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Hail Éarendel!

In which I examine the connections of one of Tolkien's most famous characters to Shakespeare, Norse myth, and a local legend from medieval Germany.

Content note: foot injury.

Image: "Hardvendels Kamp med Koll", by Louis Moe (1898). Credit: Wikipedia.

"Éarendel arose where the shadow flows at Ocean's silent brim; through the mouth of night as a ray of light where the shores are sheer and dim he launched his bark like a silver spark from the last and lonely sand; then on sunlit breath of day's fiery death he sailed from Westerland."

Famously, one of the major early inspirations for J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium was a single line in one version of the Old English poem Crist:

"éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended"

("Hail Éarendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent").

The beauty of the word inspired his 1914 poem "The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star", and in time the key character of Eärendil the Mariner, dragon-slayer, father of Elrond, with a back-created Elvish etymology for his name. He would return to the word and the stories he created to attach to it throughout his career. But what myth in fact lies behind it?

The poem, though not a translation, draws on a number of Latin sources: here it references the "O Antiphons", with "éala éarendel" translating "O Oriens". "Oriens", meaning "east" or "dawn", is variously glossed into Old English elsewhere, but never as éarendel. Elsewhere, éarendel is used to translate "Lucifer" - which did not yet refer to Satan, but to the planet Venus in its role as the morning star, presaging the rising of the sun, and used as a metaphor for St John the Baptist presaging the coming of Christ. (The evening star, of course, is also Venus. The literal meaning of Lucifer is "light-bearer", which makes an excellent description of Tolkien's Eärendil. In The Lord of the Rings he is referred to as flammifer, "flame-bearer", deliberately referencing this usage while avoiding the unfortunate associations of the word "lucifer" itself.) Éarendel's proto-Germanic origin is likely Auzi-wandilaz, meaning "luminous wanderer" and almost certainly referring to Venus; but it used to be interpreted, following Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, as Ahwo-wandilaz, "sea-wanderer".

Tolkien was well aware of this etymology and the mythological connections of the word, particularly to the character Aurvandill in the Prose Edda, the great sourcebook of Norse mythology. Aurvandill is explicitly linked to a bright celestial body, though it is not specifically identified:

"Then came the wise woman who was called Gróa, wife of Aurvandill the Valiant... and [Thor] told her these things: that he had waded from the north over Icy Stream and had borne Aurvandill in a basket on his back from the north out of Jötunheim. And he added for a token, that one of Aurvandill's toes had stuck out of the basket, and became frozen; wherefore Thor broke it off and cast it up into the heavens, and made thereof the star called Aurvandill's Toe."

This is a rather less grand and dignified narrative than Tolkien's tale of Eärendil, sailing through the sky with a brilliant Silmaril bound to his brow, but serves the same purpose, as astronomical myth.

Two other important characters, however, also share the name: Orendel, the hero of a Middle High German romance (thought to be twelfth century in origin, though the surviving version is much later); and Horvandillus or Horwendil, a pseudo-historical ruler of sixth century Jutland in the Chronicle of Lejre (c. 1170) and Saxo Grammaticus' History of the Danes (c. 1200). Saxo's Horwendil was the father of Amleth, the ultimate inspiration for Shakespeare's Hamlet. Both these characters may draw on unrelated myths, their authors' imaginations, or historical people of similar name (for instance the ninth century Bavarian count Orentil): but do their stories preserve anything of Auzi-wandilaz' myth?

The place to begin is with what the stories have in common. At first glance, this is very little. Aurvandill, Horwendil, and Orendel all have different family connections, though these do connect all of them to the "Heroic Age" of the fifth and sixth centuries. All are travellers like Tolkien's Eärendil, but to different places and for different reasons: Aurvandill was apparently a captive in Jötunheim, Horwendil raided around Scandinavia, while Orendel went on a Christian pilgrimage and was shipwrecked. All have powerful wives, but Aurvandill's is the seeress Gróa, Horwendil's the Danish princess Gerutha (Gertrude), and Orendel's Queen Breide of Jerusalem.

A closer look at their family connections, however, suggests that they are more closely linked than might appear. Orendel's father, Ougel or Eigel, King of Trier, is a variant of the archer-hero Egil; and Egil's father, the elf or dwarf Ivaldi, was also known as Geirvandil - a name identical with Gerwendil, who appears in Saxo as Horwendil's father. Aurvandill, with so few details recorded, is harder to link to the others: but he is apparently the stepfather of the hero Svipdag - and the nineteenth century Swedish scholar Viktor Rydberg identified Svipdag with King Ottar, who in some sources is a son of Egil. (I must admit, however, that I find this identification unconvincing.)

