The Wandering Elf-friend, Or How Tolkien Couldn’t Start the Silmarillion (Part 1)

In beginning the page-by-page Silmarillion Slow Cooker, I actually need to start before the Aunilendalë, before the book actually starts. To do this, we have to dig back into the manuscripts as published across several volumes in the History of Middle-earth series.

The Silmarillion, as published in 1977, presented its stories without framework. We’re told in Lord of the Rings that Bilbo gave to Frodo “three books of lore that he had made at various times, written in his spidery hand, and labelled on their red backs: Translations from the Elvish, by B.B.

The prologue to the Second Edition explains that “these three volumes were found to be a work of great skill and learning in which, between 1403 and 1418 [Shire Reckoning], he [Bilbo] had used all the sources available to him in Rivendell, both living and written” to compile what we can easily assume to be the Silmarillion stories. But this was not Tolkien’s first dabbling with the idea of framing, and neither would it be his last. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was hardly dabbling.

Pre-1920s: The Beginning
Tolkien started writing what would later become known as the Silmarillion in 1916, and over the next several years racked up the stories. To connect them all, he employed framing. At first, the stories were told through a Fifth Century (C.E.) mariner named Ottor who called himself Wæfre, which meant “wandering”. Mostly in notes, Tolkien came up with a back story for this fellow, connecting him to Anglo-Saxon history through his two sons, Hengest and Horsa, who (in real history) first conquered Britain in the late 400s.

But before all of that, Ottor, whose wife had just died, left his sons and sailed to Tol Eressëa, where he met the Gnomes – the prototypes for the Noldor. There, he met several Elves who named him Eriol Sarothron, meaning “one who dreams alone.” He’s known mostly by this name throughout the early writings, later published in The Book of Lost Tales. Soon after, a nice couple with the names of Lindo and Vairë, took him into their Cottage of Lost Play, and told him some pretty crazy things about their house.

All of this happened before the Music of the Ainur. To get to that point, Tolkien explained the Eriol asked Lindo about the Valar – “are they the Gods?”. Lindo wasn’t a huge help in this matter, and sent him with a guide named Littleheart who eventually led him to see Rúmil, a loremaster. But even this didn’t get us to the Ainulindalë. First, Rúmil spouted out a bunch of stuff about Tevildo Prince of Cats, Melko, Ómar, the Teleri, the Noldoli, the Solosimpi and Inwir – it really made no sense at all to poor Eriol!

Finally, finally, we come to the familiar stuff –

“Ilúvatar was the first beginning, and beyond that no wisdom of the Valar or of Eldar or of Men can go.”

Well, mostly familiar, but we’ll get to all that later. For now, let’s keep talking about Eriol and framing. At some point before stopping his writing of the Lost Tales (even these were never really finished), Tolkien changed Eriol’s name to Ælfwine, meaning Elf-friend.

But with this change came a new backstory. While Ælfwine was still English, he was now from the Eleventh Century and had lived in Wessex. He arrived in Tol Eressëa, and met the Elves who spoke a form of English and were thrilled that he was from England, since that’s where they came from originally. They named him Lúthien (for ‘friend’) “for he is come from Luthany” (meaning ‘friendship’). He begs the Elves to come back to England, but they can’t and tell him all of the Lost Tales, the entire Silmarilion, as explanation.

This story would change a few times, but Tolkien would fizzle out on writing the Book of Lost Tales before coming to any real conclusion to the framing story.

1930: After the Lays
After backing away from the Lost Tales, Tolkien took to retelling two of his stories in verse. Then, after a few years, in 1930, he returned to the Silmarillion as prose. And while he dropped the entire Cottage of Lost Play idea, he retained part of the Ælfwine/Eriol framing.

The work was now called the Quenta Noldorinwa, which, according to the title page, “Eriol of Leithien wrote, having read the Golden Book, which the Eldar call Parma Kuluina, in Kortirion in Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle.”

Camera: Kodak Pony Film: Weis Quality Color 200

Camera: Kodak Pony
Film: Weis Quality Color 200

Tolkien had played with the idea of the Golden Book toward the end of the Lost Tales stint, and here it was again. Basically, the Quenta was to have been written down in English by Eriol, who retold it from the Golden Book. There were no other teachers or speakers involved – just Eriol and the book.

During this same period, Tolkien also wrote two companion pieces called the Annals of Valinor and the Annals of Beleriand. Both were basically a Tale of Years for the early versions of the Silmarillion stories.

