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How to Memorize 'Eärendil Was a Mariner' with Visual Cues: Illustrated

Painting by Miriam  of the Eärendil Was a Mariner Poem from The Lord of The Rings
"Of the Voyage of Eärendil" - Miriam Ellis

Have you ever wished you could memorize one of the most beautiful poems ever penned? In J.R.R. Tolkien's youth, the art of memorization was still deeply prized by society. Both children and adults were expected to store up a fund of memorized poems to be brought out for the enjoyment of the family around the hearth of an evening, or for guests in the parlour. Before radio, recorded music, film, television and the internet, we were the entertainment. It's a tradition with deep roots, taking us back to the mead halls of the Anglo-Saxons and pre-Viking Norse folk, back to the misty age of the Irish Bard, whose apprenticeship included memorizing hundreds of poems to earn their keep.

Now, we're faced with the temptation of letting devices memorize everything for us, from phone numbers to facts about history. And that's a shame, because when one memorizes a superlative poem like Eärendil was a Mariner, which Bilbo recites in Elrond's Hall of Fire in Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings, we get to carry it around with us like a hidden treasure, a leaf of lore to be enjoyed in private when we are stuck waiting for something, or to be shared with dear company.

My parents taught me to begin memorizing short, humorous, and pretty poems as a toddler, starting with quips like "Celery raw develops the jaw, but celery stewed is more easily chewed," and moving on to longer verses like "The Sugar Plum Tree." I've gotten so much joy out of knowing good words by heart, but when it came to my goal of memorizing Tolkien's Eärendil was a Mariner, which is well over 100 lines long and written in a trisyllabic meter of the Professor's own invention, I knew I would need some visual aids to get the flow of the story clear in my mind. It is a sparkling, stunning saga, filled with hope, because Eärendil succeeds in getting the angelic Valar to forgive the rebellion of the elves and come to the aid of Middle-earth once more. "Of the Voyage of Eärendil" is one of my favorite parts in The Silmarillion. Bilbo's poem about it is now part of my treasury, and I'd like to help you add it to yours, too.

What I did to memorize Eärendil was a Mariner

Sketchbook storyboard

Do you remember flash cards? I hope so. Because I started out by scribbling a sort of storyboard on the notion that flash cards help children memorize things in school.

I made a rough sketch in my sketchbook for each of the main events as they occur sequentially in the poem. I recited the lines associated with each picture, looking from The Lord of the Rings back to the sketchbook until I could say the lines looking only at the picture. I learned a couple of pictures' worth of lines per day and didn't move on until I had them down. After a few days and many repetitions, I had it, though my recitations were slow and somewhat laborious at first.

Watercolor sketchbook detail

I was so taken with the beauty of the story I had memorized, I wanted to think about it more, and so I got out some watercolors and made larger flash cards for myself, slimming down the moments in the story to those that were most visually-inspiring to me.

This set of watercolor images really helped me become fluent in the poem. There were fewer scenes depicted than in the original storyboard, but each one encapsulated whole ideas in the poem and served well to jog my memory when it stalled. After a few weeks, I really had it down.

By then, I was so enchanted with the beautiful images that Tolkien's poem had made come to life in my mind that I realized it would be an exciting challenge to turn the story and my flash card approach into a fully finished painting. You see the results at the beginning of this blog post, and if you would value memorizing Tolkien's marveolus poem, I'll now walk you through my original, hand-painted artwork to help you look at the scenes so that you can learn this masterpiece by heart. The painting reads left to right, right to left, left to right, and so on.

Eärendil flash cards for you!

Now, it's your turn to memorize the poem. Or, if memorization doesn't appeal to you, I warmly invite you simply to get out your copy of The Lord of the Rings, turn to the chapter "Many Meetings", and follow the directions for reading the poem while enjoying the relevant section of the painting.

Begin with the line "Eärendil was a mariner" and end with the word "laid." Note how Eärendil is using timber from Nimbrethil, which is a birch forest.

Begin with "In panoply of ancient kings" and memorize up to "an emerald". All the items of Eärendil's wardrobe and weaponry are here to help spark your memory.

Now it gets a little harder, but begin with the line, "Beneath the Moon and under star" and end with "the fire upon her carcanet." You will see the narrow ice, the burning waste, the empty black space that is the "Night of Naught", "the winds of wrath", and if you look closely, tiny Elwing as a bird coming with the Silmaril out of the storm.

Begin with the line "The Silmaril she bound on him" and end with "that drowned before the days began." Here I have taken the first bit of artistic license in the painting. Bilbo's poem does not mention that the bird turns into Elwing. That is in the full story told in The Silmarillion and I definitely wanted her there in my painting because it is so touching to see Eärendil reunited with his wife. In this way, learning the poem will also help you think of the larger story.

Begin with "Until he heard on strands of pearl" and end with "to hidden land forlorn he went." You will see some of the geographic features described to aid your memory, and here, I again took a bit of license to include the absolutely thrilling moment in which Manwë's herald Eönwë greets Eärendil with the astounding statement, beginning, "Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope!" To think that the Valar have actually been awaiting Eärendil through the long years is very encouraging, and it is also very touching to think that this cry is then paraphrased by little Frodo in the dark of Shelob's lair when he says, Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima! (Hail Eärendil brightest of stars). Traditions and lore matter.

Begin with, "He came unto the timeless halls" and end with, "forbid to those that dwell therein." It is never specified how Manwë shows Eärendil the visions, so I had to think of an artistic representation that respects the lore. I thought of Galadriel's mirror, and decided that her mirror might have been based on similar devices she had seen in Valinor. Doubtless, the mirror of Manwë would be the most powerful of all.

Begin with the line, "A ship then new they built for him," and end with the line, "Beyond the mighty Mountain Wall." Here, the new ship is built and it is hallowed by Elbereth and Eärendil sets sail for Middle-earth.

Begin with the line, "From World's End then he passed away," and end with, "the Flammifer of Westernesse." Here, we see Eärendil as a sign of hope across the ages of Middle-earth. And with that, you will have memorized the poem!

I hope you will try memorizing this poem, and that my artwork will add another layer of beauty to your appreciation of Tolkien's celebrated poetry. Scientists say the art of memorization is good for the brain. I just know that, with a story as uplifting as this one, it is certainly good for the heart.


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