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Elrond, Bilbo, Colmcille and King Alfred

Updated: Jan 17

Painting of Elrond reading the Moon Letters by Miriam Ellis from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
"Elrond and the Moon Letters" - Miriam Ellis

It has to be one of the most sparkling, thrilling scenes in all of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit in which Elrond discerns the moon letters on Thror's map. The glimmering ithildin script, like that on the doors of Moria in The Lord of the Rings, has been wrought by a dwarf, but it escapes the detection of Thorin Oakenshield and even eludes the wise eyes of the Maia-wizard, Gandalf. How does Elrond Half-elven see what is hidden from others?

I'd like to suggest that the answer may be found in the fact that Elrond is not only the master of the refuge of Imladris, but a master of the lore of Middle-Earth. He has retreated to the quiet of this stronghold and his life has become contemplative. Folk throughout Tolkien's legendarium make their way to Rivendell not only for safety but for learned counsel. And one day, Bilbo, who loves maps and cunning handwriting, will play the critical role of knowledge-bearer amongst his own folk, sharing some of the store of Elrond's lore with hobbits, and eventually, with all Tolkien readers.

In this scenario, there are Dark Age parallels that can enrich our appreciation both of Third Age sub-created Middle-earth and of historic events in primary creation that have shaped our own Age. Let's enjoy some lore today!

The Irish Monks and Tolkien's Elves

Like Gondolin, Rome had fallen in chaos, and the small kings of Dark Age European kingdoms were largely illiterate. As is compendiously described in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, the early Irish monks became one of the last bastions of written lore and learning amid much social and political disarray. Tolkien scholar John Garth has written the best work I've read on the debt Tolkien owed Celtic Mythology for his elves, and I see traceries of elvish history in the life of the 6th century monk, Colmcille (pronounced kul-um-kil).

Born about a century after St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity through his humble and creative preaching, Colmcille was raised in the bardic tradition of Ireland and sent to learn from the early monks. He intensely loved things of beauty, particularly illuminated manuscripts. As as student, he made his own copies of holy books he admired. Then, just as the Noldor were banished from Valinor for the Kinslaying, Colmcille was banished from Ireland for engaging in a terrible battle with his neighbors. He didn't steal swan ships, but he did take a coracle boat with twelve companions and sailed north-east. And while he didn't arrive in Beleriand, he did arrive on the island of Iona where he founded the monastery that produced the fabulous Book of Kells. Its illuminations and scripts are widely-recognized as some of the most beautiful ever penned. In fact, some early scholars concluded that it had to have been written by angels instead of humans!

Pencil study of Tolkien's Rivendell - Miriam Ellis

Colmcille, who is also known to history as Saint Columba, went on to found at least 40 monasteries which played a critical role in the story of European literacy, and one other relevant fact about him is that, instead of doing all this, his heritage might have entitled him to become a king. Cahill suggests that he could have become a High King of Ireland instead of living in monasteries and producing beautiful texts. Some Tolkien scholars similarly suggest that, following the death of Gil-Galad, Elrond might have rightfully become the High King of the Noldor. Instead, he created a"homely house" to which people could retreat for knowledge.

All of this is pure speculation, and I am not in any way suggesting that Tolkien based the history of the elves or the character of Elrond on any particular historic figure, but the historic parallels do add weight and substance to my own feeling for the legendarium. They also add poignancy to my feeling for Elrond, specifically. The charming Dark Age monk, St. Manchan of Offaly, wrote a poetic prayer asking God for a pleasant woodland hut with a green lawn, a southern aspect, and a stream at its foot to which others could come for fellowship and learning. We know that Tolkien was inspired by the Lauterbrunnen Valley of Switzerland in envisioning Rivendell, but St. Manchan's prayer could easily fit the place we find Elrond living in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And just as Patrick, Colmcille, and Manchan had never personally met Jesus, whose story they devoted their lives to preserving, Elrond has never seen the light of the Two Trees, but is keeping knowledge of them alive for the sake of those who come to him. And that brings us to...

Bilbo and King Alfred

Thror's Map in The Hobbit, painted by Miriam Ellis
Detail of Thror's Map from "Elrond and the Moon Letters" - Miriam Ellis

Ancient wisdom preserved in runes and unfamiliar languages would have been of little use to most hobbits. There is a bustling postal service in the Shire, but the Gaffer has to qualify to his neighbors that Frodo means "no harm" by teaching Samwise his letters. One gets the sense that extensive scholarship is uncommon amongst hobbits, with only scant documents like the Yellowskin of the Tooks recording local history. As I worked at accurately depicting Thror's map, seen backwards through the transparency of the parchment, I was struck by the parallels between Bilbo Baggins, who spent his retirement in Rivendell translating elvish works into the Common Speech so that hobbit folk cold understand them, and King Alfred, whose reign is uniquely distinguished by his radical act of translating both sacred and secular works out of Latin into the Common Speech so that English folk could understand them.

