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Old 06-03-2012, 10:47 AM   #1
LalwendŰ
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Silmaril The Transit of Earendil

Getting the puns out of the way first, it's not about Eomer going in a van...

This week we might, if we are lucky, get to see the final pass of the Transit of Venus before the next one in 2117. I've been reading about it this afternoon, and soon got onto thinking about whether Tolkien used the phenomenon in his work (eclipses are explained).

Now in Tolkien's works, Venus is commonly held to be represented by the 'star' Earendil, which so the story goes, is the man Earendil, traversing the heavens with a silmaril bound to his brow. I was trying to find out of there was any instance of the Transit of Venus in Tolkien's work, and came across this odd passage so I'm after thoughts:

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On those journeys Elwing did not go, for she might not endure the cold and the pathless voids, and she loved rather the earth and the sweet winds that blow on sea and hill. Therefore there was built for her a white tower northward upon the borders of the Sundering Seas; and thither at times all the sea-birds of the earth repaired. And it is said that Elwing learned the tongues of birds, who herself had once worn their shape; and they taught her the craft of flight, and her wings were of white and silver-grey. And at times, when Earendil returning drew near again to Arda, she would fly to meet him, even as she had flown long ago, when she was rescued from the sea. Then the far-sighted among the Elves that dwelt in the Lonely Isle would see her like a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the sunset, as she soared in joy to greet the coming of Vingilot to haven.
Elwing does not go with Earendil, she doesn't even always join him in the skies. But sometimes she does. I think this isn't the Transit of Venus/Earendil, as the description is totally out. But what might it equate to in astronomy? If anything?

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the far-sighted among the Elves that dwelt in the Lonely Isle would see her like a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the sunset, as she soared in joy to greet the coming of Vingilot to haven
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Old 06-03-2012, 11:47 AM   #2
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An interesting topic, I must say.

Since the "meeting" of Elwing with Eńrendil is described as being an infrequent, unpredictable event, I'd put it forth that a comet might be responsible for the Elwing-sighting.

From the description given, "like a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the sunset", I think something like this is a plausible representation.
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Old 06-03-2012, 02:01 PM   #3
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According to Kristine Larsen in page 77 of “Sea Birds and Morning Stars” (Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), Elwing is the planet Mercury.

She points out that Mercury, as the planet closest to the sun, is like Venus (Eńrendil), a morning and evening star, but because of its dimness and it tending to be in the light of the sun is far less visible than Venus.

Larsen’s article may be the first time that this theory has been published. But the identical theory was suggested to me by Chris Gilson at Mythcon 10, July 1979, and seemed logical to me then. So it is not a new theory.

Larsen adds that “Mercury’s low angular light above the horizon gives it a color referred to by various observers as yellow, ochre, or rose.” This fits with Tolkien describing Elwing rising to attempt to meet Eńrendil as “rose-stained in the sunset”.

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Old 06-03-2012, 02:18 PM   #4
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That makes sense, though it's a little difficult to see a planet appearing as a "white bird".
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Old 06-03-2012, 04:50 PM   #5
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It might be another case of metaphors (like the Balrog) - Tolkien says "like a white bird". It may be more to do with the rising than looking like a bird? I like this theory. We've got a couple of articles about Tolkien and astronomy at home (and other scientific subjects) but I didn't find anything to explain this passage about Elwing at all.

If anyone finds anything which may be some kind of reference to the Transit of Venus that would be fantastic. I started out by looking for these, failed, and found that odd reference to Elwing instead. I wouldn't be surprised if there were none as Tolkien never experienced one in his lifetime, there was a large gap between 1882 and 2004. He must have experienced the eclipse of 1927 and he does explain these in a Middle-earth context.
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Old 06-03-2012, 07:25 PM   #6
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Tolkien writes:
And it is said that Elwing learned the tongue of birds, who herself had worn their shape; and they taught her the craft of flight, and her wings were of white and silver-grey. And at times, when Eńrendil returning drew near again to Arda, she would fly to meet him, even as she had flown long ago when she was rescued from the sea.
Elwing does not fly in a sky-craft like her husband Eńrendil but flies like a bird on white and grey wings that the Elves have made for her and so naturally can be described as being “seen like a white bird”.

Kristine Larsen considers the story of Eńrendil and Elwing to be based in part on discrepant Greek myths of Ceyx and (H)alyone. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceyx and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcyone . The same idea appears in The Keys of Middle-Earth by Stuart D. Lee and Elizabeth Solopova (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2005). In one fragment in The Book of Lost Tales: Part II (p. 255) Elwing never regains her human form but is destined to be unfound by Eńrendil until the Faring Forth. It is possible that at this stage in the tale Elwing was conceived as actually being in the form of a seabird when she flew after her husband and Tolkien has later changed it to a disenchanted Elwing clothed and winged to appear somewhat like a seabird.

Note that while Tolkien’s Eńrendil becomes the Dawn-star the Greek Ceyx is son of the Dawn-star.

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