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Read the full, uninterrupted text of the poem in the previous post. Commentary follows below, along with a summary of Middle Earth astronomy and a list of resources.
Commentary on Lindë Elenion, the Song of the Stars
by Rachel Folmar
(1) Even-time is drawing nigh
And in the fastly dimming sky
Bright Anor sinks her flaming head
Anor is the Sindarin word for the Sun, so this is describing a sunset.
And silver Ithil, round and fair,
Ascends once more the starry road
Of night, and mighty figures high.
Ithil is the Sindarin word for the Moon. You might remember both the words Ithil and Anor from the lands of Ithilien and Anórien in Gondor, and also from the cities of Minas Anor and Minas Ithil (which later became Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul). An interesting sidenote: Unlike many of the myths familiar to us, the Elves always referred to the Sun as a she and the Moon as a he. Mighty figures, a term I made up, refers to the constellations.
(2) The stars of hrívë, clear and bright
Hrívë is the Quenya word for winter. (See stanza #7 for summer.)
Surround the swordsman of the sky
Arrayed in silver and in blue
Upon his shoulder a scarlet jewel.
Menelvagil, Telumehtar fair,
Shakes his sword at the frostbit air.
This is talking about the constellation Orion, commonly known as Menelvagil in Sindarin, Menelmacar in Quenya, and sometimes referred to as Telumehtar. Most of the stars in this constellation are silvery or bluish (especially Rigel), except for the bright red star on his shoulder, Betelgeuse, perhaps known to the Elves as Borgil.
(3) And at his feet soars Helluin
Ice-blue fire flickering
A drop of water in a sea of stars
Yet ever bright with silver glow
As seen by Elves awakening
In Cuiviénen, long ago.
Helluin is the Elves’ word for the star Sirius in Canis Major. The name means ice-blue. It is the brightest star in the night sky, hence the words ever bright on line 4. In the very hour of the Elves awakening in Cuiviénen, the “blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world” (Silmarillion, Ch. 3).
(4) Still even then above his helm
Yet at his side Telumendil strode
Sky-friend holding two fair jewels
One of silver, one of gold.
It is not known for sure which constellation Telumendil is, but I suspect it to be Gemini from all the different clues I’ve found. Gemini is above and a bit to the left (east) of Orion. Its main stars are Pollux (a yellowish star) and Castor (silvery-blue). Telumendil, or Sky-friend, was put in the sky to be a companion to Orion, hence the phrase on line 2 “yet at his side.” Another little sidenote: Castor is very interesting. Through binoculars or a telescope it looks like three stars, but it is in fact six stars, all rotating around each other in an intricate dance!
Anarríma near them was set –
The golden crown of Elbereth.
Another unknown constellation. Anarríma literally means “sun-border.” It’s supposed to have been put in the sky as sort of a reflection of the Sun, and, like Telumendil, it was placed above Menelvagil. There are many speculations on what it could be, most notably Corona Borealis. However, Corona Borealis is pretty faint, and it’s anything but near Orion! So I prefer to think of Anarríma as the constellation Auriga, which is the only one near enough to Orion that could be seen as circular. It looks like a bright pentagon. Its main star, Capella, is the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and even looks quite yellowish, as if it were a Sun-like jewel in the crown! For the word Elbereth, see the paragraph below.
(5) To hail the come of Menelvagil
Arise the Remmirath, the Netted Stars
Jewels blue as the sky by Anor’s light
Woven by Varda’s silver threads
The Remmirath are the Pleiades, a cluster of little stars that rises before Orion on a winter – or hrívë – night. They’re blue – as blue as the sky in the daytime, as it says in line 3. Varda is one of the Valar (or shall I say, Valier), probably the most important to the Elves. Known as Elbereth or Elentári (Star-Queen in Sindarin and Quenya, respectively), and also Gilthoniel (Star-Kindler in Sindarin, I think), she is the one who set the stars in their places.
A sentinel against the might
Of the bull from the east, and his scarlet eye.
The Pleiades are in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Tolkien didn’t write about Taurus as far as I know, so I’ve taken some artistic liberties here. I’ve never heard of a bull in Middle-Earth, but I thought that maybe they might live in the eastern lands. His scarlet eye is the red star Aldebaran. I suppose this line could hold sort of a double meaning for many of the free peoples of Middle Earth who lived when there was an ever-present threat from a certain Eye in the east.
(6) Ever swinging in the north
The Sickle of the Valar speaks
A mighty challenge to the dark
A sign of doom, a sign of hope.
The Wain, The Seven Butterflies
Valacirca reaps the fruit of the skies.
The Sickle of the Valar (Valacirca in Quenya) is what we know as the Big Dipper, in the constellation Ursa Major. This was a very important constellation, as it was put in the sky to be a challenge to Morgoth, a sign of doom to evil and of hope to Middle-Earth (Silmarillion Ch. 3). It is known by many names to the different people of Middle-Earth, most notably the Wain, or wagon, and the Seven Butterflies. “Ever swinging”: The Big Dipper is very close to the North Star, so it’s constantly above the horizon for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Hope never fades.
(7) And round the sickle lightly flying
Drinking the nectar of the night
In the north and east it flitters-
Wilwarin, the Butterfly.
Wilwarin is our constellation Cassiopeia, which looks sort of like a W or an M in the sky. It’s on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. It’s also about the same distance from the North Star, so (depending on where you live, of course) it never really dips below the horizon.
Her counterpart in lairë soars
Soronúmë, the Eagle lord.
Lairë is Quenya for summer. Soromúmë the Eagle is another uncertain constellation. The simplest guess, and the most commonly accepted, is that it’s our Aquila the Eagle, a constellation that soars the skies in the summer (it lends it brightest star, Altair, to the Summer Triangle). Seems reasonable to me!
(8) And now the seven jewels most fair
Across the sky are wandering:
These are the planets, also known as the wandering stars.
Wat’ry Nénar and Luinil blue
Nénar and Luinil are probably Neptune and Uranus, though it’s not certain which is which. On the one hand, Neptune in Roman myths is the god of the sea, so that would make Nénar Neptune and Luinil Uranus, the god of the blue sky. Nénar is derived from nén, Quenya for water; and Luinil from luin, Quenya for blue. But on the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth isn’t infallibly connected to our old myths (though our myths were, as we all know, descended in many ways from Middle Earths long ago!). And judging by color alone, Neptune is definitely the bluer planet. So who knows…. Another thing: We can’t see Neptune and Uranus with unaided eyes, but this would have probably been no problem for the Elves and their keen eyesight!
Carnil, scarlet red as war
Carnil is Mars, the Red Planet (carnë is Quenya for red).
Elemmírë and clouded Lumbar,
Elemmírë (Lit. Star-jewel) and Lumbar (clouded or shadowy) are presumably Mercury and Saturn, respectively. Although it seems a bit strange to me that bright Saturn should be labeled shadowy. We could easily atone for this by pointing out that Saturn is a gas giant, so it’s obviously cloudy. But I doubt that even the Elves would be able to see that! So maybe Elemmírë is in fact Saturn (maybe the Elves perceived its ring?), and Lumbar is Mercury. But I really don’t know.
Alcarinquë, glorious star.
This is majestic Jupiter, brightest of all the planets except for Venus.
(9) And on the edge of night arising
The Mariner sails his glistening ship
Beyond the starlight journeying
Through shades of rose, and silver and blue
Eärendil bears the Silmaril
Star of Hope, and brightest of jewels.
The Star of Eärendil, brightest and most beautiful of all stars (and probably the most frequently mentioned!), is Venus. Eärendil the Mariner sails his ship Vingilot beyond the starlight, but he’s seen most often glimmering in the sunrise or sunset, as he comes back to Valinor. A Silmaril, brightest of jewels, is bound upon his brow. The sight of the star of Eärendil brought hope to the people, especially the Elves, of Middle-Earth. The story of Eärendil in the Silmarillion is really quite beautiful – read it if you haven’t already!
(10) When winter’s bite has met its night
And breezes warm from the sea are blown
A white swan lifts its wings to fly
And sails the stars to islands far
As sail the ships of Alqualond
Across the sea by Valimar.
One of my favorite constellations is Cygnus the Swan, and I couldn’t write any poem about the night sky without including it! Since as far as I know Tolkien didn’t record any Middle-Earth lore for the Swan, I made up my own. This constellation lifts its wings to fly in the summertime, right by Aquila the Eagle (otherwise known as Soronúmë). In fact, Cygnus’ brightest star Deneb is another star in the Summer Triangle. As for the last two lines: Alqualondë (literally Swan-haven), which I took the liberty of shortening to Alqualond for poetic reasons, is a port in Valinor. The ships there are shaped in the form of swans (the model for the ships of Lothlórien). Valimar, or Valmar (meaning Home of the Valar), is a city where many of the Valar lived. Though it is not right next to Alqualondë, it is easy for me to imagine the Elves, who longed to be in Valinor with the Valar, speaking of it so.
Middle Earth astronomy, summary
- Arda: the Universe
- Eä (literally the verb “to be,” “is”): the Universe or Solar System
- Alcarinquë: Jupiter
- Anar, Anor, Naira, Vása: The Sun
- Anarríma (“Sun-border”): Possibly Auriga. Some speculation has been made that it might be Corona Borealis, but it is said that Anarríma was near Orion, and Corona Borealis isn’t. [Perhaps Sun-border refers to a constellation along the ecliptic, the path of the Sun, or near one of the equinox or solstice points.]
- Borgil: Betelgeuse or Aldebaran
- Carnil: Mars
- Eärendil: Venus
- Elemmírë (“Star-jewel”): Saturn or Mercury
- elen, él, tinwë, nillë; gil, tim, tinw, êl: star
- Helluin (“ice-blue”), Nielluin, Niellúnë, Nierninwa (“tear-blue” or “bee-blue”): Sirius
- Isil, Ithil, Rána: The Moon
- Luinil: Uranus or Neptune
- Lumbar: Mercury or Saturn
- Menelmacar, Menelvagil, Telumehtar (“Swordsman of the Sky”): Orion
- Morwinyon: Arcturus, in Boötes
- Nénar: Neptune or Uranus
- Remmirath (“Netted Stars”): The Pleiades
- Valacirca (“Sickle of the Valar”), Cerch iM(b)elain, The Wain/Wagon, The Seven Butterflies: Big Dipper/Ursa Major
- Soronúmë (“Eagle of the West,” I think): Possibly Aquila – is said to be in the west with outstretched wings
- Telumendil (“Sky-friend”): Possibly Gemini – is said to be above Orion, set as a companion for him; or perhaps Boötes, containing the bright star Arcturus.
- tingilyë, tingilindë: twinkling star
- Wilwarin (“Butterfly”): Cassiopeia
I used these resources for the Song of the Stars:
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
- Helge K. Fauskanger, “Ardalambion,” http://www.ardalambion.com
- Remmirath, Stars of Middle Earth from the Council of Elrond, The Encyclopedia of Arda
DISCLAIMER: The purpose of this site is to help myself and others explore the depths and beauties of J.R.R. Tolkien’s incredible universe. By all means I do not know everything, and I’m sure there are many mistakes. If you have any comments and/or suggestions, feel free to email them to me.
Note: My daughter Rachel wrote this poem and commentary many years ago and posted them as pages on her homepage.mac.com website. Since that service went away this past July, I’m reposting some of that content here, along with some drawings that she made around the same time. Cf. Rachel’s current blog, Onward Into Light. For further reading on Tolkien and astronomy, a good place to start are some articles by Kristine Larsen (Rachel did not have access to these, as they were published after Rachel wrote her poem):
- “A Definitive Identification of Tolkien’s “Borgil”: An Astronomical and Literary Approach.” Tolkien Studies 2 (2005): 161-70.
- “Swords and Sky Stones.” Mallorn 44 (2006): 22-26.
- “Myth, Milky Way, and the Mysteries of Tolkien’s Morwinyon, Telumendil, and Anarríma.” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 197-210.
- “Tolkien’s Burning Briar: An Astronomical Explanation.” Mallorn 43 (2005): 49-52.
- “Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorpohses of Earendel and Elwing.” Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Ed. Fisher, Jason. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. 69-83.
- “An Elrond by Any Other Name.” Mallorn 53 (2012): 4-8.
Among other interesting tidbits, in these articles Larsen suggests that Elwing is Mercury (companion to Venus/Eärendil); Borgil is Aldebaran (not Betelgeuse); and Anarríma is Sagittarius (containing the most southerly point of the ecliptic, the location of the Sun at the Winter Solstice).