It may be hard for us to imagine attending a church service at which we don't understand a word that is being said, or living in a time in which we have no way of looking back into history via the written word, and neither do any of our leaders, because they are illiterate. But that was the state of the kingdom Alfred inherited in the 9th century. Manuscript production had utterly fallen off during the period of Viking invasions and young Alfred was determined to remedy this via the creation of his court schools. First, he learned to translate from Latin into the form of English spoken in his time and place, and then he had others trained to do so. He produced books containing information he believed was "most necessary for all men to know."

Pictured, above, is The Alfred Jewel, which would likely have been used as an instrument called a aestel which learned bishops used to point at and guide the texts they were reading. It bears the Anglo-Saxon inscription "aelfred mec heht gewyrcan" (Alfred had me made), just as the Doors of Durin are emblazoned with the text "Im Narvi hain echant"(I, Narvi, made them). The jewel was bequeathed to Tolkien's own Oxford University in the 1600s, and though its exact history is debatable, it remains one of the greatest touchstones for Alfred the Great, without whose championing of the English language and quelling of the Vikings, our Common Speech and that of Tolkien's hobbits might not be at all what it is.

I highly recommend The Man Who Saved English episode from the History of English podcast, and the incredible second episode of The Story of English television program (featuring Professor Tom Shippey) if you'd like to learn more about King Alfred, but for now, I want to close with a reflection on Bilbo.

Gandalf and the dwarves by Miriam Ellis
Detail from "Elrond and the Moon Letters" - Miriam Ellis

Gandalf and the dwarves are living in an age of confusion when we meet them in The Hobbit. There are very Viking-like dragons about, the Necromancer has arisen again in Mirkwood, and relationships between free peoples who should be allies are often estranged. Things may be sunny in the Shire, but the hobbits there are almost completely disconnected from the outside world and, perhaps, only dimly aware of their own fascinating history. How many of them know much about Marcho and Blanco founding the Shire, as Horsa and Hengest are said to have founded Kent? Bilbo arrives at Elrond's Last Homely House with an unusual degree of curiosity about lore, but he appears to have no idea of who Elrond is. He would not, for example, know that the tapestry I've hung in Elrond's dining room represents his father, Eärendil, who went in search of the Valar and was set to sail the skies as a starry sign of hope for Middle-earth. He does not know that the bright star reflected in Elrond's window is, in fact, his father. Bilbo does not appear to know that the Valar exist. As Professor Tom Shippey remarks in his outstanding Beowulf lecture series, the Shire has no churches. Who marries them, Shippey asks. The Mayor of Michel Delving? We don't know, but the hobbits appear all unconscious of any sub-created divine power at work in the world. And this is why what Bilbo does is of such meaningful importance.

Bilbo at Rivendell with his three books of lore, painted by Miriam Ellis
"Three Books of Lore" - Miriam Ellis

When Bilbo, like King Alfred, translates into the Common Speech, the sacred history of the elves which Elrond, like the Irish monks, has kept alive in Rivendell, it is a central act of the transmission of knowledge. Bilbo gives his three books of lore to Frodo when the younger hobbits pass through Imladris on their way home in The Return of the King, and then Frodo and Sam add to these invaluable texts. Copies end up in Gondor and in Tower Hills with Sam's descendants, and while the keeping of lore had a long tradition amongst Men of the south, it is something quite novel and, possibly, quite vital for the hobbits.

The Fourth Age is a time a reward for the sacrifice made by Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. The Shire is healed, new lands are granted to the hobbits by King Elessar, and Men are forbidden to enter hobbit territory unbidden. But we know it won't stay that way.

In the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, Professor Tolkien says of hobbits that,

"Even in ancient days they were, as a rule, shy of 'the Big Folk', as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find."

We know how hard it is to find hobbits in this, or own Age, and so we must think of them as a hidden folk, and that's rather melancholy. As I've reflected on this over the years, I've found one consolation: the hobbits have the books and the knowledge that would have made them aware of Eru, and while their ultimate fate is as much a mystery as that of Men, there is great potential for their comfort in knowing they are part of the concern of Tolkien's sub-created divinity. Far from being alone and forgotten as they hide from Big-Folk, they are part of the plan. The value of such knowledge is inestimable. Bilbo, Frodo and Sam have done something heroic in translating and preserving lore.

Image of Eärendil was a mariner poem, painted by Miriam Ellis
"Of the Voyage of Eärendil" - Miriam Ellis

It's a sad reflection that, just a few centuries into the works of the old monks and the projects of King Alfred, Henry VIII came along and sacked his nation's own monasteries and destroyed their precious libraries. We have no idea of all that was lost. Imagine if the one copy we have of Beowulf had been on the burn pile. One thinks of Saruman felling Fangorn and orcs toppling the statue of the old king. There are always forces in our world that would prefer us to be ignorant and gullible for some deluded scheme of their own making, but others have always acted with wisdom and valour. Like Master Elrond, they create the Rivendell strongholds of knowledge in our world, in our own age of confusion, and like Master Baggins, they love beauty and wisdom so much, they work to preserve and share it. These are the kinds of people whom I think J.R.R. Tolkien must have loved most, and he spent his life studying, translating, illuminating, and building upon the works of the ancient lore-masters. They are stars, like Eärendil, that bear a sign of hope.


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