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Gil-galad and Elendil: Beowulfian Shoulder Companions

Tolkien inspired art by Miriam Ellis of Gil-galad and Elendil in the tower of Elostirion from The Silmarillion
"Gil-galad and Elendil at Elostirion" - Miriam Ellis

"It is said that the towers of Emyn Beraid were not built indeed by the Exiles of Númenor, but were raised by Gil-galad for Elendil, his friend; and the Seeing Stone of Emyn Beraid was set in Elostirion, the tallest of the towers." - J.R.R. Tolkien, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

"Elf-friend" is one of the highest honorifics a mortal can achieve in Middle-earth. It is a title earned by few, and in the fellowship of a particular elf and man in the Second Age, we glimpse an extraordinary example of what it might mean to have an elf as your friend.

It is no less than the High King of the Noldor - magnificent, silver-haired Gil-galad - who takes a mortal refugee under his powerful wing. The elven-king is the son of Fingon, the grandson of Fingolfin, and the great-grandson of Finwë, who was among the elven lords who first journeyed to the Blessed Realm. In The Silmarillion, we learn that Gil-galad has inherited the kingship after the fall of Gondolin. We see him ruling in Beleriand, and his wisdom is apparent in that, in company with Elrond and unlike many other elves, he rejects the "fair-seeming" ploys of Annatar, before he is discovered to be Sauron in disguise.

Few Men have been so discerning, and soon the island of Númenor falls to the Enemy's evil and is destroyed. Elendil is washed up on the shores of Middle-earth, having fled the doomed isle. He has lost his land, he has lost his sagacious father who has vanished on a voyage to beg the help of the Valar, as Elrond's father once did, and he has become separated at sea from his sons, Isildur and Anarion. One can only guess at Elendil's state of heartbreak and loneliness.

It is one of J.R.R. Tolkien's merciful acts of consolation that Elendil is then claimed as the friend of Gil-galad, who not only welcomes him, but who reputedly builds for him the three great towers from which the bereft man can look out to the familiar sea when he is most homesick for lost Númenor. The towers stand as a beautiful monument to their friendship, enduring for ages, even down to the time when little hobbits will be dwelling in their long shadows. The Tower Hills are among my own favorite places in Middle-earth.

Few of us escape the rough seas of life, and in depicting this scene, I attempted to give a sense of what it might be like to find refuge with one of Tolkien's great, wise elves with all of their sadness, merriment, beauty, and subcreated holiness. In this video short, you can spend a moment imagining the day Gil-galad brought Elendil up into Elostirion and one of the palantíri was set there:

Echoes of Beowulf

Perhaps no other author has written more splendidly of men's comradeships amid danger than Tolkien - a man who cherished his companions and lost many of them to war. In a lecture on Beowulf, Professor Tom Shippey translates a phrase for such attachments as "shoulder companions" in speaking of King Hrothgar's feelings for his lost friend, Aeschere:

"My counsels were his and his wisdom mine, at my right hand he stood when on fatal field we fended our lives." - Beowulf, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Beowulf poet would quickly recognize a similar relationship in this quote from "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age":

Drawing of elven harper singing of Gil-galad
"For into darkness fell his star" - Miriam Ellis

"Now Elendil and Gil-galad took counsel together, for they perceived that Sauron would grow too strong and would overcome all his enemies one by one, if they did not unite against him. Therefore, they made that League which is called the Last Alliance..."

Readers of The Lord of the Rings may feel that Frodo and Sam's few weeks in Mordor are almost beyond enduring, but Gil-galad, Elendil and their hosts lay seige to Barad-dur for seven years before they claim the victory over Sauron and lose their lives together. So united as they were in life, it is melancholy to think of their disparate fates separating them in death.

Yet, the memory of Gil-galad lives on in the hearts of old friends like Elrond, and in the songs of harpers.

Portrait of Aragorn by Miriam Ellis
Detail of Aragorn from "Fellowship" - Miriam Ellis

Meanwhile, Elendil's line continues on down through the years to Aragorn, who will re-forge his ancestor's famous blade, and follow his footsteps to Mordor and to triumph. Readers arrive in very familiar territory once we reach this part of the tale.

But, like so many Tolkien fans, I love to let my mind drift back to the mistier ancientry, which no other author evokes with such elevating majesty. Back to the chapters in which the mere name of some stunning elf or noble man, however briefly mentioned, seems to blare with trumpets from the text, as heraldry unfurls from the well-thumbed pages. Back to the days when the elves still had a High King in Middle-earth. Back to when the gift of his friendship might include him imagining, planning, and building for you white towers on green hills beside the sundering seas.


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