with the elven Lúthien. Lúthien’s father wasn’t happy about his daughter cavorting with a human, so he gave Beren some impossible tasks to be able to win her hand: one of those was to retrieve a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown (who had been ruling or terrorizing Middle-earth for many years). Beren, being a Hero, succeeded and he and Lúthien eventually had a granddaughter, Elwing.
Elwing, who possessed the Silmaril that her grandfather had retrieved from Morgoth’s crown, married Eärendil, a great mariner. After their home was destroyed, Eärendil and Elwing set sail seeking Valinor to beg aid from the Valar in finally defeating Morgoth. They knew that they would fall prey to the curse the Valar had set, but Eärendil accepted that cost because of his love for both men and elves and Elwing accepted it because of her love for Eärendil. The Valar were so taken with this selfless act they they did not kill Eärendil and Elwing. But they could not allow them to return to mortal lands.
So the Valar built a great ship for them. Elbereth herself (the creator of the stars and most beloved Valar of the elves in Middle-earth) set the Silmaril upon Eärendil’s brow. And the Valar placed his ship in the heavens so that the light of the Silmaril would shine down as Eärendil and Elwing sailed across the sky.
You can stand in that light yourself. Early tomorrow morning, look for a dazzling pinprick of light to the east. The elves call it Eärendil, but you and I usually call it Venus1.
This is my favorite story in all of Tolkien (and it’s one of my favorite stories in all of literature). Among other things, it’s just a beautiful tale in its own right. A selfless act is rewarded by turning the person into a star. That’s top-shelf storytelling right there. There are few things as awe-inspiring as a star-filled sky, much less the morning star2 itself. For Tolkien to take that beauty and immensity and to weave a story out of it is a thing of brilliance and I can’t help but be deeply affected by that story.
But I also love how it’s an important story in the context of the other stories in Middle-earth. Another reward that the Valar give Eärendil and Elwing was the ability to choose between the fates of elves (immortal and tied to Arda until the end) and men (mortal and given the gift of passing into the mysteries of death). This ability passed to their descendants as well and plays a part in The Lord of the Rings.
Additionally, the Valar were moved by the pleas of Eärendil for Middle-earth and they waged a final war upon Morgoth. It was during this war that Morgoth first unleashed the great flying dragons. Eärendil, in his ship in the heavens, battled the greatest of these and ultimately defeated it. But he didn’t slay them all and there is a flying dragon in The Hobbit that wouldn’t have been there if not for Eärendil moving the Valar to action.
Finally, in the Lord of the Rings, a great elf will capture the light of Eärendil’s star in a small glass bottle. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that it will prove useful.
So while not a lot happened in this chapter, a lot happened leading in to this chapter and leading out of it. Much like roads, history is a great river and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. The mythic history of Arda is all the more impressive in this regard for having been created out of the imagination of a single man while still having enough depth to feel as though it was created slowly over millennia.
Still, this sort of thing may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Rest assured that there is plenty of action coming up as our heroes must make their way over or under the Misty Mountains. Hopefully, I won’t need to reach quite so deeply into The Silmarillion for that.
But I’ll make no promises on that regard. Sometimes, I just can’t help myself.