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Sketches from Beleriand

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My Dearest Amarië,


I wish, more than ever, that you were here beside me -- or, at least, that you could read and respond to these letters. Not just because they are piling up here, unsent, leading me to suspect that I will need to carve another annex to my study; but because this strange land, in all its novelty, thrills me and would amuse you; and because I would, I know, benefit greatly from your cool counsel.

This last few months have proven particularly exhilarating, as I have made yet another wondrous discovery, one far more substantial than a new type of vegetable or hairstyle. For I have encountered a whole new people, a separate, astoundingly vigorous tribe of Children of Iluvatar!

(The first of the enclosed sketches should convey a general impression.)

This momentous event came about as follows: I had agreed to go hunting with Makalaurë. Mostly to enjoy his company, of course, but I also hoped to discuss the behaviour of some of his younger relatives. (Although they cannot upset poor Artanáro any longer, not now that I have sent him off to take charge of my old tower, there are plenty of other people left for them to vex.) Naturally, I also hoped for a chance to play music with him, in the evenings. But then he decided to invite Maitimo, and...

I do not mean to be unkind, truly I do not. Brotherly affection is a beautiful thing, and I cannot fault Makalaurë for trying to lift the spirits of someone given to such poignant -- though picturesque -- brooding. However, Maitimo possesses a “nobody insults my brothers but me” attitude, which makes discussions of said brothers’ behaviour rather difficult, and as for the music... Well. You will remember that Maitimo’s experiences have left him a little unbalanced, both mentally and, indeed, physically. He has since adapted in a truly admirable way, learning to wield both a sword and a hunting-spear with his left hand far better than I ever have (or will) with my right. This must have taken an impressive amount of work and determination, so of course one cannot exactly blame him for having neglected to make any effort with respect to music.

And yet... the only instruments he is now capable of playing are of the rather jangly percussive type that can easily be used single-handed -- and the set of songs one can credibly perform with such an accompaniment is limited. Makalaurë claims that the metallic sounds resemble the ring of steel on steel, and so are well suited for martial pieces, but I am reminded more of the ring of silver on silver emitted by numerous, crudely-made, vulgar bracelets: not exactly the most tactful of images to associate with my unbalanced cousin.

But enough complaining! I bring this up solely to justify why, after only two weeks of hunting, I decided to express an interest in exploring some mountains we could see shining afar. I knew, you see, that Maitimo was unlikely to share my interest. (As with music, he shows little inclination to re-learn climbing.) At any rate, this attempt at diplomacy worked, and the brothers made no objection to my departure. I suspect that they find the air of courtesy I try to maintain around the campfire a bit constraining.

I set off alone, then, across an unexplored, fertile land divided by many rivers, great and small. The moon was full at the time, and the sky cloudless, so I found it most pleasant to travel by night, when everything I saw was tinged not just with silvery moonlight, but with a sweet nostalgia for the many walks we had taken while Telperion bloomed.

Imagine the scene: off in the distance, the mountains rolled towards me, softened by the distance and shaded an impossible indigo. Meanwhile, beside me, every blade of grass, every flower-petal, every leaf on every tree stood out in the still, glowing air, sharp and separate, as if masterfully wrought from a ductile metal. (Not from stone, though: even if I found some in the right blue-green shade, I could never carve it so finely.)

(I confess I am quite pleased with the descriptive powers displayed above, but in case they have failed me, I am enclosing a few watercolours. I believe the third is the best.)

At any rate, I was fully engrossed in these visual pleasures when I noticed that the light off to my left had a slightly different, yellower tint. A moment later, I smelled smoke, and heard the sounds of far-off speech or song. Such signs added up to something unexpected; I have met the Elven tribes of the East, so I know they pride themselves on passing through the landscape unseen, and so forgo bright fire and music, and even attractive shiny clothes, while they travel.

Thus: Orcs! I thought, wary but intrigued. Melkor’s minions love the chaos of flames, and as for music... No-one has ever mentioned hearing any Orcish compositions. I longed to be the first, and so I made my cautious way towards the distant camp.

As I approached, the noises became less and less alien -- and less and less plausibly Orc-like. At first, I felt disappointed, since I began to conclude that the group I had encountered was merely an unusually careless Elven tribe. The sounds I heard did resemble the language and melodies of the East, while the beings themselves... I soon noted that, while they lacked Orcish features, they were clothed poorly even by local standards, their hair was dull and unkempt, and their eyes lacked blessed light. But for all that, they seemed exceptionally vivid, somehow. I needed to learn more. A nearby tree offered concealing shadow; I accepted.

