When I Am Wise
There was a full moon over the coast of Ered Luin. The shore was still crowded with the debris from the long battle. Ships' masts and pieces of sails were strewn along the beach. The moon and stars illuminated two sets of shipbuilders, each working busily to create from the wreckage boats to take them away to the west. The Elves to the north were speaking as they worked of their long-awaited return to Valinor, and of their new home in Tol Eressea. The Men to the south were singing great sailing-songs, and imagining, each to themselves, the bright future kingdom of Numenor that they would found to the west. Alone on the beach, looking neither north nor south, the young half-elf Elrond sat on a piece of broken mast running sand through his fingers.
Hours passed, and the two groups continued their work. Finally they each returned to their temporary homes for a few hours of sleep before the morning. Elrond did not notice. His eyes were on the waves, as they one by one came towards the shore, peaked, and returned. Some time later, he looked up to see his brother Elros coming from the south.
"Are you looking for Father?" Elros asked, sitting down next to his brother. Earendil's star would not rise for another hour, but as Elrond looked out at the stars reflected on the water he thought he would be glad to see it. He smiled at his younger brother, and reached up a sand-covered hand in greeting. They pressed their palms together. Their hands were alike; longer than human, thicker than elven. The unique shape of their hands was one of the many things that they alone shared.
"I wish I could see Father Maglor," Elros said. "At least we can see Father's star, and Mother's bird, and know that they are beloved by the Valar. Father Maglor wanders alone, and the light from his gem is dark. I wish there was some way of knowing where he is." Elrond winced inwardly, as he always did, to hear his brother call Maglor 'Father'. He did not rebuke him, though. Maglor had been the only father they had known since he had besieged their home and taken them away. Their mother Elwing had flown into the sea with her Silmaril on her breast, and Maglor had found Elrond trying to slide down a rope hastily tossed out of his bedroom window carrying the baby Elros in one arm. They had not gotten very far, and they would have fallen if Maglor had not pulled them in. Since he was at war with Earendil their father and Elwing their mother they were technically his prisoners, but Elrond remembered how he used to sing to them every night, rocking little Elros until he fell asleep and then reading to him from a great fat story-book. Still, unlike Elros, Elrond remembered his true father. Maglor was never Father to him.
"I look for Father, like you look for Maglor, but I do not expect to see him," Elrond answered his brother. Dawn was hours away, and when it came he would go, to one ship or another orelsewhere. "You have decided," he continued, after a pause. It was not a question. Elros had come from the south, from the shipyards of men.
"I wish I could make you understand," Elros said, gesturing helplessly.
"I also wish that I could understand," Elrond said, with rather more bitterness than he had intended. "Is it a woman?"
Elros smiled. "Oh wouldn't that be romantic, to choose a mortal life for love, like Great-Grandmother Luthien. No, I haven't got a woman, although I expect I soon will. It's just that I want to have children."
"So do I," Elrond responded without thinking.
"But how many descendants will you have, if you remain immortal? In all the history of Arda there have been perhaps seven generations of Elves. How many more will there be? My human descendants will number in the thousands, perhaps the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more. Look," Elros continued, excited to have something to explain to his older brother. "Imagine a cube," he said, building one with his fingers in the sand as he spoke. "Four sides, and, as large as it is, only one surface. Now, break the cube," he said as he did so, and held up a fistful of sand. "Each grain now is its own cube, far smaller perhaps, but its own note in the song of Arda. If I am mortal all these notes can come from my song."
"It seems scarcely worth losing you," Elrond muttered. He barely remembered life without his brother's noisy presence, and he was not looking forward to it. Still, he would not dissuade Elros from his choice. For whatever reason, he was accepting the gift of Iluvatar to men, the possibility of going beyond this world. Even though Elrond was still young, he knew how precious that gift could be. It was among his deepest desires. It was only that other desires pulled even more strongly.
"Galadriel wants me to stay here," Elrond said.
Elros laughed. "What, that old lady? How many husbands does she need?"
Elrond was not in a mood to be laughed at. "She, alone of those who will remain in middle earth, has seen the light of the trees of Valinor. There is much that I can learn from her. And she thinks that there is work here that I can do."
"So you stay to be her student?" Elros asked, unbelieving. "Why not go to the west, if you are determined to join the Elven peoples, and learn from the Valar themselves?"
