If J.R.R. Tolkien were alive today (that most unfortunate condition!), he would be celebrating his 125th birthday. Or twelvety-fifth, I suppose.
Here is the Tolkien Ensemble’s setting of “Earendil was a Mariner,” which Bilbo sings in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The poem has an absolutely fascinating history, more so than any other Tolkien wrote.
When Tolkien was an undergraduate student at Oxford, he was a member of the original Inklings. Later, he and C.S. Lewis would be core members of another group with the same name, but this was a literature club for students. He began writing around this time a poem called “Errantry,” which is a nonsense verse, and an excuse for metrical hi-jinks. It was written in a very difficult form that Tolkien invented himself, and has loads of three-syllable assonances and near-rhymes. He never wrote another piece in the same style, it was too much trouble.
Several members of the Inklings memorized the poem, which was intended to be recited as fast as possible, with the goal of annoying everyone in hearing range. And it is a very fun poem to recite.
Over the years, Tolkien made minor changes to “Errantry,” but never worked on it for very long. While he was writing “The Lord of the Rings,” he took the poem and began revising it. If you’re a poem, you should be very afraid when your poet gets into his head to revise.
Like everything Tolkien touched, “Errantry” eventually became a part of Middle-Earth, as the “Song of Earendil.” Compare the two poems’ first lines:
There was a merry passenger
A messanger, a mariner
He built a gilded gondola
To wander in and had in her…
The Song of Earendil
Earendil was a mariner
Who tarried in Arvernien
He built a boat of timber felled
In Nimbrethel to journey in…
The only line of the original “Errantry” to survive is in stanza two, describing Earendil’s armaments, “His scabbard of chalcedony.” Quite a bit of the vocabulary is similar though.
Later in his life, a woman from Washington D.C. wrote a letter to Tolkien, asking him about “Errantry,” which at the time was not published. A friend of her’s had memorized it, and wrote it down for her, with the vague idea that it was connected to an Oxford professor.
If the poem was not yet published, how did that friend know it? If you’ll recall, members of the Inklings had memorized it, at this point some thirty years before. From them, it traveled via oral transmission all the way to the Americas, and probably beyond. Nothing, I think, could be more pleasing to a poet than his writing to become folklore. Tolkien was ecstatic, and the original “Errantry” was later published in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.”
If “Errantry” was intended to be a patter song, sung as fast as humanly possible, is the same thing true of “The Song of Earendil?” I like to think so, because it makes the scene in Rivendel so much more interesting:
- After Bilbo finishes his recital, he asks the elves to try to guess which lines were his, and which were Aragorn’s. They can’t tell the difference, make a slightly pompous excuse, and ask him to sing it again. Besides the fact that all of the lines were Bilbo’s, it could be that the elves needed another try because the first recital was too fast for them to catch most of the lines.
- Bilbo is very happy with his performance after he is finished, but unwilling to repeat it. If he sang the song very fast, he might be proud that he got it right the first time, but too exhausted for another performance.
- The prospect of singing about Earendil, Elrond’s father, in Elrond’s own house is daring, and Aragorn warns Bilbo beforehand. But nobody’s feelings are hurt. This might be because the song was so fast that nobody could tell if it was disrespectful. That would be a very Bilbo thing to do, kind of like his stunt in the first chapter.
Anyway, Tolkien seemed to think that “Errantry / The Song of Earendil” was his best poem. Granted, he wasn’t an amazing poet, but “Earendil was a Mariner” is very fun to recite, and who can say “no” to a poem with such an interesting background?
P.S. “Errantry” very hard to find online, but you can hear it here.
P.P.S. This poor fellow sings “The Song of Earendil” at a good clip. I like to think Bilbo was maybe a tad bit slower.
P.P.P.S. If you like, you could sing either version of the poem to the tune of “I am the Very Model of the Modern Major General.”