Both were also said to have been written by “Pengolod the Wise of Gondolin” and later translated by “Eriol of Leithien, that is Ælfwine of the Angelcynn.” The character of Pengolod is a bit of a mystery, but as we’ll see, he’s not going anywhere. As for Eriol and Ælfwine, they were now the same person with the same backstory. Though just what that backstory was (either fifth or eleventh century) also seems a bit of a mystery, though he probably settled at this point upon the latter.

The 1930 Quenta Noldorinwa did not include the Music of the Ainur chapter. For the most part, it seems as if Tolkien was fine with the Book of Lost Tales version and simply carried it over.

1937: Between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings
This would change later, after writing the Hobbit around 1937, when it was renamed the Ainulindale. When that was drafted, it was to have been written by Rúmil, the Loremaster from the old Book of Lost Tales stories. Rúmil had not exactly been silent all these years. Tolkien had him writing two separate stories called the Ambarkanta and the Lhammas, dealing with the shape of the world and the languages, respectively.

But the Ainulindalë was Rúmil’s big coming out day: “These are the words that Rúmil spake to Ælfwine concerning the beginning of the World.” Again, and of course, Ælfwine was there to record this, apparently taking it verbatim from Rúmil’s own lips.

In another rewriting of the main story (also from 1937), now called the Quenta Silmarillion, a long explanation of its title and authorship was given. It was the “History of the Gnomes.” And it was “a history in brief drawn from many older tales; for all the matters that it contains were of old, and still are among the Eldar of the West, recounted more fully in other histories and songs. But many of these were not recalled by Eriol, or men have again lost them since his day. This Account was composed first by Pengolod of Gondolin, and Ælfwine turned it into our speech as it was in his time, adding nothing, he said, save explanations of some few names.”

In a subsequent draft of the title page, Eriol made a note that he learned the work of Pengolod by heart, and drew from not just Rúmil, but also “the accounts that are preserved by the Elves of Eressëa, in the Golden Book.” Tolkien wasn’t pulling any punches here. The Silmarillion was now coming from all over the place.

But so were the requests from his publisher to make a sequel to the Hobbit. So deeply involved with the Silmarillion stories, Tolkien had little desire (and at first little luck) in going back into the world of the hobbits.

As we know, he’d delve deeply into it and would drag the Silmarillion with him. When he emerged out the other end of that hobbit hole, everything about these early stories would have to change. Except maybe the framing. That would be allowed to stand, though perhaps with a few extra furry-footed authors (or, perhaps not).

Come back on Friday for the exciting conclusion of Tolkien’s forgotten framing story!


  • Rereading this a couple of days after writing it makes me wish I would have come up with some chart or something. Dang.
  • What a way to make the Silmarillion accessible, huh? Now everybody’s going to want to read it!

25 thoughts on “The Wandering Elf-friend, Or How Tolkien Couldn’t Start the Silmarillion (Part 1)

  1. The image of Eriol just wandering off with a Golden Book to spread the stories of the past is really cool. I can just see him stumbling into a hidden cave and seeing a book there…

    Oh no I just wrote the first scene of Peter Jackson’s Silmarillion! Stop me before it spreads!

    • As much as possible, it’s within the HUGE chronology volume by Scull & Hammond. Everything that’s known is somewhere in there, and wouldn’t be too incredibly difficult to sort out (though it would be a loooooong task). In the book Arda Reconstructed by Douglas Charles Kane, the texts specifically related to the published Silm are listed with their probable dates, but that’s limited to just the Silm stuff.

      If there’s a “complete” list out there, I don’t know about it and would love for it to exist.

  2. Wait… was the nice couple with the names of Lindo and Vairë the prototypal Tommy and Goldie then? I have this vision of the Cottage of Lost Play morphing into the carnival feature called Barrow Wright Downs – come inside for a spin, and get spun for a once-only out of body experience.

    Way to start the slow-cook though! This is going to be great! One page a blog is a good call. 😀

  3. Can I just say I jumped a little bit when I saw Hengest’s name? My students read a book (The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff) during the time when he is trying to conquer England, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen the name elsewhere until now. 🙂 (I mean, I knew he was real, but that Tolkien would connect the dots between Middle-earth and the real world with his dad… Wow.)

    • I was pretty excited about that too, actually. I can’t remember where I first heard about him and his brother (it was probably a documentary), but when I did, I did a mini scramble to learn more. So when I saw that Tolkien connected the Lost Tales to him, I got a little excited that I kind of knew what he was talking about!

      Also, I find it strange that Tolkien dropped that idea for the 11th century one without any clear historical connection (though there might be some Beowulf connection that I missed).

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