Jacob Grimm, seizing on a reference in Tacitus to Odysseus visiting the mouth of the Rhine and setting up an altar with the name of his father Laertes, identified Orendel and Eigel as the German figures classicised here, pointing out that the sixteenth century Heldenbuch ("Book of Heroes") called Orendel the oldest of all heroes. However, there is probably little of German myth in the romance of Orendel. Its narrative appears to be drawn in large part from various versions of the hugely popular Roman novella Apollonius of Tyre: in particular the French romance Jourdain de Blaye, which transferred the story to the reign of Charlemagne. (So we come back to Shakespeare, whose Pericles is also ultimately based on Apollonius.) The author of Orendel turned this adventure-packed story of far-flung voyages and parted families to the purpose of explaining a local legend, recounting how the city of Trier came to possess its most prized relic, the seamless robe of Christ. In so doing, they dressed it up in elements drawn from legends of the Holy Grail, which had no more to do with Auzi-wandilaz than Jourdain had.

It is possible that Auzi-wandilaz was thought of as a Thor-like enemy of giants. Aurvandill, whose by-name refers to his valour in battle, had to be rescued from the giants' kingdom, Jötunheim, having presumably been captured fighting them. Orendel explicitly duels with giants - though so, admittedly, did his French counterpart Jourdain. Horwendil similarly travels over the sea to fight famous single combats against very powerful opponents: Saxo presents them as human, but he routinely euhemerises supernatural elements. It has even been suggested, notably by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, that Auzi-wandilaz is in origin an aspect of Thor himself.

There is another figure in the Orendel romance with an intriguingly mythic feel to him: Eisen, the mysterious fisherman who pulls Orendel from the sea, and claims him as a vassal because what comes from the sea belongs to him. His name, though meaning "iron" if taken at face value, contains Eis or "ice", conjuring up memories of Élivagar, the "icy stream" where Aurvandill lost his toe; and despite appearing initially as a humble figure, he turns out to be master of a great household, all fishermen. Jourdain is also rescued by a fisherman, but a quite ordinary and anonymous one. However, given the influence of the Grail romances on Orendel, it seems likely that the writer was thinking here more of the Fisher King - himself a fusion of Celtic myth and Christian symbolism - than of any Germanic figure. (There may also be an echo here of Diktys, the fisherman-prince who rescued the infant Perseus and his mother Danaë from the waves in Greek myth. Certainly that story, as well as the Odyssey, is likely to have influenced the author of Apollonius.)

The connections between the careers of the three incarnations of Auzi-wandilaz can be summed up as follows:

* Born a prince in the house of Egil - Orendel / Horwendil

* Travels to distant lands over water - all three

* Becomes famous for these voyages - Orendel / Horwendil

* Is an enemy of giants - Aurvandill / Orendel

* Fights and wins multiple single combats - Orendel / Horwendil (possibly all three given Aurvandill's martial nicknames)

* Wins a noble bride as a result of these combats - Orendel / Horwendil

There it ends. Horwendil is of course most famous for being murdered by his brother Feng (Shakespeare's Claudius); the stories of Aurvandill and Orendel stop before their deaths, and no brothers are mentioned. Neither Orendel nor Horwendil is ever explicitly linked to astronomical myth. And Horwendil's story, like Orendel's, has a likely source outside Germanic myth - in this case the half-forgotten history of the Heroic Age. Gerutha / Gertrude is, in the chronicles, a daughter or sister of Rørik the Ring-slinger, a famous King of Denmark who may well have really existed (or be based on multiple real people).

Arandil or Arindeil in the Gaelic royal genealogies, rendered by Hector Boece as the law-giving King Dornadilla, may be an echo of the same character, transplanted into Scottish lore as a result of Norse influence: without more evidence than the name it is impossible to say. It is worth noting here that there is no connection to the French word arondelle, meaning "swallow", which appears as a proper name in some medieval romances; nor with the English place name Arundel, which derives from Old English Harhunedell, literally "Horehound Dale". The presence of swallows on the arms of the town of Arundel is merely a play on the similarity of the words; so too is Tolkien's own use of a modern-day character named "Arundel" as a tribute to Éarendel in The Notion Club Papers (an uncharacteristic work of science fiction which he never finished).

To glance briefly forward to the Eärendil of Middle-earth: while he too is a prince and a famous mariner, he is not a duellist or a giant-slayer, and did not owe his marriage to any military prowess. (Oddly enough, his background resembles that of Jourdain de Blaye more than any of the Auzi-wandilaz figures, both having experienced the violent fall of their ancestral kingdoms in early childhood and grown up in exile. This, however, is a common motif, and probably entirely coincidental.)

It's not much. Certainly not enough to reconstruct the oldest version of Auzi-wandilaz' myth. But from these beginnings, small as they are, came the inspiration for one of the most important and beloved stories in the legendarium of Middle-earth. Without Auzi-wandilaz, we would not have Eärendil; and so central was Eärendil from the very beginning that we would probably not have anything like the legendarium as we know it.

"Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast as an isléd lamp at sea, and beyond the ken of mortal men set his lonely errantry, tracking the Sun in his galleon through the pathless firmament, till his light grew old in abysses cold and his eager flame was spent."

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