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Just Call Me Folklore: A Whimsicality on a Whimsical Character

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016 | Posted by Barbara Barrett

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You’re from what newspaper? You want to write the story of my life? Oh.

No, no, it’s not a problem at all. Come in. Here let me take your coat. Go into the sitting room. There’s a fire going and it’s much warmer.

I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that you’re interested in me. I’m not as famous as some of the other characters my Creator brought to life. I admit that honestly. You wouldn’t know it to look at me today but there was a time I reached incredible heights. It seems like only yesterday I was almost a legend; so I’m only too happy to relive those days. Sadly, there are many today who don’t know my rich history or how distinguished I was.

Just sit down over there. Yes, yes, clear off that chair. You can move those books and all that memorabilia over a little. No, not too close to the fire. Better put them on the mantle. I’ll pour you a cup of tea. It’ll fortify you against the snow and the bitter cold outside.

Now, let me see, where shall I start? Of course! It’s always best to start in the beginning. I think I remember Bilbo Baggins saying that once? I could be mistaken though. The old memory isn’t what it used to be.

Truthfully, the exact date of my birth is unknown. Things are a little vague because there were early drafts and so many things have been forgotten. Anyway, it was sometime in the early 1930s. It really started when my Creator submitted me to The Inklings. They were an informal literary group associated with Oxford University. Very prestigious, I believe. Actually, my first published appearance was in Oxford Magazine in 1933. According to my Creator, I was a whimsical youth and he created me to be spoken or sung — something for the heart and tongue. I take pride in those words and I believe I have lived up to them.

I was born to be adventurous. Little did my Creator know my adventures would take me far beyond the written page. I would go all the way to America — even before I had the chance to become well known in England. What a fascinating journey! I travelled across the Atlantic to the USA in the hearts and memories of the men and the women who made their way there. On some voyages, I went by ship.

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On other journeys I flew and believe me, back in those days that was a little scary. However, the flight accommodations were better then. There were sleeping quarters aboard the planes – just like on the trains.

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Atlantic Clipper

No, really. I don’t exaggerate about that. But I digress. I went out into the world in the guise of rhyme and song. As I travelled my meter suffered a little and my more common words did change somewhat. However, I can proudly say that the heart of me has always remained the same.

I lived a rich, full life in America for over ten years and became beloved by many, although, much to my chagrin, everywhere I went, the name “Anonymous” was listed as Author. Still, I found my own little niche among the Americans. Mostly I was passed from person to person orally, but I was published in a couple of school magazines. Best of all, I remember the time my words were set to music. Yes! That’s right, I became a song. Mmmm. Let me see what was the name of that? My memory isn’t as good as it used to be, you know. I’ve got it! I was called “The Road Goes Ever On.” Done by a very talented chap called Swann. First name was Donald, I believe. Yes, very talented. At least I thought so.

By the time I made my way back to England, I was considered folklore. Indeed, getting back to my Creator was serendipitous in itself. It only happened because an American became intrigued about my history and contacted Oxford University. Eventually this inquiry — that is spelled “enquiry” in my homeland — was referred to my Creator’s publisher who in turn contacted my Creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.

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J R R Tolkien

Needless to say, he was surprised and very pleased to hear of my journey! He wrote back to his publisher. Let’s see I have that letter someplace. Oh yes, there it is — that piece of paper on the table behind you. Can you read it to me please? My eyes are a little tired tonight.

… [I]t is a most odd coincidence that you should ask about that. For only a few weeks ago I had a letter from a lady unknown to me making a similar enquiry. She said that a friend had recently written out for her from memory some verses that had so taken her fancy that she was determined to discover their origin. He had picked them up from his son-in-law who had learned them in Washington D.C.(!): but nothing was known about their source save a vague idea that they were connected with English universities. Being a determined person, she apparently applied to various Vice-Chancellors, and Bowra [Maurice Bora, Warden of Wadham College and, at this time, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University] directed her to my door.
— Letter to Raynor Unwin dated June 22, 1952, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 133

Yes, there were two inquiries about me from America. And that isn’t all. Read the part where he talks about folklore:

I must say that I was interested in becoming “folk-lore”. Also it was intriguing to get an oral version — which bore out my views on oral tradition (at any rate in early stages): sc. that the “hard words” are well preserved, and the more common words are altered, but the metre is often disturbed. (ibid.)

Wasn’t that nice? Ah, there was a time I knew all those words by heart.

To tell you my story briefly, I was a carefree sort of… Oh, you don’t want a synopsis. You want the whole thing? Well! I am very pleased indeed to oblige you on that request. My voice isn’t what it used to be but I still know all the words.

There was a merry passenger,
a messenger, a mariner:
he built a gilded gondola

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to wander in, and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender;
he perfumed her with marjoram
and cardamom and lavender.

He called the winds of argosies
with cargoes in to carry him
across the rivers seventeen
that lay between to tarry him.
He landed all in loneliness
where stonily the pebbles on
the running river Derrilyn
goes merrily for ever on.
He journeyed then through meadow-lands
to Shadow-land that dreary lay,
and under hill and over hill
went roving still a weary way.

He sat and sang a melody,
his errantry a-tarrying;
he begged a pretty butterfly

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that fluttered by to marry him.
She scorned him and she scoffed at him,
she laughed at him unpitying;
so long he studied wizardry
and sigaldry and smithying.

He wove a tissue airy-thin
to snare her in; to follow her
he made him beetle-leather wing
and feather wing of swallow-hair
He caught her in bewilderment
with filament of spider-thread;

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he made her soft pavilions
of lilies, and a bridal bed
of flowers and of thistle-down
to nestle down and rest her in;
and silken webs of filmy white
and silver light he dressed her in.
He threaded gems in necklaces,

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but recklessly she squandered them
and fell to bitter quarrelling;
then sorrowing he wandered on,
and there he left her withering,
as shivering he fled away;
with windy weather following
on swallow-wing he sped away.

He passed the archipelagoes
where yellow grows the marigold,
where countless silver fountains are,
and mountains are of fairy-gold.
He took to war and foraying,
a-harrying beyond the sea,
and roaming over Belmarie
and Thellamie and Fantasie.

He made a shield and morion
of coral and of ivory,
a sword he made of emerald,
and terrible his rivalry
with elven-knights of Aerie
and Faerie, with paladins
that golden-haired and shining-eyed
came riding by and challenged him.

Of crystal was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
with silver tipped at plenilune
his spear was hewn of ebony.
His javelins were of malachite
and stalactite — he brandished them,
and went and fought the dragon-flies
of Paradise, and vanquished them.

He battled with the Dumbledors,
the Hummerhorns, and Honeybees,
and won the Golden Honeycomb;

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and running home on sunny seas
in ship of leaves and gossamer
with blossom for a canopy,
he sat and sang, and furbished up
and burnished up his panoply.

He tarried for a little while
in little isles that lonely lay,
and found there naught but blowing grass;
and so at last the only way
he took, and turned, and coming home
with honeycomb, to memory
his message came, and errand too!
In derring-do and glamoury
he had forgot them, journeying
and tourneying, a wanderer.
So now he must depart again
and start again his gondola,
for ever still a messenger,
a passenger, a tarrier,
a-roving as a feather does,
a weather-driven mariner.

My, it was a wonderful adventure. I was quite the traveler. I chuckle to myself every time I think about having to do it all over again because I forgot my original quest!

You want to know about the original quest and the second journey? Well, of course I know what happened but the Creator never wrote it down. Sad, very sad.

And, some of my lines are also in the poem “The Song of Eärendil.” Yes, I know, I know. That poem is a lot more famous now than I am. You don’t have to remind me. But that’s only because it’s part of The Fellowship of the Ring. Did you know that both of us were sung by Bilbo Baggins? He was a most worthy Hobbit. When I think about Bilbo and all the adventures he’s had, my head spins. And to think that he remembered those lines of mine after all those years. But again, I digress. You say the “The Song of Eärendil” is more serious than I am? I’ve heard that before. Harrumph! Truthfully, I could hardly read it. There are so many obscure words in it. I mean, do you know the meaning of the word “carcanet?”

You do? Mmmm.

What about “Shadowmere?”  Can you tell me where that is located?

You can? Well, then you know more than I did. I still recall sitting by the fire one long day and evening with a Middle Earth thesaurus and looking up those unknown words. Come to think of it, I do remember gazing into the fire afterwards and reflecting on Eärendil’s story — once I got all those hard words translated, mind you.

Eärendil and I were both mariner’s, you know. His story was so different though. I can picture Elwing coming to visit her husband with the Silmaril upon her breast. I returned from my voyage only to set out again. Eärendil’s fate was to become the Star of Eärendil where he still shines brilliantly in the sky. Even in his new form he was a hero. It was the Star of Eärendil that led the Edain to Númenor in the early Second Age. And, it  played a crucial role much later in Middle-Earth history as well when some of its Light was gathered into Frodo‘s phial. This gift came from Galadriel and it ultimately led to Sauron’s downfall.

Eärendil’s story does have a certain beauty. Of course, I’m no Bilbo Baggins, but I still remember the words.

Eärendil was a mariner

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that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan,
and light upon her banners laid.

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In panoply of ancient kings,
in chained rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony,
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valiant,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Beneath the Moon and under star
he wandered far from northern strands,
bewildered on enchanted ways
beyond the days of mortal lands.
From gnashing of the Narrow Ice
where shadow lies on frozen hills,
from nether heats and burning waste
he turned in haste, and roving still
on starless waters far astray
at last he came to Night of Naught,
and passed, and never sight he saw
of shining shore nor light he sought.

