Earendil Was an Errantry – A Metre So Difficult

Yesterday, I wrote about the Earendil poem chanted by Bilbo in Rivendell the night before the Council of Elrond. But, not at all surprisingly, that wasn’t the first version of the poem.

Originally, it had started as a completely different piece (as far as subject matter went), called ‘Errantry’. Around 1930 or 1931, Tolkien composed the poem with a meter and rhyme scheme so difficult it makes the Earendil poem seem like iambic verse. Tolkien referred to it in a 1966 letter as “a piece of verbal acrobatics and metrical high-jinks… intended for recitation with great variations of speed.” Once the reader came to the end, he or she “was supposed at once to begin repeating (at even higher speed) the beginning, unless somebody cried ‘Once is enough’.”

You can hear Tolkien himself reading it here.

The first version of ‘Errantry’ was published in Oxford Magazine in November of 1933, while a (very) slightly altered version of included in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It grew out of itself to become the Earendil poem, but had absolutely nothing to do with Middle-earth prior to that.

Tolkien famously had great disdain for the Victorian idea of faeries as small sprites who dance around. In fact, one of the early goals of his Book of Lost Tales writings (basically the early versions of the Silmarillion material) was to explain that the Elves used to be great beings who faded to become the small sprites we know of today.

Still, in 1930, he dipped back into the idea of small faeries.

There was a merry passenger,
A messenger a mariner:
He built a gilded gondola
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.

You can see the simularities to the Earendil poem, especially in meter and rhythm, but also the idea that a mariner built a boat to set sail.

Basically, a mariner sailed rivers and crossed land apparently on a mission of some sort. But soon he forgot the mission…

He sat and sang a melody,
His errantry a tarrying,
He begged a pretty butterfly,
That fluttered by to marry him.

This is some brillian rhyming, and in my opinion far superiour to the Earendil poem. Anyway, borrowing a bit from the Beren and Luthien story, the butterfly “laughed at him unpitying” and scorned him. Angery, he took up learning magic, “sigaldry,” and smithying. He then used those trades to build a beautiful trap and a bridal bed.

Somehow or another, he caught her and gave her gems and necklaces, but she squandered them and they fought. Unable to convince her to love him, he continued on his way, which was that of a warrior. As later in the Earendil poem, Tolkien described his armament. The Mariner fought many different insects (both real and made up).

He battled with the Dumbledors,
The Hummerhorns, and Honeybees,
And won the Golden Honeycomb,
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.

But none of this was his original task, which he had completely forgotten to accomplish before returning home. And so he had to once more set out on his mission.

The poem had many, many revisions, which are all well documented in The Treason of Isengard by Christopher Tolkien. For its inclusion in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien reworked “Errantry,” created fifteen or so different drafts which spanned the spectrum from the original to the Earendil poem. Eventually, he decided upon the version that’s now published (though there was an even longer version that was apparently supposed to be used).

A few years after Lord of the Rings, when Tolkien wished to include ‘Errantry’ in his Adventures of Tom Bombadil collection, he came up with a bit of retcon, as he was wont to do.

The poem, “Errantry,” was “evidently made by Bilbo. This is indicated by its obvious relationship to the long poem recited by Bilbo, as his own composition, in the house of Elrond.” And so Tolkien projected his own writing history upon Bilbo.

“Probably because Bilbo invented its metrical devices and was proud of them. They do not appear in other pieces in the Red Book. The older form, here given, must belong to the early days after Bilbo’s return from his journey.”

Or, to use Tolkien’s own words from a 1952 letter (No. 133): “It is for one thing in a metre I invented (depending on trisyllabic assonances or near-assonances) , which is so difficult that except in this one example I have never been able to use it again – it just blew out in a single impulse.”

A Few Notes

  • In the very first draft of the poem, the subject wasn’t a mariner, but “an errander” who mostly rode around on insects.
  • I’ve heard from a fairly reputable Tolkien scholar that the word “sigaldry” was made up by Tolkien, that it didn’t exist before he wrote about it in this poem. That’s not true. In James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’ Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words published in 1852, sigaldry is defined “(1) Deceit; trick. (2) To deceive.” An example of its use appears in the Chester Plays, 14th Century plays based upon Biblical scripture, which Tolkien most certainly must have known about. At any rate, the definition fits. The Mariner in the poem learned deceit, along with wizardry and smithying.
  • “Dumbledores” are what bumblebees were called in Hampshire and Cornwall, England. I’m not sure if J.K. Rowling nicked the word from Tolkien. But I hope so. It’s a great word.
Camera: Kodak Duaflex II Film: FujiChrome Velvia 100 cross-processed as C-41.

Camera: Kodak Duaflex II
Film: FujiChrome Velvia 100 cross-processed as C-41.

About the Photo
I don’t really take pictures of insects (or faeries), but here’s a purple starfish!


  • Day 114
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 571 (117 from Rivendell)
  • 350 miles to Lothl√≥rien
  • 1,208 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. Yule 2 – Jan 1, 3019 TA. (map)

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7 thoughts on “Earendil Was an Errantry – A Metre So Difficult

    • It’s great fun, usually! I think I have him reading this on vinyl. I should have posted a clip of that. Bah!

      Early modern, eh? I’d buy it (because why not?).

  1. I attended an Oxenmoot in either 1980 or 81 where one of the speakers postulated that the Earendil poem shared the same rhyming scheme of old east London fishermans shanties.
    The one he used, which I’ve never found online was this, obviously I can’t remember the whole thing but it went like this;
    There was a bold fisherman,
    Who sailed out from Billingsgate,
    To hunt the wild mackerel.
    And the bold conger eel.
    As he sailed,
    He sung out a little song,


    Inky doodle dum.
    Inky doodle dum.
    To hunt thee wild mackeral.
    And bold conger eel.
    In order to “sing” it properly, you had to rise and fall the emphasis as well as the speed.
    As you can see the song and the talk stuck in my mind… thank you for helping me to remember

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