The purpose of the Eärendil poem (all that tarrying)


New Member
This podcast is the highlight of my week; I am many episodes behind and am looking forward to catching up (and participating in the discussions)! I just listened to the six-episode extravaganza discussion of the Eärendil poem in “Many Meetings” and I am interested in an undiscussed link between the word “tarry” used in the poem because I think it points to the purpose of the poem within the larger story.

Because Bilbo had “the cheek” to make verses about Eärendil in Elrond’s house, it may be easy enough to wonder that Eärendil tarries in Arvernien. The word, as Corey remarked, does not carry wholly positive connotations. Was Eärendil loitering or procrastinating, perhaps? That Bilbo is a cheeky one. Yet I think that the use of the word at the end of the poem--at that point, after the adventure, Eärendil is doomed not to tarry--is an important clue to what has changed during the activity of the poem.

Eärendil’s first tarrying, in Arvernien, is accompanied by much action. He builds a boat, dons the “panoply of ancient kings,” and begins his wandering. The tarrying then seems to refer to a sort of preparation, necessary to the quest. Not necessarily a bad thing here.

The second tarrying, in Tirion, also seems to be a sort of preparation. The Elves teach him melodies, tell him of marvels, bring him harps, give him new clothes, and send lights through the Calacirian ahead of him. In a way, the Elves--who are his kin, and the kin of the exiles he represents--are performing an essential part of his quest as well, in that they make him ready to face the Valar in the Timeless Halls. But also the ministry of Eärendil by the Elves of Tirion seems to include some recovery after his long journey. There’s not a lot of evidence for this in the poem, but there is some in Tolkien’s use of the word elsewhere in the book.

Then he gets a new ship, and a new doom, and the transformation is complete. The tarrying is done; he can no longer tarry. He is transformed into the Flammifer of Westernesse and carries the Great Light forevermore.

There’s a lesson here and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it that the pursuit of a good quest results in transformation? Is that an effect of entering faerie? Does it point to the importance of contemplation alongside good action; a commentary within the book on “moral philosophy?”

Yet these ideas within the Eärendil poem appear later in The Lord of the Rings. Prior even to the poem, Gandalf remarks to himself that Frodo that “may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can,” foreshadowing both Galadriel’s later gift to Frodo of Eärendil’s light, and Frodo’s eventual emptying of himself during the quest until he gives the last of his will on Mount Doom bringing the Ring to the Sammath Naur. Perhaps in emptying himself, we are to see that Frodo is “filled” with otherworldly influence as Eärendil was “filled” by the gift of a new ship and a new doom after his quest. They both become in the end a vessel of something greater.

And I thought it was very interesting what Corey pointed out: so much of the Eärendil poem is determinedly written in the passive voice, telling what happened to Eärendil rather than what he did. Considering that fact immediately made me recall one of my favorite Sam quotes:

The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.

Sam’s big conclusion is that in the great tales, stuff just seems to happen to the heroes--it puts the heroes, in Sam’s perception, in the passive role! Kind of like Eärendil in this poem. Maybe this is a clue to why the Eärendil is even included at all: it also foreshadows that things like The Ring and the quest to Mordor are what happens to Frodo and the Hobbits, and their heroism is that they never turn back but keep giving of their remarkable resources until, by their efforts (and with some help from others), they win the day.

And I agree with Shawn of The Prancing Pony Podcast, who was a guest on the last episode considering this poem, that in its place in The Fellowship of the Ring it serves as kind of an outline of what’s going to happen to Frodo. In the next chapter, they will “tarry” in counsel and discover that only the most dangerous of plans is even feasible: the Ring must be taken into the stronghold of the Enemy to be destroyed. And Frodo will not turn back, but like Eärendil will take the impossible task on himself. And he will pursue his quest, and be transformed, and will no longer be able to tarry or recover amongst his kin, but must be sent forth (in his case, beyond the word because he is a mortal). In fact, one might say that Frodo gets the better deal than Eärendil, because he gets healed in Elvenhome but then gets to receive the “Gift of Men,” while Eärendil grudgingly accepts immortality so as to not leave his spouse, Elwing, and so must sail above Middle Earth forevermore.

I also think the lurking frame narrative supports this too. Does Frodo add the Eärendil poem to the manuscript as a way to help answer the question of why he can’t live happily ever after at the end of this story? Or does Sam add it, for the same reason? Maybe Bilbo put it in the original because either (a) he wrote it and had some pride of authorship; (b) he comprehended the nature of the Ring and foresaw what it would do to Frodo, and recognized the parallel to his treatment of Eärendil, or (c) a bit of both. In any case, it seems more likely that a hobbit added the poem it than Findegil, King’s Writer--for whom it would indeed seem cheeky to add a random weird poem about the great Eärendil to a story about Hobbits, however esteemed by Elessar were said hobbits.
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Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
And I thought it was very interesting what Corey pointed out: so much of the Eärendil poem is determinedly written in the passive voice, telling what happened to Eärendil rather than what he did. Considering that fact immediately made me recall one of my favorite Sam quotes:
Oh, what a nice insight! That's a connection I've never made before, and it feels very right.

Somewhat flippantly, a similar idea appears in the fan fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
"Most books didn't say 'And then they refused to give up, no matter how sensible it would have been, because that would've been too embarrassing'; but a great deal of history made a lot more sense that way."
This is wonderful MattfromWI. The idea of the passive voice and Sam's insight being related also led me to another phrase I've been wondering about. In the early part of Chapter II, as Frodo approaches 50:

So it went on, until his forties were running out, and his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo.

The idea that adventure had befallen Bilbo, rather than that he having set off on his adventure, or Gandalf had led him to adventure is strange. And of course that is when Bilbo entered the greater tale and then brought Frodo into it. Heroism is something that happens to people, and their only choice is whether to continue. Sam is my favorite philosopher these days.

And the Earendil poem is, I'm pretty sure, included by Bilbo, who never could resist a chance to share one of his songs, though the modern translator might keep it because of its significance to the greater story. I don't know about Bilbo's recognizing the parallel with what will come to Frodo. That moment in the Hall of Fire when he suddenly realizes the Ring's power when he sees it in Frodo's face is a big part of his cure, but I fancy that most of Bilbo's writing is done before Frodo returns to Rivendell.

Rob Harding

Active Member
Cos it's epic lol

As a poet, the form is so complicated and beautiful. I've tried to replicate it and it's really hard to make it not trite and forced. Tolkien doesn't always have the most complex poetry or the most original structures, but this really is fantastic


This passive stance of the 'hero' having to respond to the world rather than driving the story himself is worked in from the very beginning. As Gandalf tells Frodo in The Shadow of the Past, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us"... the world is a bit too large and complicated for the hero to pick and choose his adventure.

Rob Harding

Active Member
I would say, I think it’s wrong to say heroism simply befalls people in Tolkien’s works. Adventure presents itself but I think one of the themes of Tolkien is a focus on individual choice. The choice to do the heroic thing, even when a character does not fit the heroic mold. To chose what to do with the time that is given. Bilbo certainly battles with his Baggins and Took natures but makes sacrificial heroic choices. I don’t think it’s fair to say that responding to a world presented to you is a passive choice. It may be a less bombastic and grand choice. But it can be a quieter internal heroism at times. It’s no less active in the story
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