Tolkien’s Use of “The Seafarer” in LOTR

Tolkien loved Old English poems, and much of The Wanderer, The Ruin, and The Seafarer made it into The Lord of the Rings. Let’s look, for example, at The Seafarer.

The tone of The Seafarer certainly permeates the trilogy. Here’s the description of Wilcox:

an elegiac tone persists through The Lord of the Rings and is reminiscent of the lyric-elegiac quality, a sadness of time and change deeper than melancholia, present in much Old English poetry.[i]

One clear example of resemblance of tone between The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings appears in the desire of Legolas for the sea and sea voyaging, when he says:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing:
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëa, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever![ii]

The lines “do you hear them calling,/The voices of my people that have gone before me?” are reminiscent of the ubi sunt motif, which is “a poetic topos lamenting the disappearance of beloved persons or things.”[iii] Legolas bemoans that some of his people have already left Middle-earth, and he is sorrowful concerning the end of an age. The play on words in the gulls “crying,” the foam “flying,” the sun and the waves “falling,” seems to carry a sad tone. The repetition of the verb “leaving,” the “failing” years, “lonely sailing,” and the search for Elvenhome, a land without loss (“leaves fall not”), emphasize the elegiac tone. The ubi sunt motif, common in Old English elegiac poems, also seems to be implied in The Seafarer. A representative passage is found in lines 80b-90:

Days have departed,
all pride of earth’s kingdom;
now are no kings and no Kaisers
nor any gold-givers such as once were,
when they most glorious deeds did among them
and then most lordly lived out their doom.
Wanes all this noble host; joys have departed;
weaker remain and rule this world,
live here afflicted. Glory is humbled,
honor of earth grows old and withers,
as does now every man over this Middle-Earth. [iv]

The seafarer laments the loss of glorious kings and the joy that came with gold and honor. He repeats the verb “departing;” the loss of something that was there before (kings, kaisers, gold-givers); and the ideas of waning, aging, and withering. Like Legolas, the seafarer also mourns the end of the glory of a previous time.

It is noteworthy, however, that despite similarities in tone, The Seafarer seems less optimistic overall than the outlook of Legolas. In the passage from The Lord of the Rings quoted above, the sea does not seem harsh or the travel difficult: the sailing is just “lonely” and perhaps long (“wide waters”). In addition, the call for Legolas to make the journey comes from “sweet voices” residing in “Elvenhome,” where “the leaves fall not.”  All of these things are desirable, especially considering that the name “Legolas” means “green leaves.”[iv] Conversely, The Seafarer presents a harsher perspective on the sea and the voyage across it. The starting lines tell of the dangers and toils of seafaring:

About myself I can utter a truth-song,
tell journeys–how I in toil-days
torment-time often endured,
abode and still do bitter breast-care,
sought in my ship many a care-hall,
horrible waves’ rolling, where narrow night-watch
often has kept me at the ship’s stem
when it dashes by cliffs. Pinched by the cold
were my feet, bound by frost’s
frozen fetters, where those cares sighed
hot about heart; hunger within tore
the mind of the sea-weary one.[v]

Ida Gordon, who continued the work that her husband, E.V. Gordon, and J.R.R. Tolkien began, describes the outlook of the poem as negative:

The seafarer has made it abundantly clear that seafaring is a dangerous business; he has even implied in the foreboding of the cuckoo’s cry that death is imminent, but he chooses death (Dryhtnes dreamas) because nothing is to be gained by choosing the safe and easy, but less adventurous, course.[vi]

Ida Gordon further believes that this heroic, elegiac mood is distinct from that of the Christian peregrinus or sojourner, and that the hardships of the voyage of the Nordic seafarer serve as an illustration for the Christian lesson of endurance and hope found at the end of the poem.[vii]

If Gordon is right, her theory helps to make sense of the discrepancy between the perspectives on the sea coming from Legolas and from the seafarer. In other words, it is possible that Professor Tolkien borrowed from the Old English poem the elegiac mood of the seafarer, but that he modified it in Legolas by including more hope and less hardship so that it would be more congruous with a Christian worldview.

Along with tone, The Lord of the Rings incorporates themes from The Seafarer, such as sailing, exile, and the transitory nature of life. These are closely connected to the elegiac tone, as discussed above. For this topic, I recommend Miranda Wilcox, who provides a useful essay including similar thematic implications between the two works in Exilic Imagining in The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings. Concerning the themes of sailing and exile, she says

the Seafarer and the Elves are prompted to leave their exilic state and sail in search of eternal existence in a Christian or mythological paradise, with the sea as the bridge between their mortal existence and eternal existence.[viii]

Both Legolas and the seafarer are dislocated and seek to journey across the sea to a place that is better than where they are and where they will end their exile. Their respective journeys will cause them to suffer the loss of leaving behind something. The elf longs to be rejoined with his kindred, but he will leave “the woods that bore [him].” The sailor seeks “foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland” (38), but he leaves behind comfort and safety. Furthermore, both the elf and the seaman lament the transience of their age, which is another theme that contributes to the elegiac tone in each text.

So, as you can see, Tolkien borrowed from The Seafarer. What was borrowed, however, was not imported wholesale; it was adapted. It seems to me that Tolkien’s use Anglo-Saxon poems corresponds well with T. S. Eliot’s discussion in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

[often] not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.[ix]

[i] Miranda Wilcox, “Exilic Imagining in the Seafarer and Lord of the Rings” in Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance (London, England: Routledge, xiv, 2003), 133.

[ii] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 252.

[iii] David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 304.

[iv] J. R. R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 282.

[v] Jonathan Glenn translation found at

[vi] I. L. Gordon, “Traditional Themes in the Wanderer and the Seafarer,” The Review of English Studies 5.17 (1954): 8-9.

[vii] I. L. Gordon, The Seafarer (London: Methuen, 1960), 1-27.

[viii] Wilcox, 138.

[ix] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1932), 4.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: