Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of Cuivienen near a Blue Moon

Note: I am a J.R.R. Tolkien fan. This post refers to a lot of Tolkien that I make little attempt to explain. As such, at times it can be like a baseball fan reading the details of a cricket match. Sorry about that if it makes the post more difficult for you. There are plenty of links to get lost in if you want to explore any of it.

Last Saturday, just after sunset on what turned out to be a bright open sky adorned with small tears of clouds in a reflected orange hue, I lit another camp fire in our newly designated fire pit behind our house. It burned warm and strong as the stars came out and what was close to a Blue Moon rose behind us. Vega and Deneb appeared in the darkening blue near the zenith. Jupiter had been shining for awhile.

Jennifer and I sat by the fire. We talked and drank and watched the vista of fall color trees on the ridge to our west fading against a twilight glow. I had a beer. She had a Gentleman Jack. The fire peaked and died down after it got dark. I wanted to keep it small. The rise of the almost Blue Moon was pronounced in the silver-blue radiance it cast upon the ground. Our shadows were obvious in spite of the licking flames from the modest fire.

I placed a large log in the heart of the fire and things simmered. Wood crackled and cinders touched the star dotted sky. Some fire sparkles drifting briefly upward could have been shooting stars.

I had to take my daughter to a late-starting spend-the-night gathering at a friend’s house. The fire became a dying glow by the time we left, still warm against the rising night chill; a small trail of smoke columned into the darkness, reaching toward the bright disk of moon. But, when I returned about 20 minutes later there rose from the pit a raging thing with livid flicks of fire roaring in defiant anger at the night. Jennifer was throwing on more wood, drinking more Gentleman Jack. Our dog Charlie was watching her conjure the flames. She had music blasting from her iPhone nested in a portable speaker system.

She hugged me, laughing, and attempted to sing Dancing in the Moonlight, although she could only manage to chant the title over and over without any other lyric from the song. She was her own private party, dancing and howling at the moon with the fire matching her karmic intensity. The transformation was something to behold.

But, before all that happened, before I left to take my daughter, as Jennifer and I sat in the complimenting glow of the fire and the moon, I thought of Tolkien, as I often do in bright moonlight and other times. The special luminosity inspires within me a recollection of a lake called Cuivienen from The Silmarillion. There is something about the shadows cast by the subtle silvery radiance in the comparative stillness of the moonlit night that often makes me think of the Coming of the Elves to Middle Earth.

In truth the moonlight is inappropriate for Cuivienen, the Water of Awakening. For Middle Earth in this distant time before even the First Age began was under none but starlight. Still, nature’s light in the night sky connects me to the surprise and marvel of the Valar themselves when they first beheld the Elves created by Iluvatar himself.

The Valar had done much to perpetuate the creation of Middle Earth, fashioning a pristine natural world for the benefit of the Elves. Some of the world was already marred, however. The Valar had been at war with the most powerful of their kind, Melkor (a.k.a. Morgoth - Tolkien has many names for everything, being a philologist by trade he invented many languages for his fictional world), for eons of unmeasured time. Morgoth had wrought destruction of the great Lamps of Light in Almaren, the original dwelling place of the Valar, servant powers Iluvatar had made in the Great Music. But, the Valar knew the time was nigh for the coming of Iluvatar’s most personal creation besides the Valar themselves – the Elves. One of the Valar made a final touch-up on Middle Earth.

“Then she began a great labour, the greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda. She took the silver dews from the vats of Telperion, and therewith she made new stars and brighter against the coming of the Firstborn; wherefore she whose name out of the deeps of time and the labours of Ea was Tintalle, the Kindler, was called after by the Elves Elentari, Queen of the Stars.” (page 48)

Just in time, as it turns out. For...

“By the starlit mere of Cuivienen, Water of Awakening, they rose from their sleep of Iluvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuivienen their eyes beheld first the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentrai above all the Valar.” (page 48)

Reading Tolkien’s masterwork, The Silmarillion, is like reading the Old Testament. It is often difficult to slog through the dense, somewhat archaic, and highly detailed prose. Though a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s world, I have only read The Silmarillion all the way through once (by contrast, I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings eight times). I have, however, read certain chapters of it several times and refer back to the work frequently during periods of heightened interest in Tolkien.

Its greatest chapter, which I have read on numerous occasions, is the story of Beren and Luthien. To me, this is the greatest tale in all of Tolkien’s work and it is rightly woven into the rich background fabric of the more famous Rings trilogy. Tolkien first wrote of Beren and Luthien in a long, unfinished poem which I have in my library and have read once several years ago. It is probably the longest poem I have ever read, running some 4200 lines, though never completed. Tolkien toiled over it for six years before (as he did with some much of his work) discarding it.

Then he summarized the story of the poem in captivating detail, completing the plot as a chapter in The Silmarillion. It was Beren, too, as it happens, that first beheld the lovely Luthien in a moonlit clearing of an enchanted forest. It was there he fell in love with her. Later, she came to love him too, though theirs was a classic, forbidden romance, Beren being human and Luthien being of Elven-Maiar descent.

"It is told in the Lay of Leithian that Beren came stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road. But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at the time of the evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar." (page 165)

After a heroic story of epic proportions easily rivaling the action and events of the more popular tale of the Rings of Power, Beren and Luthien are wed and their off-spring, half-human, half-Elven (even part Maiar, but that gets a bit too deep – as is common with Tolkien – for this post) are manifest in the character of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.

Moonlight and starlight play a noteworthy role in Tolkien’s world. For the Elves, it all started under the perpetual stars, before the sun was even made, at a lake called Cuivienen. So, my mind assembled all this reading in an instant last Saturday night by the camp fire. It evoked certain tranquility and beauty tinged with sadness in the depth of Time within me as only Tolkien can conjure.

The moon cast vivid shadows, even as Jennifer summoned a larger fire from the pit and music played and we were bathed in a resplendent shine of silver-blue, as when Beren first beheld Luthien long ago, ere Morgoth was subdued, two full ages before the Rings were ever wrought.

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