"But who would I teach what I had learned?" Elrond replied. "And who would tell the stories of the beginning to those left behind?"
Elros sat silently for a moment, as the waves came in almost to his toes. "You always liked to tell stories," he said.
They remained silent, each in their own thoughts. Elros remembered the study in Maglor's house, and how Elrond would sit there all day, lugging the heavy books, some bigger than he was, from the bookshelf to the floor so he could read them. Every night he would come to supper with another story to tell to his half-interested brother. "Do you know what my first memory is?" Elros asked.
"What?" Elrond replied. Then he realized what it must be, and they said it together:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.
They laughed together, a beginning of understanding. "How you made me learn that," Elros continued, "over and over, almost as soon as I could talk. That, and the stories about Father and Mother. All my descendants will know them now, thanks to you. Are you sure you don't want to come with me?"
Elrond shook his head. He wasn't sure. Or, he was completely sure. He was sure he did not want to be separated from his brother, sure he did not want to be bound to Arda forever, and equally sure that the wisdom he craved would take far more than a mortal lifetime to master, and longer than that to transmit. So he said nothing, and the brothers were silent for another long moment.
"There was nothing you could do," Elros finally said, whispering words too frightening to be spoken aloud. "You were a child, too young to shoot your first bow or write your first song. What could you have done?"
"I could have thrown myself into the sea with Mother," Elrond replied, his lips set.
"And left me alone, when I was too young to walk or feed myself, without anyone to tell me who I am?"
"I could have killed Maglor once I had the strength."
"And kept the war going for another generation? And left us with no one? Besides, he knew you never would. That's why he taught you the bow. That's why he trusted you."
Elrond set his eyes firmly on the sea, seeking an answer, finding none. "When I have learned," he said finally, "perhaps I will know. If there was another way, if there could have been another way. If it is possible for a being to turn his back on the shadow without becoming what he wants to despise. If it is possible to be true to who we love without betraying ourselves. To protect what is precious to us without losing ourselves to it. Nownow I don't even know if these are the right questions."
A gull flew over the horizon, towards the moon. Not Elwing's bird, but a comfort nonetheless. The wind blew, and flapped the sails along the north and south shores.
"Will you teach my children what you learn?" Elros said.
Elrond thought perhaps to laugh, but then he turned and saw the reflection of starlight in the tears on his brother's face. Tears of goodbye. He knew then that his choice was made, and that Elros would forgive him. If Elrond could forgive himself would be among the things that he would have to discover.
As the hours progressed towards morning first Earendil's star rose, followed by the first rays of the dawn. The shipwrights returned to the north and south shores. Days passed, and the travelers set out on their journeys. Elrond returned to the forest to seek his teacher, who danced for joy to see her most apt pupil come to share in her labors. Elros Tar-Minyatur led the first of the ships of men to the realm of Numenor, where they established a kingdom to last an age and a people to last beyond it. And the ships of the Elves continued westward to Tol Erresea, and beyond to the blessed realm, and came at last within sight of Manwe and Varda, whom the Elves name Elbereth, bright beyond all knowing, radiant beyond all stars.
This story is based on Silmarillion 24: 'Of the Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath'. For those who need a reminder, the war that had just ended at the beginning of the story was the tail end of the struggle of the sons of Feanor to regain the Silmarils their father had made. Maglor, one of the last of the sons, tried to get the Silmaril that Elwing had inherited from her grandmother Luthien. Elwing flew off into the sea and her Silmaril was placed at the prow of her husband Earendil's ship, which became the evening and morning star. The sons of Elwing and Earendil remained with Maglor. Eventually Maglor got a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown, but it remained dark for him, and so he cast it into the sea and became a wanderer.
The line that Elrond makes Elros learn by heart is from the beginning of Ainulindale: the Music of the Ainur, which is one of the texts included with the Silmarillion in the published edition. I have imagined that Elrond was one of the authors/compilers of the Silmarillion, although the version we have must have been highly edited by Bilbo (don't get me started on textual history).
I kneel before the Great Master whose characters I have borrowed and beg his forgiveness for any abuse I have inflicted on them, after all they've been through.
Finally, I bow to AC, whose thoughtful interpretation of Elrond at the end of the Second Age in Where The Shadows Are helped me think through what Elrond must have been like as a child.