I watched the camp closely for hours, my disappointment fading. Even though I did not quite comprehend the strange beings’ tongue, I found that I could understand them without it, better than I could have understood the careless Elven tribe of my imagination -- better, to be honest, than I understand some of my own close kin. They were so expressive! Their thoughts moved freely across their faces, and their bearing spoke of strength, and pride -- and joy. I perceived that they were celebrating the end of an arduous journey, and was moved by a sense of kinship, of sympathy, even of remembrance. My siblings had sung as we stepped off the ice; now, my odd new kindred sang as well, and though their music was clumsy, the happiness behind it was pure.

At last, they grew tired, and one by one they fell asleep, their eyes shut tight, like the eyes of children. Calm filled me as I watched them at rest. Comparisons to Orome’s discovery at Cuiviénen spring to mind in retrospect, as obvious as they are self-aggrandizing, but at the time, my thoughts were somewhat more mundane: my eyes were drawn to the rough harp now leaning against a fireside rock.

(It may have been rough, but not badly-made: see the enclosed sketch.)

I stared thus because I found myself yearning for proper, un-jangly music. I had been missing my own instrument -- forgotten at the Feanorians’ hunting camp -- painfully, on these beautiful moonlit nights. The tribe’s crude tunes had only whetted my musical appetite. Eventually, I stepped forward, picked up the harp, and ran a light hand over the strings. It sounded much as it looked: far from perfect, but in tune with itself, and with the situation.

I told myself that my longing to play it concealed wisdom, for how else could I introduce myself to a people who did not speak my language? So, I sat on the rock, and began to weave a song. I sang of my origin: of the music that made Arda, of my birth in Aman, and of my life under the Trees. Of my parents, of you, of the treasures I had crafted. (I did not sing of the Darkening, or what came after. Their own songs had avoided such themes.)

When I finally stopped to stretch my tired fingers, I realized that it was past dawn, and that the whole campsite had clustered around me. Such a rapt audience would have been most gratifying, if not for the awed fear in many of their eyes: as you know, I prefer to influence through love, not fear. Presently, however, one man -- the owner of the harp; I recognized him by his almost-Noldorin colouring and pride -- approached me, holding out a flask.

And this is how I first got to know Balan, a chieftain of Men. And Balan’s mead.

(I am enclosing another sketch, and wishing I could enclose a sample.)

Things went well enough, after that. We spoke, at first each in our own tongue, slowly and plainly, with frequent resort to gesture. I learned that Balan’s group was the advance party of his whole people, who were crossing the mountains to escape horrors, and find safety -- and, perhaps, to meet the Valar. (Or someone much like them; while the concepts of horrors, mountains, and safety are easy enough to convey in mime, the Valar are not.) A few of the men even seemed to think I was one of the creatures they sought. I demurred, and tried to explain that I was merely an ordinary, noble-born eldest son of a family of princes, though I found this hard to act out with precision.

Days passed. Balan’s men waited for the rest of their people, and I waited with them. My knowledge of their language grew, aided by the fact that, when they wished to be understood, I could often follow their speech without recognizing their exact words. I learned more about their brief, dangerous lives, and about the legends that sustain them. I even found myself able to help them in many ways, from pointing out nearby fords and hunting grounds, to teaching them the basics of musical harmony and hair-care. Indeed, this is how I discovered that the dullness of their hair-colour was not caused by dirt -- they enjoy a bath as much as anyone -- but is, seemingly, part of their nature, much like the dull plumage of some types of birds. (No doubt Eru has a reason for this; camouflage perhaps?) And yet, even as I lived and hunted with this noble tribe, almost as one of their own, many still viewed me as an awe-inspiring outsider.

I eventually decided that the cause was this: I did not take part in their jesting.

As I have noted above, Men can be a very merry people. Among the hunters, this gaiety is usually expressed by a Man aiming a brief, but loud comment at another. This is followed by a heartbeat’s silence, and capped with general laughter. Sadly, in my presence, such laughter was often curtailed by an exchange of guilty looks, and the jokes themselves eluded me as well: the most common words seemed to be ones that nobody had wished to teach me. Intrigued by this mysterious phenomenon, I began to compile a list of the vocabulary used in jests, ordered by frequency.