The winds of wrath came driving him,
and blindly in the foam he fled
from west to east and errandless,
unheralded he homeward sped.

There flying Elwing came to him,

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and flame was in the darkness lit;
more bright than light of diamond
the fire upon her carcanet.
The Silmaril she bound on him
and crowned him with the living light
and dauntless then with burning brow
he turned his prow; and in the night
from Otherworld beyond the Sea
there strong and free a storm arose,
a wind of power in Tarmenel;
by paths that seldom mortal goes
his boat it bore with biting breath
as might of death across the grey
and long-forsaken seas distressed:
from east to west he passed away.

Through Evernight he back was borne
on black and roaring waves that ran
o’er leagues unlit and foundered shores
that drowned before the Days began,
until he heard on strands of pearl
where ends the world the music long,
where ever-foaming billows roll
the yellow gold and jewels wan.

He saw the Mountain silent rise
where twilight lies upon the knees
of Valinor, and Eldamar
beheld afar beyond the seas.
A wanderer escaped from night
to haven white he came at last,
to Elvenhome the green and fair
where keen the air, where pale as glass
beneath the Hill of Ilmarin
a-glimmer in valley sheer
the lamplit towers of Tirion
are mirrored on the Shadowmere.

He tarried there from errantry,
and melodies they taught to him,
and sages old him marvels told,
and harps of gold they brought to him.
They clothed him then in elven-white,
and seven lights before him sent,
as through the Calacirian
to hidden land forlorn he went.
He came unto the timeless halls
where shining fall the countless years,
and endless reigns the Elder King
in Ilmarin on Mountain sheer;
and words unheard were spoken then
of folk of Men and Elven-kin.
Beyond the world were visions showed
forbid to those that dwell therein.

A ship then new they built for him
of mithril and of elven-glass
with shining prow; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore on silver mast:
the Silmaril as lantern light
and banner bright with living flame
to gleam thereon by Elbereth
herself was set, who thither came
and wings immortal made for him,
and laid on him undying doom,
to sail the shoreless skies and come
behind the Sun and light of Moon.

From Evereven’s lofty hills
where softly silver fountains fall
his wings him bore, a wandering light,
beyond the mighty Mountain Wall.
From World’s End then he turned away,
and yearned again to find afar

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his home through shadows journeying,
and burning as an island star
on high above the mists he came,
a distant flame before the Sun,
a wonder ere the waking dawn
where grey the Norland waters run.

And over Middle-earth he passed
and heard at last the weeping sore
of women and of elven-maids
in Elder Days, in years of yore.
But on him mighty doom was laid,
till Moon should fade, an orbéd star
to pass, and tarry never more
on Hither Shores where mortals are;
for ever still a herald on
an errand that should never rest
to bear his shining lamp afar,
the Flammifer of Westernesse.

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You see what I mean? Eärendil’s story is filled with beautiful images. And, yes, he has become a legend. I have to admit that too.

But there’s more to my story that you should know. Not only did my journey into folklore amaze my Creator, I also played a very important part in bringing him and his publisher back together. I see the surprise on your face but it’s true. When I told you that one of the Americans trying to track down my origins contacted George Sherwin and Rayner Unwin, my Creator’s publishers, that wasn’t the whole story. Unwin, bless him, took the opportunity to write to my Creator again. There had been a disagreement between them. About what? Mmmm, let me see, I think it was about publishing The Lord of the Rings. I can’t recall the exact details though. Anyway, my Creator responded to Mr. Unwin’s letter. Once they began to speak again, the breach between them began to heal. Of course George Sherwin and Unwin did end up publishing The Lord of the Rings, and the rest is history. But I was the excuse Unwin used to contact my Creator and because of me they went on to accomplish great things together.

A Poem with a Destiny? Thank you for the compliment. It’s a very nice phrase and I shall remember you said that.

Mmmm? Yes, my eyes are getting tired. Not used to all this attention and talking. It has been pleasant though, to sit by the fire and relive those days with someone. Silly adventures – but they were fun. As I recall, that butterfly was really beautiful. Well! Look at that. And, I bet I haven’t thought of her in years. Still, as I said, she was very beautiful. Very beautiful indeed.

You’re right. I guess it is time for me to take my nap before Galadriel comes in with my afternoon tea. No, she’s my char woman, not the real Galadriel. That’s only my name for her. Even poems can dream. I think I’ll rest here by the fire this afternoon. So many memories and dreams in those glowing embers.

What? What’s that? Your readers want to know my name? Oh yes, thank you for reminding me. I almost forgot.

It’s “Errantry.”  My name is “Errantry” but, you can just call me Folklore.


Barbara Barrett’s last article for us was The Thin Veil: An All Hallows Eve to Remember.

2 Comments »

  1. That was wonderful! I never knew about that poem.

    Comment by rrm - January 4, 2016 8:29 am

  2. Excellent!

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - January 6, 2016 12:43 pm


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