The Sundering Sea

“For so great was the fury of those adversaries that the northern regions of the western world were rent asunder, and the sea roared in through many chasms, and there was confusion and great noise; and rivers perished or found new paths, and the valleys were upheaved and the hills trod down, and Sirion was no more.” Silmarillion

“That’s all very well and fine,” I said, stroking the black cat in my lap, “but what of those who lived there? Moriquendi that had not sought the havens, and Haleth’s people...”

Malcolm didn’t answer save to knead kidneys in that “You‘re mine and no question about it” way that cats have.

Imagining the tumult and that great cataclysm set me to thinking. So much had been learned in the last hundred years from archaeology and other branches of science, some of it beyond the scope of Tolkien’s wildest fancies. In his day, scholars of the ancient world only knew about the world of Men, and somewhat of that of beasts and bones. Weather, climate change, meteor showers, plagues, solar fluctuations, the short-term calamities that send legends and myths spinning on their heads for all time didn’t leave many fossils. Tolkien couldn’t have known of the sudden infilling of the Black Sea in just a few years. The recent discovery of that event had triggered a flood of sensational headlines sporting the words “Noah” and “Atlantis”, as usual, before the scientists put the champagne away and settled down to spend a few decades sifting through the details. In the meantime scholars had to wait for more evidence.

Yet my imagination had been captured by humble Neolithic ruins on the sea-bottom, blanketed by soft gray muck; wooden houses and clay pots too fragile to withstand raging floods or battering waves. The water must have come up around them as gently as death taking an old man in his sleep. By some estimates, the waters had risen at such a rate that refugees could have walked all day, set up camp for the night, and woken the next morning to find the lake’s shore lapping a few hundred yards away. Such terror. No fire and brimstone, no wrath of heaven, no downfall of Númenor sliding into a great abyss, no visible sign of why the gods were angry or at least a bang-up thunderstorm to give some visible cause: the waters just kept rising inexorably, silently, apparently with no sign they’d ever stop until they’d covered all the world. Or at least, some scientists guessed it had happened that way.

It was those long-ago moments that might have been, that could have been which fascinated scholars like me with too much poetry at heart to make good academics. Tolkien managed to have both academic rigor and Homer’s Muse, for which I envied him. Knowing many of the sources that had inspired his own ancient worlds that never really were but might have been, could have been, I wondered what threads the Black Sea’s flood might’ve woven into the Akallabêth, the Downfall of Beleriand, or tales of Middle-earth now lost to those of us forced to live in this Sixth Age where we can only dream of the First.

I went to bed that night with the Santa Ana winds brushing my windows, breathing like surf. They are not really the voice of the ocean, but rather the dry sagebrush kiss of the desert sixty miles inland. Nor was Orange County much like Mithlond. No gods had drowned Hawai’i under the sea, in spite of the Lords of Real Estate who placed housing developments on Pele’s sacred lands, only to discover that the native custom of not building downhill from an active volcano wasn’t simply “quaint superstition”. Japan was not actually Aman, nor, really, were New Zealand and Oz, being a little farther south than Tolkien envisioned: never mind my friend’s tales of getting “orc’d up” and cringing from Nazgûls, having recently moved to a place he described as “just behind the quarry of Helm’s Deep.” Yet it pleased me to be on the borders of the Sundering Sea, and to dream of Middle-earth and our Bent Earth and the many ways other than the Straight Path which connected the two.

“Cân i aear,” I told Malcolm as I drifted off, and he performed purr service on the edge of the pillow. “The sea calls.” I listened to the roar of the wind and the drowning of Beleriand and fell asleep pondering Sirion the drowned river, of which Anduin and the Mississippi and the Nile would always be mere echoes.

I awoke under a sparkling canopy of leaves.

The forest was old, hushed and still. The lower trunks of the ancient birches had cracked into twisted, deeply-fissured black bark like old lava. The mould on the forest floor was thick and rich, an overpowering scent of life as deep as the rainforest in Oz. Yet it also reminded me of my beloved beech-woods and maple-stands in the Brandywine Valley where I grew up— no one ever believed me— among mushroom farmers named Brackin and Groat and Pyle and Rakestraw and Alonzo. (The Alonzos were obviously from Outside.) All my childhood I thought that Tolkien was a neighbor, and that my beloved silver-girthed beeches whose leaves turned gold in the fall were mallorns.

There were no beeches here, however. I was still lying under a swaying cathedral of living trees with ghostly white trunks, rather different from the palm trees of my own particular Mithlond, and the dream didn’t seem to be going anywhere yet. I decided I’d better help it along by getting up and taking a stroll. It really was a very beautiful wood, with a brighter sun than that of the waking world shining down through the birch-leaves. The songs of the birds were so musical, so pure, that it was like walking in a dream. Which of course I was.

