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Written for the LOTR Community Nonfiction challenge
On the Nature of Tol Eressëa
The Quenta Silmarillion tells us that originally the island of Tol Eressëa was fixed midway between the two continents of the world, in the midst of the Sea between Endorë where the Children of Ilúvatar awoke and the land of Aman, where dwelt the Valar and their servants. When the Valar decided that they could best protect the Eldar by drawing them to their presence in Aman, they sought to find a means to bring them there safely. At that time the northernmost reaches of Endorë and Aman almost touched, separated only by a narrow sea of grinding ice, what in time came to be known as the Helcaraxë; but the Valar would not bring the Elves to them by that route, considering it to be far too dangerous. Instead they chose to ferry those who answered their summons across the Sea, and the island of Eressëa was used as the vehicle for this voyage. We are told that Ulmo uprooted it from the floor of the Sea and brought it to the Bay of Balar off the mouths of the River Sirion, and that the Vanyar and the Noldor crossed over onto it, and so were drawn to Aman.
The Teleri, however, did not make the first crossing, having remained within the Hither Lands where many were engaged in searching for their missing king, Elwë having come across the Maia Melyanna in terrestrial guise in a grove and the two of them having gone into a trance of mutual enchantment at the sight of one another. It was some time before Elwë’s brother Olwë took over leadership of those of their people who desired to go further West and brought them to the shores of Beleriand near the mouths of Sirion, and there Ossë and Uinen, Ulmo’s greatest vassals, taught them much about the ways of the Sea and so kept watch over them.
It was a very long time before it was decided to send Eressëa back for those of the Teleri who wished to come to Aman. It was anchored by one corner once more in the Bay of Balar, and the Teleri appear to have crossed over onto it and back fairly freely before at last Ulmo drew it away from Endorë back again to Aman, leaving behind the corner piece which became the Island of Balar. Not all of the Teleri chose to leave the Hither Shore, however. Some chose to remain as the Falathrim on the western coast of Beleriand, where under the guidance of Círdan they built ships and sailed along the coastlines of the eastern continent. Others remained constant in their allegiance to Elwë, and when at last he emerged with his semi-divine bride and founded his first kingdom they gathered about him once more.
Ossë followed after those of the Teleri who chose to sail west upon the floating island, and once they came into the waters of the Bay of Eldemar Ulmo was begged to settle the island there rather than to run it into the mainland so that they might walk ashore as had happened with the Vanyar and the Noldor. In this way the island once more became fixed, now considered a part of Aman although still separated from it by the waters of the bay.
Again the Teleri remained for quite some time upon the island, dwelling apart from their kindred who lived in Tirion upon Túna and those of the Vanyar who had removed further to the lower slopes of Taniquetl. At last Ulmo brought ships to them drawn by swans so that they might come to the coastal lands where they founded Alqualondë.
We are not told whether some of those who’d come to these waters from Endorë might have remained upon the island, but it is likely that just as some of the original Teleri refused to give over their search for Elwë and others chose to remain behind on the shores of the Bay of Balar as the Falathrim, that a few would choose to remain upon the island where they had so long been in communion with Ulmo and Ossë. This had, after all, long been their home, and it was familiar to them.
The Silmarillion speaks of but one city built upon the island, that of Avallonë, which is variously described as looking across to Aman itself but the tower of which is said to be the first glimpse those on arriving ships might see of the island. Certainly the Tower of Avallonë was recognized as the only glimpse of the Undying Lands granted to those who dwelt upon the island of Númenor, looking from the western shoreline of the Star Isle and the tower eventually built by one of its rulers. As most of the descriptions given in the Silmarillion of this city indicate it is seen from the east, it is most likely that it indeed was built upon the eastern shores of the island and looked back toward Middle Earth or on a prominence either northeast or southeast with views both east and west. (Unless, of course, the island was particularly long with a narrow isthmus of sorts toward the center where the city could be situated looking both ways.)
Other cities are described in the volumes of HoME, although just how canonical they might be considered is perhaps questionable, as many of the details given, for instance, in the Books of Lost Tales were later discarded or radically changed in Tolkien’s later writings. It is likely, however, that there was more than one city or major settlement upon the Lonely Island, particularly as there were many different kindreds of Elves who eventually came to dwell there.
I somehow doubt many if any of the original Noldor and Vanyar who were party to the first ferrying of Elves to Aman would have chosen to linger there—these two parties appear to have been too eager to answer the summons of the Valar to linger on this bit of land once it reached its destination. But considering how long the Teleri appear to have dwelt upon it both while it remained in the Bay of Balar and once it was fixed in the Bay of Eldemar, it is likely that some of the second ferrying would have chosen to remain there indefinitely. There was nothing to stop them from periodically sailing to the continent proper for visits with friends and kinsmen and then returning home again to their familiar place, after all. Those of the Noldor who accepted the pardon of the Valar after the War of Wrath were allowed to settle upon the Lonely Isle originally, with indications that perhaps they might be proscribed at least for a time from going further to return to Tirion or to seek other lands upon the continent itself. It is likely that some of these might have been accompanied by other Elves who’d refused the first summons, perhaps some of the Avari or Falathrim who had joined the various settlements and kingdoms set up by the different Noldo lords who now sought out new homes in a land relatively unsullied by the actions of Melkor and his people. Then there are those who sailed later in ships primarily wrought in Edhellond or by Círdan, and perhaps a few built by individuals such as Legolas is said to have done for small parties, many of whom would have settled on Eressëa at least at first, although Tolkien indicates many of these might have gone on to Aman proper in time. Legolas was of mixed blood, we are told, while many of the Elves who fled Middle Earth after the awakening of the Balrog in Khazad-dûm appear to have been as much Sindarin as Noldo in breeding. I’ve seen nothing, for instance, to indicate either Amroth or Nimrodel was Noldo, and Tolkien has described Celeborn, husband to Galadriel Artanis, variously as having come from Aman and as being a Sinda or one of those who first counted Elwë as his lord—one can apparently take one’s pick as to which kindred one wishes him to be allied with. As for those who were reembodied after deaths in either the slaughter of Alqualondë or in the various wars in Middle Earth, it is likely that many of these would find more familiar faces and customs in those who made their homes on Eressëa than in Aman proper, or so it seems to me, as well as physical distance from the sites most strongly associated with the traumas of their deaths.