(Said list is, of course, enclosed.)

After reviewing all the relevant lore, I noticed that most of the words seemed to share linguistic roots with the expressions Men use while cursing, and that many of these referred to bodily functions, either reproductive, or scatological. This made some sense -- do we not, also, use personalized insults as a mark of closeness? ( For instance, think of the way we used to tease Arakáno for not having the patience to let anything anneal properly!) At any rate, I memorized some typical phrases, and awaited a chance to show my mastery.

This is why one afternoon, when Balan broke a spear while fishing. I quickly said:

“Now at least your spear is short enough to match your short reproductive organ! Ha ha!”

This was followed by a silence that stretched over several heartbeats: a dozen at least. Many glances were exchanged, more puzzled than guilty. At last, Balan laughed... and everyone else followed.

I was truly relieved -- at least until he asked to speak to me in private. Fearing I had offended, I tried to apologize, and describe my goals. He interrupted, however, and told me that my joke had been weak: apparently, it is not uncommon to refer to the reproductive organ as a spear, which had rendered my phrasing redundant and confusing.

I mulled this over, and suggested this alternative: “Now your two short spears will match!”
Balan smiled, and said this sounded more like me. Is it not wonderful to have a thoughtful friend, aware of one’s strengths? I have since turned my love of wordplay to my advantage, and become an expert at seeking out double meanings. These days, I find my joke-insults second to none!

Speaking of spears, and also swords, but not of daggers... I have noticed that Men tend to be “armed” rather well. Much like their dull hair-plumage, this matches some observations I had already made in the animal kingdom. As with the hair, I assume Eru has his reasons for this -- perhaps something to do with their intense lives, and the resulting need to reproduce quickly. This might also explain why the men’s spears tended to be so hasty to rise in salute as we bathed together.

(Please note my masterful use of an extended weapon metaphor! Also, as before, please review the enclosed sketches.)

As with all matters of comparative anthropology and philosophy, I shared my musings with my new friend Balan. However, he seemed oddly unwilling to discuss the arising (and subsequent behaviours) of his Men. I then approached another hunter, carefully picking one with a particularly mobile spear, who had never treated me with much awe. This Man proved more receptive to my queries, but not very interested in giving exhaustive replies; instead, he said that he would be happy to show me many relevant things, including “a good time.”

I will pause here, to let you draw some conclusions.

(Speaking of drawing, I hope you are not disappointed that I have failed to enclose any sketches. I had no opportunity to make the necessary observations, for I feigned naivete, and walked away.)

My own supposition was as follows: that my (mostly) innocent investigations had been misconstrued, possibly by both Men. This saddened me, because... Well, because Balan’s response could, in this new light, be read as a personal rejection. And now that the subject had claimed my attention, I could not un-claim it. These Men are such a fascinating, spirited people, and he is clearly the best of them, valiant and considerate, with exceedingly well-sculpted limbs, and you know how curious I get about such matters.

At any rate, I decided I had nothing to lose by resolving the misunderstanding. The next morning, I arranged to run into Balan as he was checking his traps. I chose a very pleasant clearing, lined with ferns and moss and enlivened by distant birdsong, and sat down to wait.

I did not have to wait long. To my consternation, our meeting -- the first since I had asked my questions -- began as mildly awkward. He appeared surprised to see me, and hovered at the tree-line, making obvious, yet desultory comments on the weather. Then, when I attempted to reassure him that my previous interest had been purely scientific, he was overcome by embarrassment. He apologized for insulting me, and said he should have realized I would be above base needs; then he added that it was only my beauty and my apparent loneliness that had confused him.

Though he had not said so, his face clearly showed that such confusion is not rejection.

How could I respond? First, I explained that I did not find such needs base, not among friends. Then I mentioned you, and, to make sure I was understood, I used some suggestive but poetic hill and valley metaphors. I also mentioned our long, Doom-driven separation, which he, as a widower, would empathize with, and hinted at some of my other adventures. Finally, I moved onto a discourse on the distinctions between various unions of the body and the soul.

At this point, Balan pointed out that I talk a lot.

I was discouraged by the change in subject, until I, once again, read his face, and mind -- and, indeed, body -- and realized that there had been no change.

(The enclosed sketches have been drawn from memory, but I believe them to be accurate.)

Yours, as ever,