Eventually I spotted a pitted, moss-covered wooden stockade, half in ruins, glimpsed some distance off through the trees. Ah. Now we were getting somewhere. Eager to see what this dream was going to be about, and hoping it wouldn’t descend into awkwardness with plumbing or misplacing my teacher’s notes or honking daffodils, but rather a proper adventure with some swords swinging about, I strode briskly towards the ancient plank wall, hoping for some sign the story was about to start.

“Mas Telich?”

My friends had warned me I had been studying too much Elvish for my sanity, and I was very pleased to discover proof of their complaint. Sindarin was finally starting to work my way into my dreams. I turned around to see a short, stocky man with grizzled sandy hair and a beard that was greasier than I expected Viggo’s hair to be by the end of the films. But this man was not outfitted by his costumer, nor mine. In my various antiquarian studies I had never come across the cut of the tunic he was wearing, the kilt, the heavy twill fabric, or the dappled pattern on his fur boots. He was scruffier than most medieval reenactors, yet the practical, simple garb he was wearing looked far more plausible for stumping around in the woods and carrying home deer on one’s shoulders than any amount of hoods or studded leather. Slung from a strap over his left shoulder was a little nine-string harp, a round cylinder-shape like the stout branch from which it as carved, hollowed out like a drum with strings stretched across the opening. My fingers itched to try it.

The man’s face was craggy and weathered, and his eyes were keen, blue, and appropriately piercing. Yet this didn’t feel like one of my dreams. It felt like somebody else’s. Tolkien’s? No, no, he was into epic, not Jackson’s dirty fingernails, which were certainly evident here.

“Im Haleth,” I said helpfully, getting into the spirit of things.

His eyes narrowed with suspicion and awe. “Thial e gwilith!” Terror, doubt, anger, and amazement seemed to be struggling for control of his scowl. “Le... le mân i Arwen Haleth? Athellich?”

He said I’d appeared out of thin air? Well, I suppose I might have done. At any rate, he seemed to believe I was Haleth of Brethil, but evidently come back from the dead! I wondered what time this was supposed to be.

“Dartha Doriath?” I inquired bluntly.“Si ennas aran in edhil?” (Does Doriath endure? Is there yet a king of the Elves?)

He shook his head sadly. “In edhil gwenniel. Lastannem i gerir i falas Sirion. Dan gwerianner ionath Fëanor hain.” He spat into the leaves. “Palan-gîr i chîr dîn Eärendil, a si hiniath ú-lastam.” (The Elves have departed. We heard they hold the shores of Sirion. But the sons of Fëanor have betrayed them... their lord Eärendil has sailed far away, and now we hear no news.)

My eyes widened. Then this was the end of the First Age, and Beleriand had entered its final days. I was seeing Brethil’s last spring. “Togo nin na 'waith nín,” I commanded, not realizing my slip. (Take me to my people.)

“Arwen,” he answered with a respectful bow, turned, and went before me, as if a legend had just come to life for him, and he were walking in a waking dream.

The wind was picking up, and the treetops tossed it back and forth from one end of the forest to the other like the distant crash of surf.

Cân i aear. The Sea calls.

The old stockade village had been abandoned after Túrin’s death and the coming of Glaurung; these few survivors had moved to another part of the woods. Most of the Haladin were dead, fled, or gone. Some had headed south to join the settlement at the mouths of Sirion, refusing to abandon their old ties of loyalty to the Eldar; many more had headed back east, sickened by the kinslaying in Doriath or the horror of the Fifth Battle, seeking ancient kin of their own beyond the Hithaeglir. The Nirnaeth Arnoediad was a shadow of dread over them. All that remained were a few households scattered across the forest, bereft of any lord or duty to the lost Elven-kingdom. Their clothes and tools were mean and humble: utilitarian broadcloth and stone knives were more evident than metal. “In the realms of the West their time was brief and unhappy.”

My heart went out to them that first night, for the different families gathered together in a clearing in the forest, feasting Elf-fashion in the manner they had learned from their former neighbors. There were candles of animal fat instead of torches, sawn logs for tables and chairs, and a roaring bonfire. These people were sparing of speech, reclusive, not like I had always envisioned the eloquent Eldar. The children were wide-eyed and silent. The elders were sad and weary, suspicious, too. These were not the pride and glory of the Edain. They were Men, ordinary Men, lingering on in a troubled and uncertain world almost like my own.

