Into the West

Back in May, in celebration of the first annual Tolkien Burren Festival, we took a look at how author J.R.R. Tolkien’s love for Ireland – especially the Burren – may have influenced The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The rugged beauty of the west coast of Ireland not only helped him envision Middle-earth, but he was likely influenced by Irish mythology in developing the mythos of the Elves leaving Middle-earth…and taking battered heroes Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf with them.

Tolkien’s Elves, the Eldar – a race predating humankind – are in keeping with the Sídhe of Irish tradition (see Wikipedia link below). Both the Elves and Sídhe possess an affinity for the Earth and a deep understanding of the natural and supernatural world. Both retreated to secret and powerful strongholds as the human population grew and expanded into new territories. Both, in the end, withdrew entirely from the world of men – rarely to return. To them, the future of Middle-earth (and Ireland) lay in the hands of men.

So, where did they go? The Elves’ destination isn’t really discussed in The Lord of the Rings, although the Silmarillion sheds some light on it, but it is a place parallel to the Blessed Isles of the Sídhe – the Otherworld. And since the veils between this world and the Otherworld are said to thin during Samhain (Halloween), and with the second installment of The Hobbit coming soon to theatres, I thought it would be an appropriate time to peek into the Otherworld.

For the ancient Irish, the Otherworld was located, in places, underground – its entrances gained through burial mounds – at the bottom of lochs, or in what we would call today a parallel universe. “Frequently, the Otherworld is across the sea, and a whole class of Irish stories, the immrama, deal with epic sea voyages. The journey is always westward, to where the sun sets – the sun symbolizing the conscious self – and is usually to an island of the blessed. Sometimes, a complicated route is followed from one island to another. It is possible that these stories were intended to help the soul find its way in the afterlife, possibly on the way to rebirth” (Hamilton & Eddy, 2008, p. 157).

The oldest of the immrama, or “mystical voyages,” was written down in the seventh century. In it, Bran mac Febal and company reach the Isle of Women. They live there for many years in a land where there is no wailing, treachery, sickness, grief, or death, and where silver trees grow, blossoming with crystal flowers – until one of the men becomes so homesick that they set sail back to Ireland. But once the homesick man’s feet touch Irish soil, he turns to dust because a few hundred years have passed while the men were away. The Voyage of St. Brendan is the most well-known of the immrama, told from the perspective of the Celtic Church, but it is clearly based on an earlier tale, the Voyage of Maelduin. The tale was originally told in Old Irish by a professional poet or bard, known as a fíle, before it was written down in the eighth or ninth century. In it, Maelduin encounters many strange things: a hound-footed horse, cannibal horses, fiery pigs, invisible riders, giant cattle, a crystal keep, a revolving rampart of fire, and giant ants the size of foals. Sound like a 1960s Japanese horror movie? Depends on your sense of adventure!

“The Otherworld is the storehouse of archetypes,” says Matthews (1992, p. 11) “that inform and shape our own phenomenal world. For example, take the trees that grow all around us in our own world: in the Otherworld they grow perfectly, without blight or frost to kill them. They have a luminous life, which is stronger and ‘more real.’” Apples, so mundane to us, were an Otherworldly fruit to the ancient Irish. When Maelduin and his men sail past an island of trees, he cuts a branch from one of the trees. After three days, three apples grow on it and sustain the travelers for forty days.

Getting back to Tolkien, in the movie version of The Return of the King, as the trolls batter at the door to Minas Tirith, Pippin turns to Gandalf and says, “I didn’t think it would end this way.” The situation is desperate, and although Gandalf holds great power as a wizard, there’s little hope either of them will survive the battle. “End?” says Gandalf. “No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path – one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it…white shores. And beyond – a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Images of silver and glass are prominent in the Voyage of Maelduin. His boat passes through a silver net, suspended from a pillar. “The Pillar represents a significant gateway on the immram, for it shows the way into the deepest realms of the Otherworld….Passing beyond the net or veil signifies a deepening of experience, a greater confidence and trust….We note that from this point onwards the terrors that surround the inmost circle of the Otherworld cease” (Matthews, 1992 p. 53).

Shortly before this, Maelduin and company had come to the Sea of Glass: “They came to an utterly green sea of glass-like hue; they could see beneath them – a mighty wealth – the stones of the sea” (Matthews, 1992, p.31). Matthews points out, “The clear sea is like the clarification of the soul that is accomplished after considerable hard work and spiritual effort. In the Voyage of St. Brendan, St. Brendan’s crew are terrified of this sea because it reveals to them all the possibilities they had never thought of” (1992, p.51).

To Gandalf’s description of the Otherworld, Pippin has this to say:

Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.

Me: No, Pippin, it isn’t.


Hamilton, C. & Eddy, S. (2008). Decoding the Celts: revealing the legacy of the Celtic tradition. New York: Metro Books.

Matthews, C. (1992). The Celtic book of the dead: a guide for your voyage to the Celtic Otherworld. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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