It is 100 years since Middle-earth began. The earliest glimpse of any character or situation from his mythology was in a poem, ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’, which J.R.R. Tolkien dated 24 September 1914. He wrote it at the home of his aunt Jane Neave, Phoenix Farm in Gedling, Nottinghamshire.
I examine Tolkien’s 1914 creative breakthrough closely in the forthcoming Tolkien Studies 11, I give a brief account of those findings in a centenary article for the Guardian, and I star in a Tolkien Society video speaking about it all to at the annual Oxonmoot gathering. What follows here is a further insight which didn’t make it into those pieces.
A century on, it’s worth probing whether this poem really counts as the first poem of Tolkien’s legendarium. Though Humphrey Carpenter identifies ‘The Voyage of Éarendel’ as ‘the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology’ (Biography 79), Tolkien himself did not do so explicitly. And there are still vital ingredients missing from it. ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’ has a basic connection with the later story of Eärendil – the idea of a mariner who sails over the brink of the world and becomes the Evening Star Venus. But the September 1914 Éarendel lacks all clear motive for his voyage, lacks a history of any sort, lacks a Silmaril, and even lacks an Elvish name – the name Éarendel is straight out of Anglo-Saxon.
And Tolkien actually gave the label ‘the first poem of the mythology’ to one written ten months later, July 1915’s ‘The Shores of Faery’ (The Book of Lost Tales, part two, 271), which has enduring Middle-earth elements such as the Two Trees, but also has names such as Valinor and Taniquetil in his invented languages – the genuine hallmark of his legendarium.
However, there is evidence that he did indeed see the writing of ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’ as the breakthrough moment. I’d like to claim credit for detective work here – but in fact it was all down to my mother, though she has never read Tolkien.
In ‘The Notion Club Papers’, Tolkien’s 1945–46 story of Inklings-like figures in Oxford getting drawn into the lost Númenorean past , one Club member, Lowdham, quotes lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist:
‘Éalá Éarendel engla beorhtost
ofer middangeard monnum sended!
— and adds: ‘“Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men!” When I came across that citation in the dictionary I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English….’ (Sauron Defeated 236)
In his 1977 J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (72), Carpenter puts these fictional words in Tolkien’s own mouth – a sleight of hand, but not an outrageous one. After all, Tolkien is plainly putting his own memory into the head of Alwin Arundel Lowdham.
He’s also doing some pretty obvious signposting with those names. I don’t need to explain Arundel – it’s the name of a real town in Sussex, but its purpose in ‘The Notion Club Papers’ is to remind us of the names Éarendel and Eärendil. Alwin is a version of Old English Ælfwine, which means ‘elf-friend’ and therefore connects this character with the elf-friends in Tolkien’s legendarium – notably the mariner Ælfwine who hears and records the Lost Tales of the Elves.
But what about the surname Lowdham?
Christopher Tolkien notes (Sauron Defeated 151) that ‘The fact that Lowdham is “loud” and makes jokes often at inappropriate moments derives from [Hugo] Dyson’ – the Inkling who famously kiboshed readings of The Lord of the Rings by complaining ‘Oh God, not another Elf!’ And indeed one manuscript has Dyson’s initials next to the name. But as Christopher observes: ‘Lowdham is the very antithesis of Dyson in his learning and interests.’ In fact, the character voicing J.R.R. Tolkien’s memory of discovering the name Éarendel is more like an alter ego of the author himself.
Here my mother comes in. I happened to be showing her a map of the area just east of Nottingham. This is the location of the village of Gedling where Tolkien was staying when he wrote ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’. Rather randomly, my mother read out the name of a neighbouring village, Lowdham. L-O-W-D-H-A-M: the distinctive spelling matches the character’s surname, though no one seems to have made the connection between the two until now. I’m told by Andrew H. Morton, author of the excellent focused study Tolkien’s Gedling 1914, that the village of Lowdham would have been a pleasant spot, just the right distance for a Sunday walk from Gedling.
So Lowdham of the Notion Club not only speaks Tolkien’s memory of the 1914 Éarendel discovery, but is named for the immediate area of the poem’s composition. It’s also worth noting that on the fake title page Tolkien drew for ‘The Notion Club Papers’ (Sauron Defeated 154), the date of publication is 2014.
Surely here he was thinking consciously, as we are now, of the centenary of Middle-earth, and identifying its beginning as the poem he wrote on 24 September 1914. The light of Éarendel shines throughout the external history of Middle-earth as surely as it shines through the internal history, going from the Two Trees all the way to Frodo’s star glass.
- My new booklet Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford undergraduate invented Middle-earth is now available via my website. With 64 pages and more than 40 images, including previously unseen original sketches by and photographs of Tolkien, it incorporates extensive new research to add significantly to the account I give in Tolkien and the Great War.
- I write much more about Tolkien’s 1914 creative breakthrough in my article ‘“The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-earth in 1914’, due out imminently in Tolkien Studies 11.