Yet they were my people. I had always loved the tales of the Haladin most, seeking out scraps, for they sounded like me— apart from their lack of lore and effusive speech— a small peasant folk with my ancestors’ build and coloring. They loved the forests and the wilds. They chose to live on the borders of the greatest Elf-kingdom of all, where once Lúthien had danced under the Elven-stars. This last remnant of the Haladin barely knew of those glorious times. At first they doubted me. But the magic of dreams was such that they did not doubt for long.

My white chemise gown was exotic yet familiar enough to seem properly noble. Although I was no beauty in the waking world, both short and plump, to them my white skin, marred only by a few cat scratches and other mild blemishes, was a marvel; so too my reddish-brown hair, split ends and all, which had been cleaned by soap made of something other than lard and ashes. To them I was almost an Elven beauty. My Sindarin was rudimentary, but I tried to listen more than I talked. Also I had uncanny knowledge of them. I knew many of their names— Haldad, Haldor, Bergil and Brandir— and all the lands around them. I spoke of Glaurung and asked if any remembered the sorrow of Túrin and Niniel. I told them the last words of Morwen and Húrin, which moved some to tears; they knew of her grave at Cabed Naeramarth, but their fathers had been afraid of Húrin when he came, and did not know who he was when he passed through their land. By such arcane lore I proved myself to them; and still they thought me a ghost.

The man who had discovered me, Glirhuin, was well-respected by the scattered community as a seer and harper, and his word more than anything else convinced them to believe. During the woodland feast that evening, he placed his harp in my hands, and to my great relief I could find enough skill to play my simple tunes: Minas Tirith was not a name they knew, luckily (for I recalled after the fact that Sauron had claimed a tower by that name in this Age), and Mi nyr Ennui, Sam Gamgee’s haunting “in western lands” song fitted to Sindarin, touched their hearts much as it had mine.

After the feast was over and wooden trays cleared away, I took a stick from the fire and sketched for them a map of Beleriand across the largest sawn log. The children gathered around, wide-eyed, never having seen how their little wood was placed between the wide lands of the world. I traced for them the dangerous path Haleth had followed, through wilderness and shadowed vales haunted by terrors of the Enemy; I spoke longingly of fallen Doriath, of Ossiriand, and of the vale of Anduin from which their ancestors must have come long ago.

There I stopped, troubled, looking down at the black lines of ash flickering under the light of the bonfire. Shining eyes all around me were drinking in the tales of who they were and where they had been. But where would they be soon, since Eärendil was already on his great voyage?

Should I tell them?

They dispersed that night, and Glirhuin’s sister’s household took me back to their cottage in the forest, a lovely thatched split-beam cabin by a waterfall with a moonlight-dappled pool below its eaves.

In spite of the rich dreamy air and the walk and the feast, I stayed up long after the unruly passle of children had finished their chores and turned outside to sleep on the thatch, giving me their loft. The clearing in the forest let me see the eastern sky. I watched anxiously for much of the night, but saw no star brighter than my old friend Sirius, Helluin, as they called her, and the Sickle that warned of Morgoth’s imminent fall.

These children would see the loss of all the lands they knew: would they survive the Sea?

The next day Glirhuin came to me while I was bathing in the pool. That was a bit of a shock, but I had studied the ancient world enough to know that clothes and furniture vary between cultures more than most people realize.

“Le preston, Arwen Haleth?” he asked me respectfully, noting my reddened cheeks as I forced myself not to dive under the water. (Do I disturb you, Lady?)

I chuckled belatedly and climbed out onto the rocky ledge where I’d left the clothes his sister had given me. “-brestach, mellon,” I assured him. “Aníron lastad le gannadol.” (You don’t disturb me, friend. I like to hear your playing.)

He frowned; probably I’d phrased something strangely again. But my wish was clear enough, and he set the little harp upon his knee and began to strum while I sat out drying myself in the sun.

I listened to him singing with half-closed eyes, for in fact my Sindarin was so rough that I had to work hard not to seem a fool; for some reason this did not trouble them. Keeping my mouth shut and nodding a lot had helped. But I realized he was staring at me intently for other reasons than my looks, and the words were plainly directed towards me.

He had that magic they say Finrod Felagund possessed, the gift to make minds see what he was singing. That was truly what “Seer” meant long ago, and why it was an art so closely akin to poetry; it needed vivid words. Suddenly I was transported on high with eagle’s wings beating on either side of me, keen eyes fixed pitilously upon great forests and mountains and hills crashing down and sliding into rising waters, an ocean pouring in—

I gave a sharp cry, turned and stared at my new friend.