With so many different parties, it is most likely there were a fair number of settlements at least, and probably more than one major city, with trading centers upon the western shores of the island where ships sailed regularly to and from Aman. Those who dwelt in Avallonë appear to have included a fairly large contingent of those who returned to the Undying Lands after the War of Wrath, for it is said that the commerce with the people of Númenor originated there, and that the master stone of the Palantirí was housed in the Tower of Avallonë.
What was the island like? Originally it was neither of Middle Earth nor Aman, having been taken, we are told, from the midst of the Sundering Sea and brought to the Mortal Lands solely for the purpose of serving as a ferry for those who answered the summons of the Valar. That being true, it undoubtedly had its own unique climate, flora, and fauna to begin with. Certainly the two trips between the Bay of Balar and Aman would have caused major alterations to all of these each time it was brought to a new location.
The second time it was anchored off Beleriand it appears to have remained in place for quite some time, and the Teleri appear to have crossed to and from it numerous times before at last Ulmo pulled up stakes and drew it to its final site in the Bay of Eldemar. During this time it most likely adapted to the climate of Beleriand, and was probably seeded with plants by windborne seeds, birds, and those Teleri who began making their home there in preparation for their eventual removal to the Undying Lands. They also probably brought with them familiar animals, and particularly domesticated creatures such as pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, poultry of various sorts, dogs, cats, and so on. Birds, insects, and wild animals probably also crossed to the island from the mainland, perhaps by bridges or by flying or swimming to the shores of the island, most likely fleeing predators or wild fires, or in search of a better environment with more food sources and fewer enemies. How much of the original plants and animals from the island might have been transplanted to the mainland is still another question, much less how many of them might have survived the journeys the island had already made, considering changes in climate and competition from imported species.
Still, it is likely that by the time the island arrived in its final place it had been developing a new ecosystem that was further modified by the influences of the climate of the bay in which it was settled and what new plants and animals managed to make it there from Aman by accident or design. It appears that some plants such as athelas, perhaps mellyrn, and definitely the White Trees of Gondor came to Middle Earth either from Eressëa directly or by way of Númenor, gifts to Elros Tar-Minyatur’s people from friends who’d come to Avallonë after the War of Wrath. (Although it is most likely the mallorn and some other plants associated primarily with Elves would have been carried to Middle Earth by those who fled Aman by way of the stolen swan ships or who survived the crossing of the Helcaraxë.)
In this way, Eressëa easily fit its new purpose in serving as a staging area for those newly come to Aman from the Mortal Lands, marrying as it undoubtedly did in the end the flora and fauna of Endorë with that of the Undying Lands and what remained of its own original species. It would be familiar in many ways to those newly come from the shores and woodlands of the Hitherlands, while the differences would help them make the transition to eventual settlement, should it become desired, on the mainland.
Then there is the question of the atmosphere of the place. We are told that the air of Aman proper, being so pure and so recently breathed by the Valar, was so rarified that it would not long support those with mortal blood. Tolkien tells us that those mortals who saw the shores of Aman rarely survived long, as their bodies were quickly burnt out, possibly aging rapidly. It was in light of this that I wrote my own rather AU tale of Pharazôn’s forces setting foot on the shores of Aman and rapidly succumbing to the air of the place and dying of the sudden onset of old age on the beaches, the bodies returned to their own rapidly decaying ships by the locals and towed out to sea for disposal by Ulmo’s Maiar. Was it possibly at least in part the fact that their physical bodies were strongly affected by the air of the place that Eärendil and Elwing could not return to their sons and people who’d survived the sack of Sirion? I suspect that both the effects of the air and the use of the power of the Silmaril in finding their way to Aman each played its part in bringing about the special doom shared by this pair by burning away their mortality to the extent they could no longer survive should they have returned to the Mortal Lands.
How true would this be of the island? Would it, too, swiftly slay its mortal visitors, or could they perhaps enjoy a slightly longer time of residence considering it was not wholly of Aman but had its own unique ecosystem and was somewhat removed from the purer air of Aman proper by the influence of the Sea surrounding it?
One can choose either way, I think. So it is that I personally chose to have Frodo stubbornly clinging to life in spite of the delicate state of his physical body until he was certain whether Sam would come to join him, but that once that wish was fulfilled both soon chose to let go their lives with thanks in order to reach for the Gift to mortals and seek to be reunited with those they’d loved and perhaps to find the Presence of the Creator.
How this must have fascinated the other residents of the island. Those who’d never known mortals must have watched the deaths of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and Gimli with a degree of awe, while those who’d fought alongside Men and Dwarves in the wars against Morgoth and Sauron must have been gladdened to see mortals this time dying in peace and honor rather than by violence, debilitating illness, starvation, exposure, or betrayal.
I do doubt, however, that any of the Hobbits or Gimli would have been taken to the continent itself, as to do so would undoubtedly have so greatly limited their time as to make it hard to know the healing and fulfillment each deserved.
A fascinating place, the lonely island of Tol Eressëa, perhaps the only place where so badly damaged a creature as Frodo Baggins might have found sufficient physical and spiritual healing as to be able once again to rejoice fully in life in spite of his separation from his own land and people and all that he’d formerly loved.
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