Glirhuin was watching my face. “Le preston, Arwen?” he asked again softly, stilling the strings with a sudden movement of his hand and yielding to the woods its birdsong and gentle plash of waters.

Pale, I shook my head. “l hen prestannin nin io anann.” (This dream disturbed me long ago.)

“Athelich na-togad vín trî umarth?” (Have you returned to lead us through misfortune?)

I bit my lip. They were sturdy, strong folk, and I was an armchair scholar, barely skilled enough with harp and words and lore for them to believe in me. For how long would they continue to do so? I would slow them down on such a journey, for my endurance of hardship could not match theirs. I was no Haleth, when it came to the Haleth they needed now.

“Boe dharthad nín mi eryn hen,” I answered finally. “Tellin na peded 'waith lín: gwanno! Si gwanno, mellon nín, togo dîn, a pedo 'waith bân tôl i lû na atheled i adab in edair lín.” It is necessary for me to remain in this forest. I came to tell your people: Go! Go now, my friend; lead them, and tell all people the time has come to return to the home of your fathers.”

He looked long upon me. Finally he nodded and rose to his feet. “Pedithon, híril.” (I will tell them, lady.)

I was left alone in the bright beautiful sun of the First Age, streaming down with such gold that Lórien itself would have seemed dim and grey had I found myself there. The waters sang. The birds spoke their own music. This was Brethil, the land of ivory birches, the ancient borders of Doriath where Beren and Tuor had walked. Soon everything I saw would be sea-bed, and the First Age as much a legend to these people as to me.

Glirhuin had an amazing power of voice, and once certain of his path, he did not fail. There was weeping and fear when his tidings passed through the people of the forest, and many came to me seeking to know if his dream was true: but they sought only comfort, not repudiation; in their hearts few doubted him. They were dismayed that I would not come. But I was Haleth, and as far as they knew, my bones were buried in a green mound in the heart of the forest; no more could I leave it than they could fly.

They held another feast for me beside the Haudh en-Arwen itself, draping it and me in garlands, and begging for my blessing on the fearful and uncertain journey eastward they were to take. Fear and doubt held the Haladin, most of them children of widows and orphans of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, all having suffered or heard of catastrophes worse than any I had known. But the greatest was yet to come, and that one, if I did not wake soon myself, I would not survive.

Glirhuin himself pressed me to follow. I smiled and shook my head, reminding him, “Guren mi Vrethil.” My heart was in Brethil. His eyes were troubled, but only at their departure in the shimmering dawn did I realize he knew more than he had said.

He took my hand and kissed it formally. “Hennaid,” he whispered. “Hiril o ndor athan Ennorath, mae cuoio.” (Thank you. Lady from beyond Middle-earth, fare well.)

I watched them from the foot of the Ladybarrow, a straggling line of two dozen souls, laden with few packs and possessions, silent as they disappeared into the maze of white trunks and underbrush, skin dappled by the leaf-shadows of their ancient home. I prayed they would reach Lindon in time. I hoped somehow Glirhuin’s voice would reach the Green-elves too, and that the Moriquendi would be persuaded, not angered by the incursion of those whom they had once called “unfriends”. But there was no other way. They must leave, or be drowned with this beautiful forest and all the ancient world.

And as for me?

I found Glirhuin’s little harp on the stone beside the falls. Gathering the small pack and the waterskin he had left for me, I began to make my own way across the forest. My destination was closer, but being less skilled in wood-craft than they were, it would take me many days to find it. In fact, I had to detour far to the north to find the Crossings of Teiglin, the ancient Elf-road from Nargothrond to Doriath, now fallen into ruin since both great realms were gone.

I took my time. Brethil was beautiful, and my eyes would be the last in the world to see its rich groves and glades, the running deer and the flicker of wings in its green canopy overhead. On the way back, I skirted the edge of Neldoreth, and let myself stray a little ways into the Elven-wood, dreaming of Lúthien dancing there in the spring. I saw no sign of Elves, no shimmer in the air to say, “Melian’s magic once nourished this place,” no gleam of fallen helm or chalice or graceful bow poking out of drifts of leaves. But there was a pristine beauty to that forest greater than any I had known. The oaks and maples were taller, stronger, more massive than redwoods. Flowers and vines took root and grew in the deep crags of their bark, as if each one was a mountain. Stands of cedar and white-flowering hemlock filled the groves with their scents. Strange trees I did not know swayed amidst emerald-tipped birches and dusky elms. And of course, beloved and best, there were wide-girthed soaring beeches with smooth silver bark with leaves that caught the sunlight light green Silmarils. I would sit on their rolling roots and look out across the forest floor, and hold my breath in wonder. Niphredil grew at my feet; white deer dances in the twilight, and sometimes, far-off and mournful and lonely, I would hear the song of a solitary nightingale.

Glirhuin’s little harp sang in that forest where few Men had ever walked. I wished I knew all the Lay of Leithian. I paid homage to the Eldar in my clumsy mortal voice: Thingol and Finrod and all of those long gone.

At last one day I came to the great cliffs where the river Teiglin roared in a vast deep chasm, and I looked down where Niniel had cast herself into the deeps. I began to climb a steep rocky slope. In the afternoon I reached the Stone of the Hapless on Tol Morwen, and I sat down where Húrin and his wife had embraced one last time. I read the names upon the graves and bowed my head to the unlucky family, cursed by Morgoth to suffer as much as Beren himself, and with no Silmaril in hand or Lúthien to ease the horrors that befell them.

Day faded. I watched the sunset. The forest of Brethil was spread out like a tapestry on the opposite cliff , which lay below me. Far to the south, following the silver line of the river, I knew that there were the hidden halls of Nargothrond; somewhere to the north, the ruins of Gondolin lay about a grassy green hill in mountains that burned against the red sky.

My fingers had gone still upon the strings, and my eyes were drifting shut, when a burning light woke me like a flash of lightning or a meteor flaring against the night sky. It was neither. Slowly, inexorably, as silently as the rising waters of the Black Sea, a single brilliant point of light was rising from the place where the sun had set hours before. It was not white or blue or green or any of the colors of stars, but all of them, all the colors of the sun, and the leaves of the trees, and the moonlight sparkling on the waters of forest streams. One Silmaril shone out like a tiny sun across doomed Beleriand.

There were no stars visible to the north, and now and again a flicker of lightning showed vast storms on the horizon. Distant booms across the leagues drowned out the sound of the rushing river, and the rocks beneath my feet shuddered through the night. Now and again chips of rock, or even boulders, would slip and fall with a crash into the canyon below. The trees whispered reslessly, and the rich air had become becalmed, hushed, oppressive, waiting for what was to come.

It came at dawn.

This no softly lapping waters of a rising lake. Flaming a blazing gold in that dreadful dawn, the Sundering Sea bellowed and spilled over the mountaintops, miles and mountains and oceans of waves crashing down, eating everything, pouring into the river valleys in cataracts of cataclym, white foam too bright to look at. The Silmaril had travelled north and flared there even by day, and sometimes seemed to sweep down in sudden arcs; fires rose up to meet it. The War of Wrath had begun.

The Sea surged in. Onwards and upwards it rolled without pity, crashing over Gondolin and Nargothrond and Sirion and every tree, rock, and rill. Tol Morwen shook and shuddered and I was thrown down; Glirhuin’s little harp tumbled from my hands and disappeared into the forest below. The winds picked up and roared and battered my body like the sea gnawing at a cliff. In a dream I saw a wall of water miles high coming up to meet me, and the spray swept over me in a drenching rain, and the waves passed by in a mighty tumult on every side. I was a leaf in a vast river the size of the world.

My mind fled, unable to comprehend the upheaval of waters reaching into the sky.

When I came to, all was quiet. I lay marooned upon a little rocky island some forty feet across, a dot in that vast sea. Salt was on my lips. Everything was drenched in brine, and my clothes had been ripped away by the tornado winds. I realized my cheek was pillowed against Morwen’s gravestone, and raised my head, aching and stiff but apparently alive.

Waves lapped calmly against the rocks. A gentle sea-breeze was blowing out of the west. All around me was endless blue ocean, as far as the eye could see.

“You could have gone with them.”

The Eagle was perched upon the Stone of the Hapless, brown wings furled about itself like a royal robe.

“I know, Sir,” I stammered, not really sure of the proper form of address.

“A poet?”

I looked around myself again. Yes. I had seen the greatest event words had ever set to music or white page: Atlantis, Akallabêth, the Flood, the Cataclysm, the story in so many mythic cycles that separated the Age of Gods and Men from all the Ages that followed.

“Or perhaps mad,” I replied wryly. In Irish legends, one slept upon a fairy mound, a barrow, to become a bard or a madman or a prophet. Sometimes the three were the same.

“Come,” the Eagle’s voice whispered in my mind. “It is time. I will take you to my Halls.”

I held out my hands like a young child reaching for her father, begging for a ride.

He took my hands in his and I felt my body being lifted in light. The land and the great Sea fell away beneath me. To my great wonder, I saw that it was flat, stretching far and wide forever.

We flew west with the setting sun.